Recently greenlit on Steam’s indie release platform, Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves (Tome I) was released as a pre-order for purchasers to try before the final release. Developed by Artifice Studio, the title brings us an interesting combination of gameplay elements in the form of a tactical action roleplaying game set in 1858, where an outbreak of werewolves besets a logging town and its inhabitants. Although there are obvious elements that need fleshing out, the game stands a strong chance of making a considerable mark on the indie scene.
For starters, the visual style is wonderfully effective. The artistic vision for the game gives us an authentic feel for the time period. As I played through the missions, the architecture and environment accurately depict the scenery of the 1800’s, from the glowing flame of a lantern hanging outside a cabin to the white parish, giving me a real sense of place. The fashion of the era is well represented also, from the fur-and-leather-clad Jack to the Paul Bunyan-esque trappings of his sizeable brother Joseph. The wintry scenes of the outdoors are thickly laden with evergreen trees and forlorn paths the characters must protect, sometimes tinged with the glow of a torch flickering in the night.
Sang-Froid’s art direction is both absorbing and atmospheric.
The animation is nothing to behold at this point, however, as current cut scenes often give us very cheesy and shoehorned feel, and appear to be placeholder animations until finished art is put in. The hand-drawn sequence at the beginning of the game is well done, and is somewhat reminiscent of scenes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Sporting a stop-frame style instead of fully animated sequences, the artists put together a fantastic opening that draws us into the dark folklore atmosphere which the game achieves so well. In my opinion, this is the way they should go with the cut scenes all around. It would have been produced much faster, and given us much better dramatic expression. Let’s hope they can include these changes in the final release. The strategy phase requires a bit of learning in order to be successful, as there is no guarantee that a trap will be sprung as wolves run amok. Giving you an overhead map view of your battlefield, you select locations along the wolves’ path where bottlenecks occur to place specific traps. The net trap is by far the best, as you use yourself as bait to get the wolves underneath it by way of leaving your scent, and once they are underneath you shoot the net to drop a load of stones on their furry heads. It leaves no survivors. The other trap you obtain early on is the standard wolf trap, which subdues any wolf that springs it. The catch is that you have to indirectly aim with your shout mechanic to draw them to your position in order to make them cross it. Another feature I was given was the bonfire, which gives you a bonus to your Fear Factor, a visual indicator that tells you when the next wolf is about to attack.
So many werewolves, so little action points…
The action segments are where we get to see the fruits of our strategic planning. Since it is impossible for either Jack or Joseph to be everywhere at once, I had to decide where best to place traps along the paths to whittle them down enough for my axe and gun to finish the rest. So far the gun mechanic is fun but quirky, actually serving to draw the wolves to your position. This is a logical contradiction to the Shout mechanic, which is used to put the fear of God into your enemies and scatter them for a short time in order to give you time to reload your gun. While skill points gained during the leveling process can improve your marksmanship, it still makes one scratch their head at such an odd but minor inconsistency.
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.
The melee portion of the game is where I did most of my damage. Once you start the night sequence and hear wolves getting caught in your ingenious traps, you have the suspenseful pleasure of watching them charge at you on the minimap, axe in hand and jaw clenched as you await their emergence from the darkness. This doesn’t sound like a very effective mechanic, but it works. You never quite know when you will see the wolves, as they conceal themselves well in the dark beyond the reach of your torch and close distance at a frenetic pace. This is by far the most straightforward feature, and it works well, giving you a starting combo of three strikes to knockback, which can cause you to become Enraged and inflict higher damage with a special attack, a nice feature that comes in handy when a werewolf trap fails and you are forced to go mano-a-mano with the beast. Alone, these elements are nothing spectacular, but when the ingredients are all thrown together for the main course we finally understand the method to all the madness.
The leveling system is a very nice touch that sets the game apart from what would have been a run-of-the-mill actioner without it. You are given XP for each night survived and bonuses based on your successful completion, which then allow you to level and gain new skills. Initially, you are offered a number of choices to add a skill point to, such as Traps I (higher success rate), Marksman I (Gun reload time and accuracy), and Bloodthirst I (Melee damage). Each of these has upgrades, and higher bonuses are unlocked as you level, allowing you to specialize your character’s approach to wolf slaying to your liking.
By the end of the game, you’ll be unstoppable.
Another place where the game shines is the soundtrack. The music in the game is amazing, adding just the right amount of urgency to the action in the form of fast-paced Celtic compositions that not only balance the dark nature of the game with a lighter tone, but also gives you the sensation that you’re playing one tough cookie that is completely unafraid of his foes. What else would you expect from a frontiersman living in the Canadian wilds? Thus far, the voice acting for the English dub is clearly sub-par. The voice of Jack/Jacque sounds nothing like his Irish origins would suggest, and the pitch of his voice during cut scenes is more like that of an excited college jock than a hardened lumberjack. There is yet little dramatic nuance in characterization either, as the voices lack emotion behind their words. Although the narration of the opening animation sequence is done well, we are broken out of our sense of atmosphere which is crucial to a supernatural thriller. Given the quality work they have put into other areas of the game, it’s hard to imagine that this will be the final version of the recorded dialogue and we will be treated to a proper vocal narrative. Which brings us to the story. Co-written by best-selling Canadian author Bryan Perro, the game hits its old-school home run with a unique story that transcends its period with deep underlying themes of forgiveness and sacrifice. Two feuding brothers are reunited over the fate of their beloved sister, who was nearly accosted by a local priest that made a pact with the devil to obtain to her affection. The dialogue is well written despite being poorly acted, and the tension between the two brothers is the perfect touch which will no doubt come to a climactic and emotional ending. The idea of a Catholic priest and the devil working together is a rather tired cliché in horror stories, and the interactions between Satan and the priest are somewhat forgettable, but that does little to dampen the total package that puts the player in the role of two rugged outdoorsmen who put axe to pelt with little regard for their own lives to save their sister from a terrible evil.
Smile, you son-of-a–!
Currently in its beta testing phase, the game shows that the developers have what it takes to make a showstopper in the indie marketplace, or at the very least one of the standout titles of 2013. With a good chunk of work still ahead of them, let’s hope that the bugs, art, and voice acting will all be in place by the time the game comes to its release date this spring. If it were released even now, I would wager it’s worth a look for its unique combination of strategy and action that jives perfectly with its accompanying storyline and setting. Be sure to keep your silver bullets handy.