Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves
A howl suddenly breaks the silence in the woods. The man in the wagon jumps off and charges into the darkness. He knows what’s making that sound. He hopes he can escape. In the distance, he sees the light from a small cabin. Salvation, he prays. But it’s too late of course. The werewolves are faster than him. He can feel them breathing down his neck now. Their fangs tear into his neck, and the world grows darker as he bleeds to death.
“Intriguing premise”The opening cutscene of Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves, a new tower defense game, taps into an intrinsic fear of darkness, nature, and the unknown horrors that lurk there. The werewolf is one of the oldest myths, tracing back to at least ancient Greek literature. The origins of the myth are disputed, but one possible explanation is that wolf attacks were quite common in Europe in the past. So common that people explained them by saying that some kind of demonic presence was responsible for it. That humans could be corrupted and take the form of werewolves. This is an intriguing premise for a game. Fear is an excellent way of creating tension and feeling vulnerable when playing.
Sadly, the game doesn’t use this factor as much as could be desired – even though the intro makes it seem like it – and during my time with the game, I felt more annoyance than fear.
The events take place during winter in Lower Canada in the mid-19th century, and follows two brothers, Jack and Josy, and their sister, Josephine. Josephine has been chased out of the village of Wolfsvale, accused of setting the church on fire. Together with Josy, she takes refuge in Jack’s cabin, where she starts showing some very strange behavior, like hovering in the air when she’s sleeping, and prophesizing various horrible things to happen. Every night for twenty days, werewolves and other nasty creatures attack the cabin and the surrounding buildings, forcing the brothers to defend their sister from the Devil’s minions – yes, the Devil is the main antagonist in the game.
For a tower defense game the story is surprisingly extensive. The world the characters inhabit becomes more real.
“Elements of resource management”It may be wrong to call this a “tower” defense game, because it takes its cues more from Orcs Must Die! rather than Defense Grid. That is, the player sets up traps instead of towers, and isn’t an invisible eye in sky who has complete overview of what’s going on. Instead, the player is in the middle of the nitty-gritty action and is extremely vulnerable to attacks. Sang-Froid is much more complex than Orcs Must Die! though. You have far less individual power, and therefore have to rely almost entirely on your traps. If you set them up ideally, you won’t have much to do yourself, and that’s the way it’s intended to be played. Flailing around with your axe won’t get you far. The enemy waves are quite small, but since they often attack three or four locations at the same time, the player needs to have a solid defensive plan if they don’t want to be overwhelmed.
There are also elements of resource management. You have a very limited amount of money, and the powerful traps are quite expensive, so you need to be very careful how you manage them. This gives an excellent feeling that you need to plan pretty much every second, if you want to live through the night. And even though you defend the same location every night, it evolves as new areas are added, and new paths open up as trees are cut down or water freezes.
There are moments, though, when you are forced to bring out your axe and fight. These are moments where you’ve where you’ve messed up your plan or haven’t placed the traps well enough. And they are the worst parts of the game. Sadly, the combat sections could have been done well, were it not for technical issues.
“Great animalistic feel”Fear factor is the most interesting and new element to the game. It’s represented as a numerical value – which can seem arbitrary, but is probably the most fair way of doing it. The enemies’ fear factor is determined from their numbers and the strength of each enemy, while yours is based on you killing enemies, how intimidating you are – you can let out fierce growl – or your proximity to fire. There’s a great animalistic feel to this. Enemies don’t just charge blindly at you, and a lot of time is spent circling around each other, waiting for the right moment to strike. This creates a more cerebral approach to combat, rather than making the action God of War-style hack-&-slash.
This could have been an amazing basis for combat mechanics, but there’s too much mouse lag and unresponsiveness when playing. The result was that my character usually charged his axe into empty air, instead of the belly of a werewolf. Since all attacks use stamina too, if you make a single mistake it can often be decisive. So when you actually survive a fight, you don’t feel triumphant because you’ve succeeded in the planning phase, you feel it because you’ve overcome the controls. And when you lose, you don’t blame your own incompetence but rather the fidgety controls.
It also doesn’t help that it takes a long time before you can return to the combat, as you have to watch almost every cutscene from that day over again, which only serves to make defeat even more frustrating. Now, this could all just be a deliberate choice from the developer, to make your choices in the game seem more weighty, but considering that the combat is already made more difficult by the stamina and fear factor elements, the end result appears unpolished.
“Lack of polish”This lack of polish is also felt in the voice acting and cutscene department. The voice actors sound quite uninspired, like they aren’t invested in the characters they are portraying. Most speak with monotone voices, as if they’re portraying a talking brick wall rather than a human being. The developers made a poor choice in animating most of the cutscenes in 3D. When the story is told through a cutscene, it looks like the characters are trolleyed onto the screen, and when they talk it’s completely out of sync. Frankly, it feels sterile. It’s odd, though, as scenes without dialogue are usually in 2D, and work much better as it fits in with the aesthetic. Presumably it has something to do with time and budgets, but overall, it just makes these parts seem amateurish.
It’s a real shame to see a game that has a lot of really original ideas get tarnished like this. There are elements in Sang-Froid that I’d definitely like to see used again, especially the fear factor element as it gives even small encounters a great sense of tension. Maybe that’s the price of originality sometimes: You build new mechanics, but perhaps don’t have the time and resources to make sure they’re completely polished.