A man walks into a room filled with armed employees of an evil corporation that profits off harming the planet. Heavy-metal music kicks in as the man transforms into a fur-covered whirlwind of claws and fangs. One murder-filled moment later the music fades and the beast reverts to human form, quietly exiting the now egregiously blood-soaked room. This is the core gameplay loop of Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Earthblood, and I am here for it.
Developed by Cyanide and out today for Xboxes, PlayStations, and PC, Earthblood is an action role-playing game based on the Werewolf: The Apocalypse tabletop RPG. Part of the same World of Darkness setting that houses Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf is a game about clans of intelligent, eco-warrior werewolves fighting against pollution, corporate greed, vampires, and just about anything else they can sink their claws into. It’s about protecting our mother Earth by harnessing wild supernatural gifts, striking out against resource-hoarding corporations and other forces contributing to the end of the world. The titular apocalypse? The werewolves would like it not to happen.
It’s on a mission against one of those corporations, an oil company called Endron, that Earthblood protagonist Cahal loses his wife and murders one of his clanmates in the resulting, rage-fueled rampage. Five years of self-imposed exile later, Cahal helps thwart an Endron attack on his old clan’s home base. Driven by his need for redemption and the desire to reunite with his estranged daughter, Cahal rejoins the fight, doing the same things he was doing five years earlier, only with a much more dramatic backstory.
There’s something about Cahal that I find so compelling. He’s this big, bald, brooding, bearded beast of a man who was already rough around the edges before watching his wife be brutally murdered right before his eyes. Now he’s this werewolf loose cannon who might give into his rage but dammit, he gets results. Maybe I’m drawn to the beard, so big and bushy. Maybe it’s his face, barely moving but so much more expressive than the game’s dead-eyed NPCs. It could be the fact that Cahal can instantly transform into a very good boy indeed.
It’s mostly the dog thing. Outside of battle, Cahal has the ability to transform at-will into a wolf. His skin flakes off into dust, his form shifts, and boom, suddenly Mr. Gruffy McBeardy is the bestest feral puppers you ever did see. The transformation effect is so smooth and neat, it makes me smile every time I do it.
Cahal’s human form is for sneaking about, manipulating technology, and interacting with other characters. As a human he can sneak up on enemies and take them out quietly or snipe at them from afar with his trusty crossbow. Wolf form is for running fast, slipping through air vents, and basically being the silliest doggers ever. Maybe that’s just me.
While there are some situations I’ve encountered where being detected leads to a “game over,” stealth is generally optional in Earthblood. You can slink through the corridors of Endron facilities, taking canine shortcuts through the air vents or waiting for the right moment for a human-form takedown. Many of the game’s encounters can be skipped with skillful application of stealth, but where’s the fun in that?
Initiating battle activates Cahal’s “crinos” form, the powerful amalgamation of man and beast most people picture when they think “werewolf.” Cahal’s crinos form is a terrible, towering murder machine, all claws and teeth and blood-soaked fur. The beast has two stances, agile and heavy, one for fast attacks and agile dodging, the other for hard-hitting slow strikes that devastate enemies. It can grab enemies and execute them, or throw them around like toys.
This is when the heavy-metal music kicks in, and it’s the best possible accompaniment to this virtual brutality. Cahal’s hybrid form tears into his enemies with a meaty physicality that makes my canine teeth ache with satisfaction.
When the battle is over, Cahal automatically reverts to human form. It’s a bit of a bummer. I wouldn’t mind just wandering about in two-legged beast form, trying to comically crouch behind too-small crates or operate set decoration vending machines. But no, I become a man once more, a puny human trudging through a sea of blood. Seriously, the blood in this game is so excessive it’s hilarious.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Earthblood isn’t a masterpiece. The character models, aside from Cahal’s, have a real budget-game feel, staring off into space and barely emoting as they deliver dramatic dialogue. The enemy AI in stealth situations isn’t great, this being the sort of game where you can choke a guard to death completely unnoticed feet away from another guard as long as they’re facing away from you.
The story is pretty standard Werewolf: The Apocalypse fare, but that’s not so bad considering this is only the second released game based on the nearly 30-year-old property. The first, Different Tales’ Werewolf: The Apocalypse Heart of the Forest, was released just last year. It’s a very cool text-based adventure that captures the spirit of the pen-and-paper RPG much better than Earthblood, which is nice, but it’s nowhere near as stupid fun.
I played a lot of White Wolf’s World of Darkness games in the mid-’90s. I played tabletop. I attended live-action role-playing events. I ran a BBS called “Atlanta By Night,” where dozens of modem-users would log in to roleplay their vampire and werewolf characters. I even used to help out in the Atlanta-based company’s warehouse in exchange for free sourcebooks and t-shirts. That version of me, ‘90s me, would have loved Earthblood so much. He’d sit in his dingy apartment living room, wearing black clothing, eyeliner, and an oversized silver ankh necklace, playing the game for hours. He’d crank the volume up high, until the metal shook the walls, gritting his teeth with feral joy as Cahal made blood puddles all over Endron’s stupid linoleum floors.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Earthblood turns me back into that early-20-something goth-wannabe. He was stupid, but knew how to have a good time, just like this game.