We’re accustomed to blockbuster films and AAA games being developed in conjunction with tie-in media of multiple formats, although it may come as a surprise to learn that an independent foreign novel also received the tie-in indie game treatment.
Enter The Howler, a 2-D physics based puzzler, where you use gravity and wind currents to guide a hot air balloon to its destinations and deposit cargo. The Howler was developed to tie-in with the Lithuanian bestselling steampunk novel Hour of the Wolf by author Andrius Tapina. The Howler was developed by a two man team also out of Lithuania. The artwork was hand drawn by Rene Petruliene, who is a classically trained artist. Antanas Marcelionis took care of the programming.
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, and also the setting of The Howler. Even though the game takes place in the year 1905, most of the buildings and locations still exist today. The giant iron wolf statue from the promotional art is the exception, although it is a character from Lithuanian folklore and used as the mascot for the Lithuanian military. Each level begins with a short abstract that sets the scene. The narrative is very light. I suspect that if you wish to know more, you must read the novel.
On the surface, The Howler appears to be your typical casual game with one button controls. Hold your finger on the screen to raise the balloon, and remove it to descend. There are arrows on the left side of the screen to indicate which direction the wind is blowing. Raise or lower the balloon to the desired height and traverse the sky, avoiding the structures along the way. It sound simple, but The Howler can be a seriously nerve-racking experience.
The charming aesthetic and basic tutorial levels don’t prepare you for the sudden difficulty spike, when the setting shifts from the skyline to guiding the balloon through narrow underground tunnels. As the touch controls are extremely sensitive, a series of perfectly timed short fast taps are required to avoid the structures surrounding you. Touching anything will cause the balloon to explode. There’s no musical score outside of the menu screen, so you are left with the soft ambient sounds of Vilnius. It’s quite a jarring experience when the relatively quiet atmosphere of the game gives way to an unexpected loud explosion as the balloon brushes up against the corner of a building or tower. It’s most surprising while wearing headphones.
The Howler also has an option to play with voice controls, for when you feel the need to annoy everyone around you. Make some noise and the balloon ascends, remain quiet and it descends. You also need to shout or scream to drop the balloon’s cargo. This gimmick is problematic, as there is no way to determine what the game recognises as your regular voice and what is recognised as a scream. It becomes extremely frustrating when you are simply trying to raise the balloon and the game recognises it as a scream and drops the cargo down a crevasse. If you enjoy the sound of your own voice, you are better off playing Singstar.
We don’t often link to other YouTubers, but for a perfect example of the voice controls, here’s some guy we’ve never heard named PewDiePie playing it:
Overall, The Howler is a simple, yet challenging experience, with a beautifully handcrafted aesthetic, which conceals the depth of the challenging gameplay. The voice controls are worth trying out once for a laugh, then returning to the traditional touch or click controls for the more difficult levels. Depending on your skill level, the game can take around an hour to complete.
The Howler is available for purchase right now on IOS, PC and MAC.
Michael Vane is a freelance writer who is learning more about geography from researching indie games than he ever did in school. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrVane