Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest is a visual novel with a surprising amount of choice and role-playing elements, based on the well-known tabletop RPG title Werewolf: The Apocalypse. I went into the video game with very little knowledge of the lore that shaped it, and I was honestly surprised how much I came to enjoy the title as a solid, stand-alone VN. Heart of the Forest brings to the narrative table a rather unique and creative blend of interactivity and constantly evolving plot threads.
The game stars Maia, an American university student who has always felt a strong, one might say near-mystical, connection to Białowieża Forest in Poland. She and traveling companion Anya travel there at the onset of the plot, as Maia hopes to understand why she feels such a pull to a region she’s never been to. Unfortunately, the two friends’ timing has them arriving just as tensions between environmental activists and loggers in the area boil over. Can Maia solve the mystery as to why she feels so strongly about the forest while uncovering familial secrets and helping to keep things from escalating amidst the protests? To say much more on the plot would be to spoil an engaging tale that continually evolves based on player actions, and it would also be pointless to do because every playthrough differs immensely from the one that preceded it. Though, yes, as you no doubt suspected from the title, there are werewolves thrown into the mix!
At times, Heart of the Forest opens to an RPG-esque “world map” of sorts, and you must make decisions as to where Maia, and the story, will traverse to next. The ability to truly tailor Maia to the player’s preferences is incredible and gives you the sense of being immersed in her situation. This is Maia’s story, and you’re an active participant in shaping it based on every decision you make. Depending on her personality, what story results you see, and her rapport levels with other characters, certain events will change significantly in one playthrough, if they even occur at all. Every choice made in the game will have some level of impact on the overall ending.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest‘s greatest strengths lie in Maia’s customization and the sheer number of interactive choices presented to players. A handy, surprisingly extensive character sheet and journal keep track of Maia’s personality traits. These traits are altered based on her choices as the story advances, as well as her developing rapport with the various characters she encounters. Certain choices in the story scenarios impact her overall health, willpower, and rage stats as well, and ultimately they affect responses available to players at a given time. Too little willpower, for example, might limit your choices for some scenarios, especially considering that some responses drain that stat and health when selected. Too much or too little rage can block future decisions off entirely. There are even points where Maia must choose between differing “forms,” which in turn alters the way a specific scene will unfold.
While the scope of choice and customization is impressive and leads to a more interactive take on the visual novel genre than one might expect, the overall story itself can be something of a mixed bag. There are elements that I truly loved, such as the environmental message, how the supernatural elements tie in, and just how inclusive and LGBTQ+ friendly the plot is. However, I did find the pacing to be a bit strange at times. The first half of the story is a slower jaunt to set things up, while the second half seems to fly by at a breakneck pace comparatively, which is a shame. I would’ve enjoyed exploring certain moments throughout it in closer detail. While one gets a strong sense of Maia as a character in each playthrough due to how much players ultimately shape her, the rest of the cast isn’t quite as well-defined.
I especially enjoyed the story beats involving Kim (a non-binary character who values equality and understanding amongst everyone, with a faction that reflects that mindset) and Daniel (an overall awkward character who isn’t the most comfortable with human social tendencies). The opinionated and confrontational Olga also made a lasting impression on me during my first, more pacifist-minded playthrough despite her oftentimes contentious relationship with Maia. But I’d be hard-pressed to say I got a strong sense of who any of the other characters were beyond the very broadest of terms. I made a weighty story decision at one point in the game that had drastic consequences for certain characters, but I found that I didn’t have much of an emotional reaction to it because of how the characters developed in the story. Which is a shame, as the cast certainly had the potential to be quite interesting characters if they’d only been presented just a bit differently.
Graphically, this visual novel takes a rather artistic approach that I don’t often see repeated in other games in this genre. The text is set to one side of the screen, much like a book page would be, and the illustrated scene on the other side changes according to what happens in a given instant. The more realistic art morphs into something fantastical at a moment’s notice depending on if the supernatural came into play, bringing to mind a twisted illustrated children’s book at times. It fit into the aesthetic and setting the story was going for, though it did take me a bit longer to figure out who certain characters were in the images if they were not described clearly in the text that accompanied them.
From a sound perspective, the background soundtrack for Heart of the Forest was quite fitting. Sound effects helped to bring scenes to life, especially when moments were meant to be viewed as upsetting or intense. Various nature noises gave the sense of walking through an ancient, mystical forest teeming with untold life. The musical score was also quite appropriate and fitting for the game. I especially adored the hauntingly powerful ending theme choice.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest was extremely well written. Scenes in the narrative were descriptive enough to vividly bring to mind what was being conveyed, which I imagine could be troubling to some given the occasional graphic horror undertones in a plot such as this. I’d recommend those who cannot stomach such things should perhaps play something else instead. There were no typographical errors or grammar mistakes present as far as I could tell. The game also keeps a record of your progress every time you open the pause menu and does automatic saving instead of manual. While that might not be ideal for everyone, it helps encourage one to think on their choices and simply move forward with them instead of trying to go back and pick a different one later. I ended up appreciating this save feature, as I found myself pondering how differently I might approach a similar situation again in a new playthrough. Once a game is cleared, players are simply given the option to start up a brand new game again to see how things could go with a fresh perspective.
While it isn’t a perfect game, Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest is a rather unique and clever take on the visual novel genre that combines it with some truly engaging RPG elements. I found myself feeling immensely satisfied with my first playthrough, even if not every path I took ended up being ideal in the end. I found myself already pondering just what decisions I might make differently on a second (or even third one) given how much evolution the title does. That in and of itself is a sign of an enjoyable game to me!