mikelemmer's Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves (PC) review

Canada of Legend: Cunning Lumberjacks vs the Devil's Werewolves

Folktales twist what is familiar into something beautiful & mysterious, a fantastic story that characterizes a place better than reality. This game is a Canadian folktale. It is a tale of the snowy frontier and the brave lumberjacks who lived there, where the Christian god and native spirits coexist, and the Devil's minions are fought off with cunning, traps, and whiskey. Like the best folk tales, it covers familiar ground, yet is unusual enough to stay lodged in your mind.

It plays like the love child of Orcs Must Die! and Rainbow Six, combining third-person defense with a Planning Phase. Although it looks like a tower defense game at first, it doesn't play like one; it's more methodical, cautious, toning down both the enemies and your own abilities. Each wave only has 4-10 enemies, but just one of them can threaten you in a straight-up fight and each of your traps only works once. You can't set new traps between waves, either; instead, you view your enemies' numbers and paths during the day, concoct a plan, and set up your traps before night falls. You do not funnel dozens of enemies into a growing Corridor of Death, you carefully lay out bait over spike traps to kill 3 of the incoming werewolves and rely on your rifle & axe to kill the last one.

Personal combat cycles between attacking and recovering: your 1850s rifle takes several seconds to reload after each shot and your melee attacks drain your Stamina bar until you take a breather. There's a Fear Factor that makes enemies hesitate before attacking you, giving you time to reload your rifle or recover your Stamina, but I found the best strategy was to make sure they were nearly dead before they reached me. I spent about 60% of my time in the Planning Phase, double-checking my trap placement and making sure I had some spare holy bullets & drink in case it fell apart. Sometimes they chewed through bait faster than I expected, or I'd miss a shot with a ballista, or they caught a whiff of my scent in the wind and beelined towards me, and I had to retreat to an emergency bonfire to keep them at bay while I picked them off one-by-one. Slowly reloading a rifle while two werewolves circled my bonfire was a slow-burn tension I don't experience often in games.

The game's story has the same pacing. It plays out like a folktale, not an action film. Over several weeks in December, two feuding brothers try to work out their relationship and protect their younger sister, who prophesizes the Invisible Beast will run rampant on Christmas Eve unless they stop him. The Devil wants to kidnap her, but here he acts more like the Trickster of myth than the final boss of a game, sending his minions after them and turning the townsfolk against them. Even the final boss feels subdued compared to other, more frantic games: you've gathered everything you need to defeat him, and now you just have to hunt him down in the dark woods, man-vs-beast, as heavy chanting punctuates the inevitability of it.

The folk music really sells the game's setting. They licensed several tunes from Canadian folk bands, providing haunting chants & violin pieces for the slower parts of the game and Irish jigs for the fights. It sounds like something you'd hear in a logging town pub on a cold wintry night, and is perfect for fighting werewolves deep in the Canadian wilderness. The graphics are a bit crude & cartoony, but they fit well enough with the folktale style that I didn't mind them. There were even a few times I just stopped to look at the moon rising over the dark forest.

My biggest gripe about the game is that the controls occasionally feel sticky & clumsy. Sometimes it took multiple attempts to drag inventory around during Planning, or I would focus attacks on the wrong beast during the night. It was a bit frustrating at times, but I never lost a fight due to it, and with the game's emphasis on planning instead of action, it didn't come up often.

It certainly shouldn't stop you from trying this game. It's a defense game that emphasizes planning & care and gives it the feel of a frontier folktale. I've grown bored of tower defense games, but I'd love to see where they take these mechanics, and the continuing tale of the O'Carroll brothers, next.

Sang-Froid can be bought on Steam for $15. It took me 7 hours to complete the game on Normal difficulty.

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