Folklore Based Howl Tackles Tactical and Puzzle Gaming

Have you ever heard of a tactical, turn-based folktale? I certainly hadn’t, which made Howl an interesting choice for this week. That said, Howl both was and wasn’t what I expected, which is certainly becoming a bit of a theme in my journeys into indie gaming.

Howl is probably better described as a puzzle game than a tactical game given how the algorithm seems to operate, but regardless, it’s a fun concept executed decently well, if not flawlessly.

Plot Ahoy!

You play the Prophet, a young deaf woman who’s trying to write a prophecy that will rid her world of the Howling Plague, a mysterious sound that twists all who hear it into maddened werewolves. She also hopes to learn the fate of her dearest brother. She travels and kills werewolves while trying to find a solution to the problems that are troubling her world.

Review Notes

Before I get into the story notes, I want to talk a little bit about gameplay. Howl’s developers have tweaked the traditional turn-based formula into something new. Rather than alternate actions as you would do in, say, a Japanese RPG, you have four action points per turn that you may spend either by moving, attacking, waiting, or ending a round early. After each of the Prophet’s actions, the enemies have an action. Now, this is where I think the tactical bit turns more into puzzle than it does tactical because the enemies will always act the same way. They’ll advance toward the Prophet by the shortest route possible, though they do seem to prefer horizontal moves over vertical ones. I have no idea why that is given that slavering werewolves would seem, to me, be predisposed toward running forward, but what do I know?

Howl does offer an assistive mode, which will tell you where the monsters will go next, meaning that you don’t have to remember everything on your own, which is great for those of us who happen to be memory-impaired. If you really want the challenge, then, feel free to disable the mode and suffer to your heart’s content. Howl will provide you ample challenge, especially as you’ll need to think through each of your four moves well in advance in order to avoid dying. You’ll end up dying a lot, never fear, because the Prophet carries about three arrows and only has two hit points, at least at the beginning. The title also offers you a redo option that allows you to undo a choice, which is great as you’re initially learning Howl.

The levels are also short, which is nice, because you don’t have to sink large blocks of time into them and also because if you can’t avoid dying, you won’t be losing a frustrating amount of progress. Actually, Howl itself is pretty brief, especially if completing all of the Steam achievements isn’t a priority for you. The only time that brevity is a real problem is in the final chapter because Howl’s final chapter is a bit too short.

Howl’s story is fascinating for a host of reasons. Firstly, the main character’s deafness is a strength and not a weakness, which is huge both for representation and for turning an expectation on its head. Second is the nature of the Howling Plague itself. It’s a plague that uses sound to twist the hearer into a monster; the metaphor here is pretty clear. Howl wants to remind us of the power of messaging, and given the title’s roots in paganism and folklore, there’s a pretty clear allusion to be made to mainstream religion. The Prophet as the main character complicates that read because she fits the Chosen One mold very nicely, and she’s trying to write what is, in essence, a scripture to protect against the Howling Plague. As a result, I wish Howl had either chosen to develop the critique a bit more fully or sidelined it entirely. However, the shorter fourth chapter just leaves the game’s themes a bit less resolved than I would have liked.

Visually, Howl employs a living ink art-style, so imagine hand painted images morphing to fit the narrative playing out on the screen. It is, in a word, gorgeous, and the soundtrack is really just lovely. I also very much enjoyed the visual iconography created for the title. Visual motifs are repeated and adapted, adding depth and symbolic links between everything from the graphics to the menus. Howl’s developers clearly put a tremendous amount of thought and intention into its visual design, and it shows.

Howl’s confidence system gives it more replayability than it might otherwise have as well. Confidence points can be spent on necessary upgrades, and you earn those points by completing levels in a certain number of iterations and by saving people. The game’s story also tries to humanize these villagers the Prophet rescues via her own thoughts about the bucolic life they once lived in the times before the Howling Plague. This is a smart way to encourage emotional investment by the player, and it pays off.


Howl is an interesting title with a shocking amount of replayability, but if you don’t care to think four moves ahead at one time, you might find yourself frustrated by its mechanics. The story is interesting, but it doesn’t quite go as far as it could or should to be truly satisfying. That said, this kind of innovation should be rewarded, so Howl is definitely worth a look.

Howl retails for $14.99 on Steam.

Stray Thoughts From Behind the Keyboard

  1. Howl isn’t a game that encourages creative problem solving. You’re looking to find the correct solution, not a functional one, so be aware.
  2. You can also upgrade skills by trading in the skulls of the monsters you slay to open up new paths which is a bit depressing given that the monsters are turned villagers. These new paths will lead to new abilities, which is actually key to avoid Howl becoming monotonous.
  3. However, you should upgrade movement first before you upgrade much else. Howl is a title in which avoidance is a viable strategy, and sometimes, it’s the best one.
  4. You do get upgraded munitions, and they’re satisfying.
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