Howl (Nintendo Switch) Review

Think, plan, act, adapt.

Howl had me thinking back to the late 2000s, when the idea of an “indie” game had become mainstream enough that they finally transitioned to consoles with initiatives like Xbox Live Arcade. Like so many iconic games from that period – think Geometry Wars, Portal, Braid, ‘Splosion Man, or Shadow ComplexHowl feels smartly designed on a budget. It combines conceptually simple turn-based puzzles with organic storytelling and striking, moody aesthetics – resulting in a compact but engaging experience that’s more-ish but also perfect for shorter sessions on the go with the Nintendo Switch or Steam Deck.

Howl Chapter 2 Map

Howl is presented as a folklore tale that follows the journey of a young, deaf prophet – immune to the titular “howl” that turns humans into beasts – who has inked a prophecy that’ll hopefully see an end to the curse and reveal the fate of her brother. The basics are laid out on the very first screen, but Howl has an organic approach to storytelling. It uses a fantastic ink-based visual style and melancholic soundtrack befitting the folklore premise, and uses frequent but concise narration to convey the story, flesh out the world as you explore, and establish character relationships. As you move between distinctive areas on the world map or begin each short puzzle encounter, the narrator recounts the young prophet’s thoughts or memories – and there are even multiple lines to account for replaying encounters.

Talking encounters, Howl features a succession of turn-based tactical battles that function as chess-like puzzles – just with all the pieces moving at once. The player is expected to predict, as any good prophecy should, the consequences of each turn and plan out their actions to survive. It’s a great blend of premise and gameplay mechanics. It starts out deceptively simple but later encounters become increasingly complex and lengthy, with dozens of beasts moving about small grid-based maps, while you agonise over how to save survivors, clear out a beast nest without being cornered, or simply rush for the exit.

Howl Vault Skill

At first, you can only take three turns per round and have to make do with a quiver of three arrows. The prophet always takes the first turn, followed by every alerted beast, and you typically chose between a movement, an action, or waiting for a target to move into range. As you lay out your plan, there’s a visual indicator showing how many moves each enemy will make – in greatly expanded detail if you enable the “accessible” mode – and there are some basic rules and behaviours to memorise. Enemies prefer to move horizontally to close in on the prophet; it always takes two turns to convert a human; only a creature that ends the round standing on hazard takes damage; and some enemies can lunge multiple tiles to hit you. Should you take damage at any point, all subsequent turn orders are discarded and the next round begins. Take another hit, and the encounter fails.

That might sound unforgiving – and it can be if you simply rush to the finale of each region – but Howl introduces a flexible and powerful progression system that opens up new tactical options, encourages replaying encounters, and ensures methodical players acquire the tools they need to see it through to the end. To “fulfil the prophecy”, you need only survive an encounter to unlock the next on the path; however, you earn skulls for each beast slain and upgrade points for completing an encounter within the specified round limit. Achieving both in a single run is difficult at first, but your progress is always preserved, making it optimal to attempt a risky dash to completion, followed by a more cautious run aimed at wiping out all the beasts.

By exploring optional locations on the world map, you’ll get to invest skulls and upgrade points in new skills like a simple but versatile push, a smoke bomb that grants you some space, a vault that allows you to clear several tiles, and exploding or piercing arrows – all of which can be upgraded twice into more powerful forms. You can unlock up to 6 turns per round and invest in a nice-to-have-but-not-essential rewind feature to return to the start of a round if your plan goes awry.

With each new skill, you can return to earlier encounters that first seemed insurmountable, accumulate even more skulls or upgrade points, and enhance the prophet further. There are still tactical considerations as certain skills can only be used on certain turns, but you’ll soon find yourself pushing enemies into other enemies or hazards, dropping smoke bombs to move unimpeded, vaulting away after being surrounded, and then flinging an exploding flame arrow into the middle of a group. There’s a steady sense of progression to ensure you never feel like you’re just going through the same motions to clear an encounter.

Howl Upgrades

So wrapping up, Howl tells an intriguing folklore tale in an organic way that synergises with the brisk gameplay pacing; it has striking aesthetics that add to the atmosphere but also ensure the gameplay information is easily readable; and it offers increasingly tough, turn-based combat puzzles but rewards methodical players with all the skills they need to master them. It’s a compact, smartly crafted, and aesthetically striking experience that encapsulates what indie games do best and, at 5-6 hours long, doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Howl was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code provided to gameblur by the publisher. It is also available on PC, Xbox One/Series S|X, and PS4/5.

Howl (Nintendo Switch) Review

Howl (Nintendo Switch) Review
9 10 0 1
9/10
Total Score

The Good

  • Turn-based puzzle encounters that gradually evolve in complexity
  • Unlockable and upgradeable skills that add new tactical options
  • Beautiful ink-based visuals and a melancholic soundtrack enhance the folktale premise
  • An accessibility mode toggle for when you're stuck
  • It lasts exactly as long as the narrative and gameplay mechanics can sustain

The Bad

  • Some late-game encounters take a while to play out - even using the fast-turn toggle
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