So, here’s a little something about me: I don’t like steampunk. More specifically, I really don’t like the hobbyist subculture that came en vogue a few years ago filled with people wearing pretentious clothing and taking on a fake old-timey accents, dropping “rather”s and “good sir”s every which way they turn. Now sure, I can objectively look at a lot of steampunk costumes and props and see a great deal of time, effort and intricacy that went into making them. However, subjectively, I just don’t see the point in strapping a bunch of sepia-toned materials to yourself and walking around ready to pose at a 45-degree-angle at any given time. I admit I’ve actually enjoyed things with a steampunk setting, such as Final Fantasy VI, but beyond the few exceptions, the concept is just tedious and unnecessary in my honest opinion. It’s just a way for people with way too much time and money on their hands to lord their superior craft-making ability over the slobs who pollute their surroundings, while harkening to a bygone era that never really happened, complete with phonographs, telescopes coming out of everything and steam-powered balloons from which elegant daguerreotypes can be taken of men with handlebar moustaches.
Okay, I promise I’m not going to spend the whole time complaining about a hobby and fashion statement that, quite frankly, I can easily ignore. I just wanted to throw my disdain out there both to fully disclose my perspective and also to set up the game I plan on discussing today. Once again I found myself on Steam and happened along a game that, in spite of my normal avoidance, did manage to pique my curiosity with its steampunk aesthetic. The game promised a art “meticulously crafted by classically-trained experienced painters.” Though the words “crafted” and “classically-trained” also tend to be red flags to me, I was genuinely interested in possibly enjoying some really good art while playing a fun little game. In spite of all my complaints, I do enjoy art and wanted to support something that got dedicated artists some exposure. This was the reason I bought and played “The Howler”, the game of touch and scream.
The Howler is a self-described casual strategy game where you try to pilot a hot-air balloon from one side of a stage to another, utilizing the physics of your transportation with various tasks thrown in to add to the challenge. The game can be played a few ways, though I played on a desktop so I tried both mouse and voice controls. As the name suggests, you can “howl” into a microphone to navigate, or simply click your left mouse button repeatedly to affect the heights to which your balloon soars. The direction your balloon would be determined by which region of the sky you were in, with different winds blowing at different heights. Should you either run into an obstacle too much or fly too high, your balloon will be lost. The ultimate goal was to reach a designated spot, often after delivering a package or other object from one place to another.
But how well does this work? Does the gimmick of voice control manage to remain novel as you play? Well how much do you like yelling nonsense in a room by yourself, with some random noises not necessarily working as well as others? I found the voice control aspect to be obnoxious, pointless and somewhat broken. I’m sure I was expected to shout “I say!” or “Rather good!” or “Pretentious overcoat!” but it wasn’t long before I broke down to just yelling incoherently, hoping it would push my balloon around as needed to match up with the increasingly frustrating wind patterns. While not inherently impossible to figure out, the required objectives included in each level make it unnecessarily complicated to navigate the strange mixed-media steampunk towns. Oh, and making the wrong sound or slipping up can cause you to drop a package without meaning to.
So what about the art, the point that actually won me over? To be honest, it’s very good. There’s a very nice cohesion to the watercolor city and the detailed buildings which create an interesting dynamic between the depth of the distant background and the flatness of the city stage. What does sort of ruin this, however, are the elements of the game clearly added after the fact: the icons, text and explosions. The effects added to the gameplay aspect of The Howler stand out in such a way that does the art a disservice.
I will admit, there could easily be a touchscreen version of this game that works very well. However, I am not able to speak towards its capabilities. I can only attest to what it’s like to click incessantly or scream inanely. The Howler is not special. Its gimmick is annoying, its gameplay is irritating, its style is pretentious, and its art is wasted. Though there may be more venom in my assessment due to my distaste for steampunk, the game itself is also just not worth playing. Whatever inkling you may have to check it out should be redirected to looking up some good watercolor art. I promise it will be far more satisfying.