It’s not often that I review a game where I struggle to identify the genre. With Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves though, I find myself at somewhat of a loss. What kind of game is it? I don’t know. Is it any good? Most certainly!
As well as being difficult to categorize as regards its genre, its also hard to say whether Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves is an indie game or not. Certainly it’s from a smaller studio, and there are elements that reflect lower production values (like the voice recordings), but other aspects of the presentation are slick and impressive. For example, the music is fantastic, with a celtic influence throughout complete with pipes and flutes. It’s the sort of music I have never heard in any game before, and it’s amazing to see it work so well. These Irish/Scottish ditties are present from the opening moments of the game, and later the addition of more haunting orchestral pieces and some brilliant ambient audio make Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves one of the best sounding games of the year so far.
Combined with the audio, there’s a great deal of polish and thought that’s gone into the games opening, with some nice semi-animated videos. Moving past these and into the game proper, the tutorial system is brilliant and breaks you in gently. It combines short videos (complete with a grandfather like voice explaining the gameplay fundamentals with immense patience) with highlights for key parts of the games interface. These tutorials encompass the early parts of the story, and set out an interesting tale of two brothers trapped in a log cabin with their (possibly possessed) sister. The tutorial tries to set out the games unique structure of defending the cabin each night from the packs of enemies who will come out of the dark woods. It’s not an easy game to sum up, and the tutorial does a better job of elucidating the games systems than I am likely to manage. But let me try anyway.
You can choose between the two brothers at the beginning of the game, and these serve as a difficulty selection, with one of the brothers being far more competent than the other. From here, a routine sets in. You will first of all see some story events (playing out via cut scenes) setting up what’s happening with your sister, the surrounding towns and their citizens and the brothers themselves. From there, you’re able to spend some time in nearby towns stocking up on supplies, buying weapons or upgrades for your character and balancing resources. For the resources, you might need to decide whether you will chop wood for more money for defending your cabin, or work for less time and have more action points for the next section of the game. This section of the game works as a series of menus with different buildings and areas you can click on to travel to. Essentially, at this point you are spending the daylight hours preparing for the attacks that will occur that night.
From here, you return to your cabin and begin setting up for the night ahead. At this point, the game takes the form of a overhead tactical map of your cabin, the nearby barn and an ever growing selection of nearby buildings and structures you will have to defend. You choose where to place traps and other items around this map based on where waves of enemies are likely to appear. You are told by your sisters premonitions where these attacks will come from and what forms of enemies you will face. You can see the paths these enemies will take too, so you need to set your defenses up well. The better you plan at this stage, the more success you are likely to have in the next.
This is perhaps the most engaging part of the game too. The way that the different traps and items work in the action parts of the game is interesting and well designed, but it’s at this point that all the high level planning goes on. For example, you might decide to set some bait near your cabin to distract one pack of enemies, and put a bonfire near the second set of enemies to help you fight them. Meanwhile, traps of all sorts are available, and different traps will have different effects on different enemies. Some traps cost just action points, while others require money too. Traps that you pay for will stay from one night to the next, but free ones disappear after one night.
The traps and items you place have a big effect on how hard a time you will have with the enemies you will face. You might lay down just one bear trap for some wolves, but if your facing a werewolf you might want a falling rock trap waiting above them. Meanwhile, if you’re facing a Will-o’-the-wisp then traps are completely useless and you’ll need a different plan altogether.
It exists somewhere between an MMO and a hack and slash, but with sizable differences to both. Despite the RPG elements (with an upgradable character tree with many options and a range of weapons and items), this is an action game, complete with swinging axes and a fury meter. You control your chunky lumberjack with mouse and keyboard, and each swing of the axe will be triggered each time you click the mouse, while you have a rifle you can try to nail headshots with, but which you have to be stationary to use and will require reloading after each shot.
So it plays a bit like a third person action game at these points. Only not. You will face waves of enemies, and these enemies will be shown on your minimap. Based on the plans you made in the tactical stage and the items you placed, you will be facing enemies either with just your gun and axe, or with a bunch of additional little traps and other environmental objects that can help you.
The combat is unlike anything else you’ll have played. While you can often defeat a single opponent by just swinging away with your axe, you normally face packs of them. Swinging causes your stamina to go down quickly, and when it does you are defenseless. You can roll to dodge attacks, but again that only works when you have stamina. To defeat more than one enemy, you have to make use of the games fear system.
At the bottom of the screen there’s a fear meter with a number. This is how frightened the enemy is of you. Generally you will be fighting packs of enemies, and early on these will often be wolves. If the wolf pack has a fear rating of 20 but you’re fear rating is 25, they won’t attack, but instead will circle menacingly. Their fear number will slowly rise. When their fear rating matches yours, the bravest enemy will attack you, but only this one enemy. As long as you can intimidate enemies, they will come at you one at a time. The enemy that attacks you is the “leader” enemy and will be highlighted with an icon above their head. You can see this icon even before the enemy attacks, so you can identify which enemy will be coming at you once they have gotten brave enough.
You can reduce this fear number in a number of ways. You can kill an enemy, or you can light a fire. If you’re near a fire, the fear rating will go up a lot and enemies will be far less likely to attack you. While your fear rating is high, you can take the time to reload your gun (an intentionally painfully slow process) and shoot at the leader of the pack to frighten the rest. Shooting has some degree of auto-aim, but if you want to head-shot for more damage you have to have quick reactions and a steady hand. Every shot counts. If shooting and fire doesn’t scare enemies off to give you some breathing space, you can use a shout ability, which will both raise your fear rating and attract distant enemies. Using the shout to attract enemies can be useful too, because you can stand by a trap, shout, then move to safety and watch the enemies stumble into the danger zone. The game conveys this with an icon on the ground that shows where enemies last heard you, so you can be very loud in one area to draw enemies before sneaking off quietly somewhere else. Little touches like this are representative of how much thought has gone into every element in the game. It’s full of good design.
The result of all these gameplay systems is a truly brilliant experience, somewhat like a form of survival horror, but a totally new one. I’ve never fought a pack of wolves with just an axe, a gun and some traps, but there’s something very authentic about the experience offered by Sang-Froid. The way the wolves circle and snap at you is terrifying, and being circled by a pack of them is genuinely frightening. The way that you fight them off is nerve shredding. The game has so many brilliant moments that come about intentionally through its design. Trying to stave off panic as you look at your fear meter, trying to gauge if you have enough time to reload your gun before the next attack. Lighting a fire to scare enemies off, then realizing that there’s still a legion of them left as it starts to burn out. Seeing the strangely terrifying gait of the werewolf as it half-runs at you, trying to stay calm as you line up your one shot to make your rock trap fall on its head. Shouting at a pack of wolves to stop them attacking your cabin, only to have every single one of them turn and look straight at you. All of these moments are exciting, but in a different way to most other games I’ve played. I’ve panicked in Resident Evil when I ran out of ammo as zombies approached, but it’s not the same kind of terror that I got from Sang-Froid when I missed a crucial shot with my rifle and the enemies fear rating rose to the point where these convincing, savage, living, fast and cunning wolves ran straight at me.
All of this makes Sang-Froi sound essential, but there are some issues. As I mentioned, the voice acting is poor. The cut scenes are also of a low quality, especially later in the game, and the story as a whole often feels like the weakest element of the game and the least polished. When so much thought and effort has gone into designing the gameplay, it’s sad to see terrible dialogue between poorly drawn Native American characters speaking nonsense about blood moons. Meanwhile, the games antagonist is (literally) Satan, and while he’s supposed to be taken seriously (I think) his voice actor is terrible. In fact, there’s a fair amount of overt Christianity in the game, with nuns, Holy bullets and divine weapons as well as fallen women and contracts with the devil. It’s not a problem in itself, but with the visuals and audio so evocative and engaging, the overt Biblical story is a little disappointing. I would have liked to see the developers craft a mythos of their to match the excellent design, atmosphere and general aesthetic.
I started this review by saying Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves was a difficult game to pigeon hole. An RPG that takes place in only one location, a resource management game about laying traps and chopping wood, a wave attack game where you manage mobs through fear. It’s all that and more. It’s also frightening, engaging, accessible, and most of all original. While it’s production isn’t of the highest standard and the games not gorgeous, it does do a great job of presenting an original environment to play in: a cold, bleak, atmospheric woody wilderness at night. For its accessibility, its amazing soundtrack its panic-induing gameplay, and most of all its off-the-wall originality, Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves is easy to recommend. Oh, and it lives up to its name!
9 dances with the devil in the pale moonlight out of 10