You'll Be Singing Along...Sort Of: The Howler Review
This morning, when I started playing through The Howler, I was set up in my room, computer in lap, ready for a few hours of great entertainment. The start screen greeted me with insight into the game's backstory, its plot, and general instructions on how to play. In short: nothing new from the norm. What was different, however, were the suggested gameplay mechanics. While you can just click your mouse to maneuver the protagonist through obstacles, the more engaging, more challenging option is to use your voice. So, naturally, I chose the latter. What I didn't know was that my brother was asleep in the next room...
Once he got over his white-hot rage at being woken up (it was around noon, I might add), he was just as intrigued by the game as I was. We spent the next few hours warbling like intoxicated coworkers on karaoke night. And though we finished the game both fairly certain that we're tone deaf, we enjoyed the experience nonetheless! This anecdote, as absurd as it may be, is a testament to the accessibility of The Howler.
Following the general outline of the Lithuanian novel The Hour of the Wolf by Andrius Tapinas, the game is set in an alternate steampunk version of Vilnius, Lithuania. In order to observe the goings on around the city, Antanas Sadabras, the legate of Vilnius, takes to his hot air balloon. During his observations, Antanas discovers that rioters are planning an attack on the city and that they have released automatons throughout the airspace as part of their scheme. With his precious city in peril, it is up to Antanas to stop the rioters and return Vilnius to normalcy.
The story is simple, straightforward, and is presented to players through minimalist snippets of text just before you begin a mission. It's not extensive and it's not complex, but it gets the job done. That being said, I'm a sucker for a good story, and I would have loved a bit more insight into what exactly provoked these riots. In all honesty, though, this games isn't really about the story...
It's About the Gameplay
As I mentioned earlier, you have two options on how to play this game: either use the conventional click/touch manner with your mouse, or you can sing/whistle/scream/whatever in order to navigate Antanas' air balloon. Using voice recognition as a gameplay mechanic isn't cutting edge stuff, per se, but it does provide a unique twist on this style of gaming.
Moreover, the game displays various wind directions and speeds in the form of directional arrows on the side of the screen. As your balloon moves from one region of the air to a higher/lower one, your balloon will respond by moving forward or backwards depending on how these arrows are pointing. Again, not exactly novel, but it still makes for challenging gameplay. Whether you're screaming or clicking, figuring out the exact angle and speed to avoid an automaton or stick a landing is enough to give even the most experienced gamer a challenge.
My only qualm with the gameplay system was that it was sometimes a little too sensitive to my voice. What on one level might be just enough to raise my balloon a few inches up the screen, would shoot me off the map on another. These inconsistent responses were few and far between though, and often times would correct themselves on my next try on the level.
As enthralling as the gameplay is, what really struck me about The Howler were the unique, sketch-like graphics. Initially I racked my brain to figure out what the developers used to craft the game's beautiful scenery and stage designs; but when I figured out what program they used, I was even more amazed. All of the artwork was done the tried and true way: drawn by hand on paper.
Yes, that's right. You read correct, it's ALL hand drawn.
The game's artist, Rene Petruliene, spent the better part of the game's year long development process sketching out each scene. What's even more impressive is that, steampunkiness aside, almost all of the buildings you see in the background are real buildings you can visit in the actual city of Vilnius. It may not be as awe-inspiring as your first trip through the city of Rome in Assassin's Creed II, but it's still pretty cool.
General Playability & Entertainment
The Howler is a well-polished, visually arresting game when you first pick it up. The mechanics are easy to follow, the story is straightforward, and levels each present different types of tasks to keep the player invested. There really isn't anything that should keep someone from playing this title, except maybe a terrible voice (and even that doesn't always thwart people).
If there is anything that detracts from the experience of this game, I would have to say that it's the replay value. My first time through the game was a fun, unique experience that didn't take too long and didn't leave me overly frustrated. Once I finished the journey, however, I had little reason to return to the skies of Vilnius.
Okay, if you're a perfectionist, you COULD go back, master the perfect route of each level, and go for a (near) perfect score on each level. But what is the reward in that? Maybe if there was an online leaders board I'd be more tempted to try my hand at another go around. Without one, though, I'm a little less keen on the idea.
All that being said, I really cannot emphasize enough just how much I did enjoy my first time through this game! Principle game creator Antanas Marcelionis has done an exemplary job bringing together all the essential elements of a fun game in this indie jewel. If you are looking for a fun way to pass a few hours and you have a PC/Mac/iOS/Android laying around, you would be remiss if you did not give The Howler a chance. A forewarning though: you might want to provide some earplugs for family and friends first.