Twisted retellings of fairy tales aren’t a particularly new concept but they are a broad concept with lots of storytelling potential yet to be extracted. That’s presumably the thought process behind GriN’s Woolfe - The Red Hood Diaries, an upcoming action-adventure that casts Red Riding Hood as a hatchet-wielding avenger on a crusade against evil industrialist B.B. Woolfe (who is human, as far we know). While it’s a little too soon to be sure how well the final product will turn out, after playing a few demo-sized chunks of the game, I can say with confidence that the foundation is rock solid. It should be noted that action-adventure is likely to be the game’s de facto genre, as the title wears a lot of hats. It’s both action-platformer and puzzle-platformer, with the “action” part consisting of hack-and-slash combat, and it has a currently-unused “sneak” button, hinting at possible stealth elements. On the technical side, it’s officially considered a 2.5D sidescroller, but it’s more akin to the PS1 Crash Bandicoot perspective – full 3D movement but with level design that only weaves between a handful of z-axis positions.
Of these components, the platforming seems to be the most complete at this time and easily shows the most promise. Red Riding Hood’s movement has a loose, freeform quality to it with lofty jumping physics and smooth transitions between running and climbing. The ability to run, slide, climb, and jump in practically one fluid motion has immense potential for a satisfying experience, provided the game has the level design to match. Even if that doesn’t come to pass, at least the developer’s claims of cinematic quality appear to be valid – the crumbling wooden platforms and twisting tree roots of the demo’s forest level strike the perfect balance between constructed spectacle and organic challenge.
That Woolfe is also a puzzle game is an odd but not unwelcome decision. Nothing in the protagonist’s arsenal screams “to be used for puzzles”, so it looks like the puzzles are set to be the environmental kind – manipulating switches and positioning Red Riding Hood to be in the right place at the right time. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; environmental puzzles can be perfectly engaging and the pair of them showcased in the demo’s sewer level are solid early-game obstacles. How much they will continue to engage will depend on the variety of the environments and puzzle structures.
I can soundly vouch for the variety of the environments, at least. The three small areas I explored already contained more life and texture than most whole games. That’s not too surprising, since art design is clearly a focus of the game. Apart from the characteristic texture pop-in of the Unreal engine, Woolfe is beautiful. Its misty, intricate aesthetic is reminiscent of Trine, minus the overdesigning. Despite the level of detail, it’s usually easy to detect danger and paths with a glance (except water; lethal water needs to be more obvious). Finally, thanks to snippets of dialogue and environmental details, the world itself already feels more holistic and lifelike than a standard video game setting.
The combat in its current state is quite far removed from its promised conclusion. It’s currently just a matter of tapping X or Y until everything nearby is dead. GriN has declared that it will not be “mindless”, but that’s exactly what it is, for now. However, since there’s a magic system in the works, and the rest of the production has gone swimmingly, I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. If nothing else, the combat looks and sounds as wonderful as the rest of the game.
While we’re on the subject of positive impressions gleaned from mere hints, I find myself more intrigued than I expected to be by the taste of the game’s overall story that the demo provided. Red Riding Hood’s character seems much more complex and interesting than a simple inverted damsel in distress and the shift to a steampunk setting (complete with an industrialist villain whose previous incarnations were all forces of nature) introduces lots of new potential metaphors to the story. Ordinarily I would never be so optimistic about the sophistication of an unproven game narrative but since the developers claim inspiration from early versions of the fairy tale, it’s likely the story will be about more than it literally describes.
The game is still in an obvious alpha state – there’s no UI or progression to speak of and the mechanics’ potential depth is just potential. But what’s there is promising. Most speculation regarding unreleased games requires a lot of asterisks but Woolfe only has one: if it can handle its genre-balancing act, it will be a great game. If it can’t, it will still be a functional, attractive game, because it’s already a functional, attractive game. It’s scheduled for release in early 2015, so here’s hoping that time is used well.