Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood Review
Developer: Cyanide Studio | Publisher: Nacon | Genre: Action-Adventure | Platforms: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/ X, PC | Reviewed on: PS5
Pity the werewolf: often seen as the brutish alternative to the seductive vampire, they are ever in the shadow of other classic monsters in popular fiction. It often seems like the best a werewolf can get is to be a side character in a love triangle. Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood, an early contender for 2021’s wordiest title, has the potential to be something great. Unfortunately, with muddled gameplay and lackluster storytelling, the game’s ambitions are greater than its capabilities.
Earnest Worldbuilding, So-So Storytelling
Earthblood is bursting with big ideas and themes. The game exists in the World of Darkness universe, a tabletop RPG setting where mages, vampires, and werewolves vie for power on the world stage. Fans of 2004’s Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines will feel right at home with the many factions and operatives at play. Earthblood has a lot on its mind, and as the first video game adaptation of Werewolf: The Apocalypse, it’s clear that developer Cyanide Studio wanted to show that they were familiar with the source material. But in the process of worldbuilding, basic storytelling takes a hit.
Within minutes of Earthblood‘s opening mission, conflicts arise between big ideas and effective, small-scale storytelling. Player character Cahal, bearded, tattooed, and muscled, is leading a raid on an Endron energy corporation facility with his crew. Like a less charismatic Avalanche, the eco-terrorists from Final Fantasy VII, Cahal’s pack is out to sabotage anything related to the two-faced Endron. The job goes smoothly until it doesn’t; Cahal’s wife, predictably, doesn’t make it out of the facility alive. Blinded with rage, Cahal kills a member of his own pack and decides that he would rather live in exile than endanger those he loves. There’s a lot of drama, but not a lot of nuance. What players probably think will happen, happens.
Once the opening tutorial mission is over, there’s a five-year fast-forward, during which Cahal has presumably been mourning his wife’s death and honing his skills. Cahal finds himself drawn to his old pack in the Pacific Northwest, where his daughter Aedana holds a grudge against him for leaving her. But in the intervening years since Cahal has been away, it’s not just Aedana who has grown distant. Gaia, the Earth herself, is losing the fight against The Wyrm, a corrupting influence. Normally the forces of The Wyld, The Weaver, and The Wyrm keep each other in check. But with Gaia’s warriors losing their edge over the years, The Wyrm has shifted the balance. With the help of Endron and other shadowy figures, The Wyrm is hell-bent on destroying or subverting all life on the planet.
If that sounds like a lot of proper nouns, that’s because it is. To Earthblood‘s credit, the player can understand the conflict at hand, even without knowing all the specifics. The big evil energy corporation is a front for The Wyrm, Cahal is a warrior of Gaia who must fight to restore balance even if his personal losses weigh him down, there is a father and daughter conflict at the heart of everything that lends a personal touch the proceedings at hand. But while the big-picture stuff is more or less fine, the storytelling that characterizes Cahal and his relationships is clumsy and forced.
After his five-year self-imposed exile, it is understandable that Cahal’s return to his Caern and reunion with his daughter would be awkward. Think of the strained relationship between Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us Part II, or Kratos and Atreus in God of War. But whether due to writing, animation, or a combination of the two, the relationship between Cahal and his daughter Aedana never quite feels believable. It is likely a matter of time spent with the characters, as the game tells but does not show the effects of Cahal’s five long years away. He’s even wearing the same high-collared leather vest from the first mission, like he went for a short walk in the woods rather than off the grid while his daughter grew into an adult. This feeling isn’t limited to Aedana, either. Side characters greet Cahal by saying they miss him, then proceed to exposition-dump everything he might need to know for upcoming missions.
Flashes of something more interesting flare beneath the surface. Not everyone in Cahal’s pack is a full-on Garou, a shapeshifting wolf warrior. Some are simply humans who have allied themselves to the cause. This is an interesting dynamic that is barely explored, even in optional conversations and collectibles. It’s a shame, as the World of Darkness is ripe for a complicated story engaging with the shifting power dynamics of the thirteen Garou tribes spread across the globe. Earthblood sprinkles in some collectibles that hint at the larger world, but most of the action and story is focused on Cahal and those surrounding him. Not every game can be a globe-trotting spectacle, and Earthblood does change settings a few times, but there is rarely the sense that Cahal’s actions are having an impact on Gaia and other Garou.
There are a few genuinely intriguing characters. Badass leader of the Lambda Mankind (the Garou’s human allies) Ava is a hacker who can open any door, anywhere, and keeps Cahal focused on the larger mission. Pack leader Rodko is a total badass, a lithe, white-haired, straight-talking authority figure. Frustratingly, there are just as many characters who are introduced but don’t get the change to shine; some are even unceremoniously disposed of offscreen. It would be interesting to see a “director’s cut” of Earthblood as certain characters’ development feels undercooked.
The World of Darkness is loaded with storytelling potential. Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood does a good job making players care about broad concepts, but when it gets down to specifics, the game falters. This extends to the gameplay, too.
All You Need is Kill
In Earthblood, there are a surprising amount of systems at play. Player character Cahal, the powerful shapeshifting Garou, can freely flow between a wolf, a man, and the Crinos, a towering, rage-fueled beast. Exploring levels mostly requires Cahal to remain in human form since the wolves can not interact with technology like computers or door terminals. Cahal also has a crossbow for long-range stealth and can perform Batman-style takedowns if he sneaks up behind an enemy. While the variety of mechanics is welcome, they tend to lack depth. All of Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood‘s systems, from stealth, to combat, to role-playing elements, could have used a little more playtesting to be truly memorable.
Easily the most satisfying element of Earthblood is the smooth transition from man to wolf. Cahal can morph into a lithe Lupus with the press of a button, a near-instantaneous transformation that lets Cahal move more quickly and quietly than he does in his human form. But after a few encounters sneaking around enemy facilities, players will notice that the stealth systems are half-baked at best and tedious at worst. Good stealth encounters should feel tense, with the threat of discovery a looming and constant threat. But Earthblood‘s stealth encounters rarely reach a level of significant tension, and even go so far as to be completely immersion-breaking. Enemy soldiers have extremely set patterns, and there is little sense of dynamism during stealth. There are wolf-high walls in abundance, and wolf-sized vents to crawl through. Even security cameras are easily avoided by simply shooting them out with a crossbow bolt while Cahal is in human form, but the crossbow itself feels anachronistic. Earthblood is set in the modern world, and the pack’s elite hacker seems able to access any network at any time, even though she’s operating out of a tent in the woods. Why is the enemy leaving boxes of crossbow bolts around when not a single soldier uses them to fight?
Cahal can’t even pick up a rifle or pistol during battle, perhaps the reason he shifts into Crinos form once it becomes clear that conflict is unavoidable. The Crinos is admittedly awesome, and lets players do the thing that every werewolf game should let players do: rip hapless humans to pieces with terrifying, brutal efficiency. But the fact that Earthblood makes stealth a priority undercuts the Crinos’ combat even further. Cahal can rip through nearly every encounter as the Crinos with zero consequences. There is no incentive to prioritize stealth, as health resets after every battle. Players don’t earn more or less experience for choosing not to engage with enemies; there is no Dishonored-style morality system at play.
This is perhaps the greatest failing of Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood. Early in the story, a great deal of fuss is made over the fact that Cahal succumbs to his rage. But in actual gameplay, there is no reason not to. The Crinos’ combat effectiveness is undeniable, and in fact, the greater the rage, the more moves Cahal can pull off during a fight. The rage combat is satisfying, if a little button mash-y. The Crinos has an agile stance and a heavy stance, with different combos and powerful special moves. Build up enough hits, and the Crinos can become fully enraged for a limited period of time. While enraged, the Crinos’ attacks are nigh-uninterruptable and extremely powerful. It’s both a rush and a bit of a guilty pleasure to mow down hoards of hapless Endron goons as the Crinos.
Earthblood makes a point early on in the story not to feel too badly about killing anyone who works for Endron. They may be human, but to Cahal and his Caern, they’ve sold their souls to work for the enemy. After a certain point in the game, this is made even more explicitly clear- their humanity is stripped away, and Cahal can slay with impunity.
The stealth is serviceable, and the combat is fine, if a bit repetitive. But the RPG elements of Earthblood are sadly lacking, if not altogether nonexistent. There is precisely one meaningful choice to be made towards the end of the campaign. While there are a few branching dialogue trees throughout the campaign, they rarely result in anything significant. It’s surprising that in this game based off a tabletop RPG, the role-playing takes a backseat. What players are left with is a mishmash of ideas, some more fully explored than others. The end result is certainly playable, and the campaign is short enough that players can see the end without too much effort. But the promise of a fleshed out World of Darkness, full of intrigue and meaningful choices, is never fulfilled.
A Waning Moon
Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood has a lot going for it. The worldbuilding is solid overall, even if it doesn’t reach its full potential. After obtaining a few upgrades on the skill tree, combat feels solid. But there’s an emptiness at this game’s core, a feeling of weightlessness. Earthblood pours a lot into convincing the player that Cahal’s rage is a real, dangerous presence lurking just beneath the surface. But when the rage finally boils over, it can’t help but feel a little inconsequential. If a player wants to rip through every room with gleeful, bloody abandon, they can do so. It is perhaps to the developer’s credit that the game doesn’t attempt to moralize, but to see the player’s choices have any sort of impact would be far preferable. For fans of thrash metal, werewolves, and third-person beat-em-ups, this game will scratch a certain itch. But for those looking for an in-depth roleplaying experience with satisfying stealth encounters, they would do better to look elsewhere.