Fruit continue to drop from the branches of gaming’s well-nourished Kickstarter tree (fill yourself a bucket – these things are are nearly covering the ground), and among the recent crop to fall to earth is Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries. A labour of love from small indie GRIN Gamestudio, Woolfe is certainly one tasty-looking snack on the outside, but turns out to have a few yucky brown bits hiding under the skin when you bite into it.
Leaving weird fruit metaphors aside for a moment, Woolfe acts as a pretty good summary of the potential and perils of the Kickstarter model. There’s a lot to like about the game, and in many ways it’s a real achievement for the team that made it. On the other hand, there isn’t so much a lack of polish here as there is a lack of glue. It’s a little bit broken, and you can’t help but wish that the GRIN team had been able to bring a few more resources to bear on the game.
Woolfe repurposes the classic Little Red Riding Hood story in a now-familiar way, pulling out lightbulbs and trucking in dirt until everything is the required level of dark and gritty. Little Red Riding Hood appears here as a tough-talking young woman out to discover the truth about and then avenge her father’s death at the hands of industrial tycoon B.B. Woolfe, ruling tyrant of the steampunk-flavoured city of Ulrica.
To take Red through her mission of vengeance, players will platfrom her through the 2.5D streets, across the roofs, and through the sewers of Ulrica, before heading into the surrounding forest.
Them’s some pretty streets. By far and away the biggest success of Woolfe are its lovingly-created environments. Red jogs or sneaks past ornate woodwork, vaulted stone, and icy waters in the city, then leaps and platforms around a forest now scarred by some kind of industrial magic accident. Floating islands and twisted trees above a bottomless void provide some beautiful vistas, all of them gorgeously lit in an appropriately fantastical way.
American McGee’s Alice games seem like a clear inspiration, and not just on the level design, but on the story and tone as well – imagine a world where the Pied Piper of Hamelin is a serial abductor of young women, and you’ll start to get a pretty clear picture. The dark fairytale theme and world building, enacted through Red’s narration and document discovery, is okay as far as it goes – even if we have seen this sort of treatment and characters before – and is certainly helped along by the art direction. Where the game runs into trouble though, sadly, are the game bits.
Red is wielding an axe early in the game and is forced to use it against a variety of enemies. Although she learns special attacks as the game progresses, combat is still largely a button-bash-and-hope affair. Here the player’s main advantages will come not through eventually learning an axe throw move, but rather in noticing things like the fact that most enemies seemingly can’t run up stairs. As if to compensate, the game throws in bugs like Red suddenly dropping dead mid-fight with what appears to be plenty of her health bar left.
The platforming often doesn’t fare much better. Those environments might look nice, but at times it’s extremely difficult to accurately judge depth, and collision detection can seem vague. These problems are only exacerbated when the game gets out of the city and Red is trying to jump around in the void on moving rocks festooned with insta-death spikes and surrounded by fatal falls.
Prepare to be genuinely surprised when Red reveals she is in fact on same plane as a spiky log by ramming it with her face.
A magic-vision mode highlights grabbable ledges and platforms, but certain leaps in the game seem more a matter of flailing at the jump and directional buttons at random and hoping than a matter of precision. Not this time? Ooo, tough break – back to that checkpoint you go. The game is being released in two parts, and this first section only clocks in at three hours or so before ending on a cliffhanger, but at times you might feel like you’ve been playing it for about a week solid.
All-in-all, Woolfe is a frustrating experience, and that’s not just due to the gameplay; what seems like some obvious talent at GRIN is on tantalising display at times, but the overall package never succeeds in doing justice to it. Fingers crossed it turns out to be a good learning experience for the team that allows for them to move onwards and upwards.