The Howler is a voice-based puzzle game: will it be a scream or will you cry out in pain?
The digital distribution method of making and selling games has been a blessing and a curse – little games that wouldn’t have stood a chance on disc now get to see the light of day, but even with the best of intentions are the pages of Steam, GOG, itch.io and both the App and Play Stores filled with wretched software abortions from hucksters looking to scam hapless idiots the world over. Still, even with enough bad gaming content that’d leave Jim Sterling rubbing his hands together with glee, there’s often diamonds in the rough, and what did George Michael say? We gotta have faith. That’s why we give these little games a chance. Pretty enough for us to roll down our windows and ask “How much?” is The Howler, a game that is beautifully and quintessentially “indie” as you can get.
Made by two men from Lithuania, with hand-drawn graphics, and the minimal use of music that, when it is actually used, sounds like it could have been cribbed from the back catalogue of Elbow’s more minimalist works, The Howler is extremely indie, in the sense that lesser reviews might begin with “If you opened the dictionary and turned to ‘indie’…”. The handcrafted aspect is the very first thing that players will notice, and although this will be covered with more depth later, it deserves statement now. The presentation is oddly, simultaneously polished and not polished – an AAA title, it is not, but this little game carries itself with so much heart, the sense that it was created by two guys with nothing but love, that you’ll be invariably drawn by the game’s sweet song.
What do you do in the game? This is the important question that serves to extricate money from our pockets. The title of The Howler is more indicative than you might initially think, as players must use their voice and a microphone to propel a hot air balloon. Shrieking into it causes the balloon to rise, going silent causes it to fall. This is a fun little gimmick, appreciable in its uniqueness, and commendable that the devs would try such a thing, but it’s simply not strong enough to carry the whole game – you’ll ruin your voice and annoy neighbours very quickly. Of course, this seems like the perfect gimmick to entice uppity, shouting YouTubers to play the game, so it’s actually a genius promotional tactic, and besides, you need not play the game like this yourself.
Where the game really comes into its own is with the good old mouse, in which it only needs to be played with the left mouse button, and here, simplicity is The Howler’s elegance. You must harness the power of upward momentum, and the changing winds, which, depending on what part of the screen you’re on, will blow you left or right. Riding on the flow of the wind, you’ll have to navigate yourself to a predetermined landing point, and in expected tradition of video games, achieving this end will get harder as you proceed through higher levels – you’ll have to contend with floating razor blades, spikes, and the pick-up of items. As a so-called puzzle game, The Howler succeeds in fulfilling that fundamental element that makes puzzles so addictive; doing it right will keep you up all night, so it scores points for being compelling, at least.
The Howler calls itself a puzzle game but this is perhaps an unjust representation of events. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure this game out; just be sensitive to the game’s controls and the changing winds and you’ll be astute to how this game and its tricks work. Still, it’s a challenge for the hand instead of the mind which more than qualifies it as a good game. However, in truth, it’s not a great game – The Howler really only has one idea and one mechanic only, and while it’s a great one, it’s a game that’s unlikely to stand the test of time. Comparable to other indie titles out there, The Howler is hurting for more content and even if you squeeze every last drop out of the game (which we’ll cover in a minute), nothing will really compel you to return in the future. In the here and now, though, for all that this game is, taken at face value? It’s decent.
One obvious downside to The Howler is its cripplingly short length. The game is only 79p/99c at regular price (less than a cup of coffee) and frequently goes on sale for less than that, although some may be let down by the fact there are only 15 levels within. Initially, this sounds short, but gameplay is beefed up on account of the fact that the game gets hard very quickly – you’ll be ripping your hair out in frustration about being stuck on the same level, always trumped by some tiny spike that popped you or the wind betraying you, or worse, surviving it all and running out of time. You’ll want to put your fist through your monitor, but by the time your new one arrives, you’ll want to play The Howler again. Perhaps this is the quality that attests to this game as a package. You’ll keep coming back for more, perhaps to overcome the game or just to keep shaving time off previous records. That combined with its bargain-basement price point makes this game a compelling package.
About the presentation: The Howler has some gorgeous handcrafted 2D graphics – in essence, everything about a game is handcrafted, but these are drawn. Every frame is a work of art and you might lose yourself just taking it all in, which would result in more frustration, but you’ll nearly be pacified at just how pretty it all is. LOOK at it! As for sound design, the game uses a really chilling and awesome bass track to punctuate the main menu, and as for levels, it relies on ambient sounds like bird song which really help to create atmosphere. Neglecting music for the levels themselves is a smart choice that helps to strengthen the game.
The Howler is not the best game in the world, but it’s a clever concept worthy of a buck that’ll keep you entertained for a few hours. Who can say fairer than that?
Verdict: Not complex or ground-breaking but achieves everything it sets out to do. Worthy of your time.