Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest opens with surreal dream sequence. The text on screen depicts a primal time, a forest unchecked by human hands, and a palpable force of nature seething with righteous fury at what urban expansion has destroyed. It escalates like a nightmare with horrific imagery and tangible anger, supported by the evocative artwork complementing the text.
In the hands of any other creative team, such an opening would be seen as heavy-handed and cliché, but Heart of the Forest makes it work by leaning into its various tropes with earnest presentation, giving the beats such a potent punch that the whole thing still felt fresh.
Save the Puszcza
The game centers around Maia Borovitch, an American college student who travels to Poland. Ostensibly, she is there for a school function, but she has her own personal motives. The locals in town know her family lineage is of a dangerous sort, to the point that no one gives her the time of day. She is continuously plagued by nightmares of a living forest screaming for vengeance, which appear to be connected to a series of heated protests between a logging company and environmental activists regarding the fate of the all too real Bialowieza forest. And to top it all off, the most ardent and downright alien-seeming of these activists reach out to Maia with promises about not just her past, her special heritage, and her place in the world, but her very future as well.
Right off the bat, it is very clear that Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest's story has something on its mind and comes from a very real place. There were very real and very passionate protests around Bialowieza in 2016 and 2017, and this game makes the wise decision of portraying the events around the protests a lot of nuance and care. It takes into account not just the immediate stuff on the surface, a logging company just doing its job and not caring about the significance of one of the last genuinely primal forests on the face of the earth, but the multiple layers of red tape and political nefariousness as well regarding local government, the press, and public knowledge.
It's particularly telling that even without the distinct presence of the titular werewolves and the inherent gothpunk sensibilities of the World of Darkness setting, this whole story would still be compelling on a fundamental level. But as it stands, the supernatural elements of Maia coming to terms with her connection to nature and her werewolf abilities help heighten and amplify the indignation that many environmentalists at the time felt. A sentiment felt all the more angry and visceral when you recall that unlike the Lorax, some of these eco-warriors have no qualms about tearing people to bloody chunks to get their point across.
Who Will Your Claws Claim?
On the surface, Heart of the Forest is a visual novel, but it contains RPG and resource management elements as well. As you make certain choices throughout the story, Maia's various stats will increase such as her bravery, critical analysis, and spiritual attunement. These stats not only help open up more options as the story progresses, but help shape her relationship with the story's multiple characters.
The biggest resources to manage are Rage and Willpower. Certain choices will increase Maia's Rage, causing her to act more confidently but act more impulsively as well. Alternatively, the lower her Rage is, the more passive and inactive Maia's decisions will be. This can lead to scenarios where Maia will not listen to reason and just lash out or just grin and bear an injustice. Willpower on the other hand is a far more precious resource. Whenever there are crucial moments that require determination or a steeled resolve, Maia can spend Willpower to push forward. Used correctly, this can yield some dramatic revelations or help avoid dicey situations. The downside is you don't get a lot of Willpower and regaining it is highly situational.
These systems are pretty standard, but it's the quality of the branching paths and options that really help Heart of the Forest resonate so well. This is thanks in no small part to the stellar writing chops of lead developers Jacek Brzezinski and Artur Ganszyniec. Both of them have impressive writing and development credits under their belts, their most notable contributions being development leads on the very first Witcher game.
There are five distinct endings in total with countless variations. Certain characters can die, become antagonistic, or be unexpected allies by the end. Just to test out how open the game would be with my actions, rather than be a full-blooded zealot with my werewolf pack, spilling blood and destroying the loggers' machines, I played Maia as a deeply spiritual diplomat, one that kept playing the optics game around the press and elected officials. To my surprise, there was no rug pulled out from under me, in fact I unlocked an ending where a temporary peace was negotiated between everyone. It wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination and I felt how tenuous the whole process was throughout my playthrough, but the game didn't force some contrived bloody conflict just because it was a game about werewolves.
More Real Than You Think
In fact, one of the strangest things about Heart of the Forest is that while the real-world based ecological conflict is handled quite well, the supernatural werewolf angle is less pronounced than you would think. The game is split up across six chapters, and Maia only officially becomes a werewolf around chapter four after a ton of build-up. In a way, this works as a great introduction to what werewolves in World of Darkness is all about, playing up their connections to nature, activism, and shamanistic spirituality, but it can feel a bit drawn out depending on your patience.
There's a very good chance that was just my personal experience with the game, but it does bring to mind a few accessibility problems. There is no way to jump from different chapters and encounters in your playthrough to try out different options and paths; if you want to do something different you'll have to start a brand new game.
Those issues aside, I do think Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest is infectiously compelling. Seeing if it's possible to change someone's mind or to prevent another character's death has that inherently empowering quality great RPGs have, and the different ways your choices shape Maia's beliefs makes it feel less like you're reading a visual novel and more like you're playing a tabletop module with an exceptional Storyteller. My first playthrough clocked in at about two and a half hours, granted I am a very fast reader, but the minute the credits rolled I wanted to jump back in with enthusiastic aplomb.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest | Final Thoughts
If you have any interest whatsoever in World of Darkness, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, or just want a haunting but powerful visual novel experience, I highly recommend Heart of the Forest. The writing is solid, the story is imaginative, and the art direction maintains a great mix of natural beauty and nightmarish vividness. Just be aware you're in for more than just a cheap bloodbath once you start it up.
TechRaptor reviewed Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest on PC with a copy provided by the publisher.
- Great Prose and Evocative Artwork
- Well-Handled Rage and Willpower Management Systems
- Multiple Satisfying Endings
- No Chapter Select Feature
- Overt Werewolf Action is Downplayed