Give Cyanide Studios credit: I was not expecting the premise of Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Earthblood to be much more than a thin veneer for the bloody, destructive impulses one gets steering the player character through combat. But the game is committed to its lore. And it means the most remarkable part of my shape-shifting werewolf antihero is the fact he’s an eco-terrorist. This is not a job description I’m used to for action-RPG heroes.
It helps that Cyanide can lean on the lore provided by the tabletop role-playing game Werewolf: The Apocalypse, whose first edition was published almost 30 years ago. But their game, available today for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X, is well paced. Stealth is meaningfully a better option in most levels, rather than ripping corporate mercenaries to shreds. This keeps Werewolf from devolving into a button-mashing brawler, and it helps obscure the weaker assets and elements that make the game feel dated, almost two console generations behind.
Still, the pacing seems accidental more than deliberate. In the missions I played, the stealth puzzles usually broke down to determining the order for snapping the necks of a dozen or so oblivious guards. And you’ll know you’re in the stealth portion of a chapter because the human form of the player character, Cahal, is forced into a slow-moving crouch. The game clearly wants you to press a button and turn into a wolf for these portions, even if you instantly turn back into a human when executing a sneak attack or opening a door.
The optional objectives that make stealth worthwhile — deactivating cameras, sabotaging the reinforcements’ access doors — usually come so far through the level that the player’s choice can be made at the beginning: Tear through everyone in your raged-out werewolf form (harder), or sneak your way to the inevitable boss battle (easier, but slower). Some portions of a level will instant-fail you (jarringly, I might add) back to the last checkpoint if you’re noticed by a guard or a security camera. But in the parts left to player choice, rarely does the combination of stealth and in-the-open melee combat make any sense.
But when Cahal stands up (usually at the end of what passes for a cutscene — though the dialogue is at least well acted) and the game lets you know there’s no choice but to throw down, the throwing down is a lot of fun. As the werewolf, Cahal has two combat stances: crouched, agile, and fast; or standing up, slower, and more powerful. The standard light attacks and heavy attacks are more effective when they’re matched to the stance.
A rapid attack is still available when I’m in the power stance, but it doesn’t do anything against heavier guards with riot shields and stun batons. Likewise, the guys who have silver weapons — Cahal can somehow smell this metal — need to be taken down quickly, because their shots reduce his max health in addition to depleting it.
You can’t just spam attacks through an extended engagement. You’ll make things harder, especially because the game’s whirling third-person camera rarely keeps up with the action (a lock-on targeting command helps, but you have to remember to use it). Though Cahal can heal himself mid-combat, this costs a resource called Rage and makes your attacks and combos more effective. The need to build up a good reserve of Rage is also what keeps you from just charging into each scene, claws blazing. The learning curve for managing Cahal’s systems is mercifully short, but there’s still a trial-and-error period where I had to figure out a lot on my own.
And Rage accumulates in clever ways, too. Cahal’s anger will grow on a successful stealth kill, which reinforces the need to sneak through a level’s preamble more than battle it out. There are also environmental elements to piss off Cahal, like a rattling piece of machinery that drives his super-hearing nuts. Stand next to one of these and let that fury build, but if you hulk out completely, you have no choice but to take on superior numbers by hand.
I was kind of surprised how much Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Earthblood grew on me, given that the limitations I come up against (ineffective attacks with little to no feedback, for example) are ones that usually fill my IRL rage-meter. Cyanide Studios, if it doesn’t do a good job of explaining why I was doing something wrong, or inefficiently, at least the developer spaced out those moments so it doesn’t feel like the whole game is broken, or that I don’t get its subtler points. Most times, I didn’t have to play through a failed checkpoint more than once, because the reason I flunked it often traced back to impatience or a lack of focus in combat, or forgetting to use a new perk or skill.
Though the game’s world is small — some levels had me doubling back through areas or vent systems I’d already cleared or crawled through, and some locations are reused entirely early on — it’s at least interesting. Werewolf’s lore isn’t always explained in its dialogue but I appreciated Cahal’s self-doubt, and guilt, for what he’s capable of in his shapeshifting rage.
His Caern (a werewolf pack) has an uneasy alliance with two human ecoterrorist cells, and the creepy spirits Cahal communes with don’t always seem the most benign. The dialogue sequences at least don’t run unnecessarily long, even if they’re about as animated as an Elder Scrolls conversation from a decade or more ago. (I played on an; what, exactly, this game does with the newer hardware was not apparent to me.)
Less forgiving players will probably find more reminders of the budget nature of Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Earthblood. But those who approach the game with forbearance for what it does well, and understand that what it doesn’t do well isn’t really a critical component of the story or the combat, will still find an enjoyable romp. It might be as fun as a popcorn flick, but it’s similarly forgettable.