Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries / 5th of February 2015
GriN Gamestudio - not to be confused with the former Swedish company, Grin - are a Belgian software developer more commonly associated with the creation of educational software and tech demos, such as their Oculus Rift project Heli-hell, and so, in short, they were not a team that any of us here were actually familiar with when we got our first glimpse of the team’s upcoming, Kickstarter funded project at Microsoft’s indie focused press briefing in Cologne last August. Needless to say though, after seeing only the briefest of gameplay clips, Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries, suddenly became a game that I was rather taken with, leaving me desperate to get my hands on a playable build of the title, until recently that is, when my wish was finally granted…
Over the last week, I have had access to a pre-release build of the game in order to finally get some hands on time with the project, which is scheduled to launch on PC in March, though despite the relatively short time between now and then, there is no saying how early this particular build is, and therefore how much it will actually represent the finished product. This is something that we can all be thankful for though, as - unfortunately, based on this preview build - Woolfe has in no way lived up to the lofty expectations that I once had for it.
In Woolfe, players control the character of Little Red Riding Hood as she traverses a sort of steampunk fairy-tale adventure, played out as a 2.5d platform-puzzler, on her travels, she will encounter a vast array of famous characters, including the Pied Piper, as she endeavours to discover the truth surrounding the disappearance of her father, and wreak her bloody vengeance against the man that she holds primarily responsible, B.B. Woolfe - the CEO of Woolfe Industries - her father’s former employer. The inspiration for the narrative extends back to the original variants of the fairy tales that we now know in their more child friendly, Disney-like forms today, where the tone was much darker and their content more mature. Taking that as a starting point, the developer mixed in a stark, gothic visual style that recalls the early work of director, Tim Burton, to create an especially bleak fantasy world that will surely appeal to the majority of gamers. Sounds good, right? So, what exactly does it get wrong?
Well, whilst the steampunk gothic aesthetics are very much appreciated, the overall quality of the visuals at this point are pretty poor, character models lack detail and are animated horrendously. Watching the Pied Piper prance around prior to the commencement of his turn as a boss is a truly stomach churning sight, which, along with his bouncing rodent companions, make the game appear not just one console generation out of date, but two. Though, in its defence, the particle and lighting effects certainly do the job, as streaks of sunlight creep out from behind the roofs of background buildings to illuminate a dark, snow filled sky. The overall texture quality isn’t too bad either, yet on the whole, this is far from being a good looking game, and whilst yes, there may be an overriding aesthetic choice, it doesn’t feel as comprehensive as Braid’s beautiful watercolours, or Limbo’s stark black and white, tension drenched environs.
Likewise, the audio leaves a lot to be desired too; the voice acting is quite grating, Red Riding Hood’s monologues, along with the derisive comments she makes to her foes upon beating them in combat are incredibly irritating and completely unnecessary, as is the rhyming structure to the writing which feels even more forced that Ubisoft Montreal’s attempts in Child of Light. The music is adequate, though certainly nothing worth writing about, and so, on that note, I’ll stop there.
Putting aside the audio and visuals then, it is certainly worth noting that the combat system employed here is pretty abhorrent, being completely sluggish and unresponsive, it regularly leaves Red Riding Hood trapped in tedious animations that simply cannot be broken, allowing some enemies to inch ever closer and inflict grievous bodily harm without the player being able to do anything about it. Part of the problem though stems from the fact that the control system actually changes depending on whether the game determines that the player has entered into combat or not, so for example, pressing the dodge button, will instead-whilst in combat-instruct Red Riding Hood to throw her axe in a straight line, forcing her to pause and await its return. By removing the dodge function from those situations where players are more likely to actually use it, GriN have severely limited the defensive manoeuvres that the player has at their disposal. In addition, pressing jump, when engaged in battle, will instead see the function altered to a quite useful aerial attack, wherein Red Riding Hood leaps into the air before descending straight down, spinning around with her axe held out at arm’s length; this regularly records multiple hits on as many foes are within range, but again, by doing this, the developer has restricted how the player can approach a combat scenario. Of course, this also works the other way too, when sneaking up behind a group of opponents - as regularly occurs - it would be rather useful to the player to be able to utilise their axe to land an early surprise attack, yet because of the current control system, this is rendered impossible. Between these potent shortcomings, and a very inadequate combo system, there are plenty of areas where the developer can focus their attention as they seek to polish up the final build of the game prior to its release.
Whilst there is certainly no denying that I am considerably disappointed with what I have played of Woolfe thus far, there is still time for the developer, GriN, to turn things around. The fantasy, adult orientated fairy-tale setting is certainly an intriguing one, but the execution at this point leaves a lot to be desired, still, we’ll find out in March how the final build of Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries fares when we get our hands on a finished version of the game.