Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries Review - But What Do the Picnic Baskets Do?
In a post-American McGee's Alice world, every dark fairytale that comes out sans the Mouse's trademark immediately begins the nervous tiptoe dance around Alice's imposing shadow as it waits to be measured up.
So enters Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries by GRIN Gamestudio, a 2.5D platformer that features a re-imagined world for Little Red Riding Hood - armed, corseted, and on a quest for vengeance that takes her into a city caught in the totalitarian grip of B.B. Woolfe and his army of steampunky clockwork soldiers.
Drawing on modern-day fairytales' grimmer roots, the ambitious indie project was funded from a combination of 60,000 EUR from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) for the base game, and a Kickstarter campaign that net them an additional $72,139 USD from over 2,300 backers.
This is not a fairytale. There is nothing fair about it.
Visually spectacular, Woolfe pushes the envelope with stunning backgrounds, a variety of environments, and gorgeous visual effects. The very first room you start out in includes a functional head-to-toe mirror against one wall - almost nonchalantly offerring up one of the most troublesome achievements for an Unreal 3 game like it ain't no thang.
It is the little things in this game that really allows it to shine - and so in such a sense, they are also what might be easily missed. Others who have barreled through it and cried foul over what a disappointment this game has been, may not have been looking too closely at some of the finer details.
Dynamic lighting is offered in a brief glimpse of sunlight while you race down the street on a partially cloudy day, and dashing about the bright corners of your father's office casts a perfect shadow as you run through the dancing beams.
While a game can be dark, it doesn't have to be played in the dark.
In a very Trine-like fashion, many of the environments that Red runs, sneaks, and platforms through are dark in nature - a down-trodden city caught in winter ice, a rat-infested sewer with falling sludge and fire traps, and a desolate hole where kidnapped women and children's beds are pushed willy-nilly against a wall or hang from the ceiling by dangling chains. But the actual experience of running through these places continues to be vibrant in color and well-lit.
No skulking around in the shadows for this vengeful Hood.
Unfortunately for Red, her character and character model is one of the places where Woolfe's near-AAA looks fall short. With barely any facial animation whatsoever, Red's face (when you can see it) is set in a permanent scowl. Even when the camera pans across her face while she's speaking in and out of cutscenes, the green eyes continue to glare from beneath a Neanderthal brow and her mouth never moves.
There is little to no real dialogue in this game, and the story unfolds through Red's rolling monologue - a wonderfully well-written piece of work in and of itself, incorporating the occasional Grimm's Tales-like rhyme without feeling overly forced or pedantic (Child of Light, I'm looking at you). It's unfortunate then that I wasn't a fan of the delivery and thought the effect of the voice actress's efforts were rather average throughout.
Furthermore, without a block, or even a real stumble mechanic on behalf of the tin soldiers, combat in Woolfe is also disappointingly mediocre and unnecessarily extended. Though she makes fantastical and satisfying "swooshes" as she swings, you either have the option of standing there throwing blows with a tin soldier until one of you drops down dead, or run in, hack at him with either a regular or heavy blow, run/jump/roll away, then run back in for another attack.
You should be prepared for a little learn-by-doing... or in a number of cases, learn-by-dying.
This second method is usually the preferred way to go because you will often be facing more than one soldier at a time - plus it can be difficult to tell apart the "grunt" soldiers from the hardier ones and the ones with special one-hit-kill powers.
A lack of quicksave also means that should you happen to die while facing the third or fourth wave of these guys, you'll be transported back to a temporary checkpoint that can be rather poorly placed - unless you happen to quit the game partway, wherein you only have the option of starting over from the area start. (Thank goodness they allow you to skip through cutscenes!)
(Or you could try just running and jumping and running some more... the soldier guards often get stuck in areas while trying to run after you. And a few where they'll never stop running after you to the point where you need to reset to checkpoint.)
It's important (and awesome!) to note that the dev team has noted many of these issues and far from sitting back after their recent Steam release, have started working on fixing many of them. In the upcoming update:
"Yes, we now have lip-sync in the cutscenes where Red actually talks, but also new kill and die animations and effects, fixes in subtitles, difficulty based checkpoints and more... "
As for the picnic baskets...
Red picks up several different magic skills as she traverses the city although it comes often without any good reason ("I never knew I could do that! I must tell Granny!") and an accompanying infographic to show you what to do.
Of course, these don't extend to the stuff you can pick up along the way like the revolving "W" diary entries and the floating picnic baskets that prompted my own internal monologue: "What do these even do? Am I picking them up just because they're shiny? Do they fill up my health bar? My health bar's already full again by the time I reach one. Will it help me restore magic? ...Nope. I'm picking them up 'cause they're shiny."
You should be prepared for a little learn-by-doing (or in a number of cases, learn-by-dying) and a few minor frustrations as you navigate your way through minor bugs and puzzles that may take a few do-overs to get right.
For those of you scared off by the price tag, yes, this game is short. Some players have reported ~2.5 hour playthrough, and more are doing speedruns. If you're interested in finding all the fragments of the diary, it will be longer, but not much.
Players should be aware though that this is only the first part of the Red Hood Diaries. There is definitely more to come, and Part 2 of the full game is due later this year (ETA August).
Thanks to a Telltale-like cliffhanger ending, I'll definitely be one of those looking forward to life after Granny's house - and certainly hoping they offer up digital copies of the artbook for sale sometime too.
You can find Woolfe on Steam for $10 USD.
Note: This code was supplied to GameSkinny by GRIN Studios for review purposes.