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From the screenshots, you might mistake Sang-froid: Tales of Werewolves for an action game. You can play it that way, but you’ll discover a not very good action game. You’ll get through a few early missions easily enough. But you’re Doing It Wrong. This isn’t an action game. It’s barely even a real time strategy game. This is mostly a cerebral strategy game about studying a map, considering your resources, setting up traps, and then executing your plan carefully. If you’re flailing around with your axe, it’s because plans A, B, and C have failed. Sang-froid has more in common with the early Rainbow Six games than with the typical tower defense game.

Also, there are wolves. Sang-froid has a lot of wolves.

After the jump, good moon rising

The beauty of Sang-froid’s strategic braininess is how many options you have. You have to defend your quaint 19th century homestead from wolves and worse for a series of December nights up until Christmas. The first week or so of this 20 day saga is mostly gimmes as Sang-froid carefully unfurls its gameplay mechanics, introducing the complex, inventive, elegant wolf-killing tools. The unfurling will go on for quite some time. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you see something else the next night.

Along the way, it starts to get difficult. The werewolves start to push back harder than you expected. It can get overwhelming. If you’re expecting the usual idiot-proof tower defense games, you’ve got another thing coming. You’ll have to replay some levels, either fine tuning your plan or scrapping it completely in favor of something else. These levels are delightfully challenging, but not necessarily in the usual “figure out the level designer’s solution” way. They’re challening for how many ways you have to set up a plan and how many ways it can fall apart. Maybe your bonfire flickered out too early or you missed the shot to drop a carefully placed net or a third werewolf didn’t lend its weight to trigger a spike trap or the wind is carrying your scent through the trees. You’ll get it eventually. Ad the exultation from beating a mission is all yours, and not something a level designer scripted when you solved his puzzle. There’s even some nifty persistence across the maps that would break any rigidly dictated level designer puzzles.

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The traps and tools are just one third of the equation. The second third of the equation is a set of cleverly realized creatures who aren’t just the usual trap fodder. These creatures have unique behaviors. One of the first things Sang-froid unfurls is how wolves aren’t just monsters blindly running at you. Furthermore, their behavior isn’t some under-the-hood black box. There are numbers and indicators, and they figure into how you build your character and what you do. A shout might buy you time against the wolves circling your bonfire, letting you reload your gun for another shot. But it’ll also attract more wolves, which means more of them getting brave sooner. You know when a wolf is getting brave enough to lunge. You know when the pack is going to muster the courage to swarm you. You know how dire the situation is as you calculate whether it’s worth reloading your musket.

The final third of the equation is the world you’re defending. It starts as a single cabin in the woods. It grows to be so much more than that. Eventually, you spend the day moving among a fully realized community, making preparations to survive the night. Would you bless these four bullets, Sister? I better get some whiskey at the saloon. Do I dare spend some time chopping wood to make money for one of those powerful Indian charms? Or would I be better served by a well placed powder keg?

I love that Sang-froid has a storyline to tie this all together, and I even like the dialogue and artwork used to tell it. And what an amazing soundtrack! Too bad Sang-froid is saddled with aggressively flat voicework that sucks some of the energy out of the writing. Which is a shame, because these are memorable characters who deserve better.

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It’s also disappointing that the developers don’t provide any longer term metagame beyond the day-to-day story structure. Not only can you not replay the levels without resetting your progress, but there’s no scoring mechanism anyway. Consider what an important element scoring is for Orcs Must Die 2, Toy Soldiers: Cold War, and any other tower defense game worth its salt. And what kind of tower defense game doesn’t have a survival mode to throw all the monsters and traps into a big box to let everything unfold as it will?

Something as imaginatively conceived and cunningly executed as Sang-froid needs a longer lifespan than its 20 calendar days. Games this good don’t come around often enough, and this one could probably only come from a group of independent and inexperienced developers who don’t know enough to know that what they’re doing is, well, kind of unprecedented. Did these guys really mean to reinvent tower defense by premising everything on their cannily imagined Canadian werewolf mythology? Or were they just making a game they thought would be cool? Some genius is inadvertent. Whatever the case, Sang-froid: Tales of Werewolves is one of my favorite recent indicators that strategy gaming is alive, well, and thriving creatively.

5 stars
PC