Review: The Howler15 May 2013 0
There's a scene in HBO's John Adams where the titular protagonist (America's orneriest, grumbliest, most Paul Giamatti-est diplomat-turned-president) is in Paris, watching the Montgolfier brothers take one of their globes aérostatique to the sky with his wife, Abagail, and his constitutional bestie, Thomas Jefferson. As the craft ascends, Jefferson remarks that, now, "mankind floats upon a limitless plane of air." Adams, mugging the rustic, colonial equivalent of the troll face, quips, "Hmmm. Hot air."
I feel similarly conflicted about The Howler, a side-scrolling game of steampunk aeronautics and loud panting. Because what President Giamatti was hitting on back in 1700s France wasn't just the growing divide between the desire for individualism set against the need for a strong central government, but the simple fact that sometimes our reach exceeds our grasp. Or rather, our grasp exceeds our ability to ask, "Why am I grasping at all?"
It's not just the fact that The Howler casts you as the (no doubt mustachioed) captain of a hot air balloon that's nearly identical to the sort the Montgolfiers pioneered. Or that the game's lofty towers above and political unrest below both speak to the sort of freedom v. security debate that only really got juicy after the Enlightenment peaked.
It's that The Howler, on many levels, is trying so hard to be more thoughtful and literate (no, really--the game is touted as a tie-in to a forthcoming novel) than many of its brash contemporaries. From gorgeous hand-drawn art to super-chill, reflective music, it's easy to imagine this being the sort of game that a Jefferson or a Locke or a Voltaire would choose to while away an afternoon sans philosophizing.
Then again, it's also a game that asks you to play by shouting at it. Howling, rather.
Yes, while it is possible to guide your implausible craft over the spiky edifices of a fictionalized Vilnius, Lithuania using just touch controls, The Howler spends some time informing the player that they may also control the rise and fall of their balloon with ridiculous mouth noises, with louder shouts generating more lift. You can even drop bombs and packages with this system, using a quick, loud noise, perhaps "BOMBA BOMBA" or "AHHHHH BAP."
And the thing is, voice controls work... fine. Just fine. Perhaps a little less than fine, depending on whether or not you planned on playing The Howler on the bus ride to and from work, as opposed to alone, in your recently sound-proofed bedroom/recording studio. Incorporating the player's vocalizations into play even makes a sort of thematic sense, beyond the superficial link between a "howling" and the game's barely hinted at, Wolf-themed plot.
The Howler, at it's brass, steam-powered heart, is a game of puzzle piloting. Each level tasks you with an increasingly difficult landing or delivery of some sort, complicated by the fact that, being in a hot air balloon, you can only directly control your elevation; you have no means of quickly moving to the left or right. Motion in the horizontal plane is achieved by guiding your balloon into air currents which (hopefully) will push you in the direction you want to go. With touch controls, this ranges from easy to significantly difficult. Playing solely with sotto voce, you start at "significantly difficult" and move up to "frustrating as hell" rather quickly.
For example, one level of the game has you dropping off packages by flying into, ahem, a giant metal wolf statue which only opens its somehow blood-flecked maw as you approach. If you want to pull this off with your MLG vocal chords, you'll actually need to check your emoting and keep your calm like a real ("real") steampunk balloonist would, lest an errant exclamation send you rising up into your gargantuan friend's fangs. Hey, neat, it's like, mechanical and thematic synchronicity. Rock n' roll little steampunk dudes.
The problem is that The Howler, instead of incorporating this into a larger framework of play, seems to take it as enough to carry the entire game. It is not enough to carry the entire game. On harder levels, you'll quickly tire of the voice controls and either quit or switch to touch play, even if you do have one of those aformentioned revelatory "aha" moments. The voice controls are harder to use, to the point of being frustrating. Which... might be the point? But a point that's not all that rewarding to get. (Also: points. The other points. Avoid them. They pop your balloon.)
Some might say that I'm asking too much of what could reasonably be described as a dressed-up version of the old Flash Helicopter game, waiting for its mechanics to open up to me in the same way its wonderful theme and art did. Perhaps. But that's all one is left with after playing The Howler with easier to use (yay!) but less interesting (boo) touch controls: the realization that beyond one half-explored eccentricity, this is a game you've played countless times before. Solid, but shy of enlightening.