Friday, February 16

Review: Joe Dever's Lone Wolf [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While the system hasn’t even been out for an entire year yet the depth and diversity of the Switch lineup is truly something to behold. While not every type of game is represented, or at least not necessarily well, it has quickly become a system with games that can suit any taste from the most hardcore to highly casual. Since there’s such strong indie representation on the system what excites me most is the quantity of the unexpected titles, ones that do things a bit different and take risks in order to deliver a new experience. Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf can be challenging to describe well on paper, marrying a strong text-based narrative with a solid dose of player agency with consequences, and then topping it off with strategic and engaging combat.


Starting with the text-based narrative, since that may be the game’s most unusual quality, I’ll quickly admit that I dig it but it also checks personal boxes of mine. First, the basis for the title comes from gamebooks by the author Joe Dever, and though I never read them their nature reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I enjoyed as a kid. These had a central story but would give you choices to make along the way, letting you participate in the story and explore alternative outcomes (though most of them involved death). That concept is very present throughout, with you choosing specific skills and attributes up-front that will shape some of your core combat abilities and options you’ll then have through the course of the adventure. As the story unfolds you’ll then have decisions to make, some carrying consequences at a more granular battle level and some with further-reaching effects. On occasion I’d play around and go back to change a decision and it can be the difference in having to fight additional battles in some cases, though with loot you gain from battle sometimes that can be more helpful than a chore. Overall, having enjoyed this style of narrative as a kid, but then also having been a fan of classic text-based games like Zork and even online MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons, text-based forebears of modern MMORPGs), the style and quality of the narrative I found very engaging.



If the game was merely an interactive novel of sorts, where you’re simply making decisions that branch the storyline, it would be nice but probably not very exciting… and that’s where the crucial component of the game’s combat comes into play. Playing out with a heavy mix of strategy, quicktime-event-like action, and some flair this is probably the crucial element that will either make you a believer or leave you feeling cold. The best I can describe it would be to call it “active turn-based” in nature, which took some getting used to at first. However, as the game progressed and the challenge increased it completely hooked me even as it had a tendency to kick my ass. I’ll be very clear, without dropping to the Easy difficulty there are some battles in the game that are going to make you want to rip your hair out… but in a good way. If you fail to make smart use of your special Kai powers, don’t maximize the benefit of your attacks and dodge opportunities, or don’t use your items wisely to keep yourself alive and pile on the enemy damage you’re going to struggle in key spots. There are times when the RNG gods aren’t being kind to you but in the majority of fights I lost it wasn’t hard to pick out the points where I could have been smarter, more efficient, or executed better. The game’s combat demands that you rise to its challenge but I wouldn’t say it is cruel. You just need to use the early battles to explore different combinations of weapons (I preferred to dual wield over using a shield), understand the effects and best use of your various Kai skills, and then make efficient use of your supplemental items like throwing knives (or crossbow bolts), potions, and various consumables. Though they play a lesser role there’s a rudimentary lockpicking interface that fails to be as well-executed as it’s obvious target of Skyrim and further into the game there are some fun 3D puzzle cubes you’ll need to configure as well for some variety.


Not to slow your interest if this all sounds like fun but to ignore the problems the game has, in particular with regards to its interface, would be a disservice. It’s a bit of an odd bird honestly, although having come from the touch-screen tablet space the game only seems to work with the physical controls. To be clear, in combat I think this is for the best as the button presses, swipes, and slashes feel good with the controller (once you’re used to them) and I’ve always found such controls wonky on-screen when playing mobile games. The issue comes into play with the way the visual interface was designed and the fact that the physical controls here are very cumbersome and at times can even be aggravating. You’ll end up fiddling around at times just trying to move to your next goal and it isn’t too burdensome but it does show a lack of refinement. Similarly, the merchant interface is very slow to navigate and use with oddities like you typically being moved to the bottom of the list of everything you’ve ever sold before when you sell an item, forcing you to move back to where you were. Outside of the interface sometimes the controls can feel a little picky, with you missing a slash you executed but perhaps not perfectly right, but the majority of the time when you’re in action the game shines, it just gets bogged down with maintenance tasks.


While Lone Wolf isn’t without its flaws it is also one of the most maddeningly addictive games I’ve played on the system to date. At almost 20 hours in I’m still sensing there’s a way to go and aside from it putting a cramp in getting things done I can’t say I’m complaining. Throughout the game there’s a slow and steady escalation of difficulty, new items to experiment with and upgrade, and always challenges that will demand that your tactics evolve and adapt. In particular if you love a good story and thrilling combat action I’d say that Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf is well worth your time at its very reasonable price, and I’m very hopeful that we can see a sequel that starts over with consoles in mind from the ground up to see its weaknesses addressed.


Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • A fantastic and engagingly-written story, complete with branching paths that carry consequences
  • Fabulous strategic combat that will challenge your tactics as well as your reflexes
  • A tremendous amount of content for a very reasonable price

Cons:
  • The interface is a bit of a hot mess at times and can be aggravating
  • Though there is in-game help for many aspects of the game you won’t discover all of its nuance without some experimentation and analysis
  • Some choke point battles will challenge your patience and sanity