I’ve often wondered what it’d be like to be Canadian and therefore a lumberjack. Apologies if that stereotype offends, I don’t really think all Canadians are lumberjacks. Some of you are Mounties too, but I know what that’s like, thanks to daytime TV. I’ve often imagined it a bourbon-swilling, axe-swinging sort of job. Holding away wolves with one blistered and splintered hand while felling trees right and left with the other. I didn’t however, think it would involve werewolves, rock traps and blessed bullets. Which shows how much I know about the logging industry.
Sang-Froid is, and I say this knowing that there are those of you out there who will instantly grimace at this, a tower defence game. Instead of creating paths for creeps to crawl along, you defend centralised structures from groups of foes that materialise on the boundary of the paths that already course through the forests. It’s a slight deviation from the traditional formulation of the genre, but it’s the twists in the combat that make the game so attractive.
The most compelling combat mechanic, and the one that keeps me returning to the game, is the fear factor. Not fear as seen in games already, where the protagonist becoming afraid leads to the screen warping or movement slowing to a crawl. Instead, this is the fear instilled by your character. Perhaps it’d be better framed if I called it a bravery mechanic instead; when approached by a pack of wolves, they won’t attack straight away like the mindless mobs of other games. The wolves instead move out. They surround you, blocking off your routes of escape. They slowly circle you, penning you in as a number in the corner of your screen grows ever larger. When this numerical symbol of the wolves’ bravery is greater than the fear your character can muster among the foes, they’ll move in as one to attack.
It’s bloody genius. I’m sick to the back teeth of enemies in games, be they giants, goblins or anthropomorphic mushrooms, rushing in to attack at the sight of the player character. If I’m playing a badass soldier, gun-wielding maniac or greatsword-wielding knight, it beggars belief that every foe would throw their lives away needlessly against the well-oiled muscles of my character. I have the strength to slaughter dragons in their dozens, so why are small-town bandits still so desperate to fight me? Sang-Froid has solved this problem and I want developers elsewhere to take note; this is how to frame your combat. If I stand clothed in bloody garments, yelling to the heavens (with yelling a vital ability in the game), I want my enemies to fear me and in Sang-Froid, they do. Wolves will back off a little, buying me the time to reload my musket or to down a bottle of whiskey, at the very sound of my oaths to heaven. It’s wonderful.
The enemies can detect the manly musk of your character too; a visual indicator of the direction the wind is blowing is vital to surviving in the dusk-laden woods. If an enemy is downwind of your character, they’ll track you until they lose the scent or until either of you has died. It’s another lovely touch to enhance the atmosphere of the game; after all, there’s nothing more tense than being tracked through the woods by an unseen lupine threat.
The combat itself is a typical third-person action game affair. Left-click whirls your melee weapon around, with right-click performing a heavier attack when enough rage has built up from chaining attacks. You can dive and dodge and by holding Ctrl, you can bring your old-fashioned rifle to bear. While I can’t fully attest to the historical accuracy of the rifles, they certain reload realistically. Where most modern games have you ram a rectangle into the bottom of your gun and you’re done, Sang-Froid wants to make reloading a tense choice in the heat of battle. Your character will ram the rifle full of gunpowder and a single bullet, slowly forcing it in place for your next shot; although the player can hasten the reloading by rapidly clicking, it only adds to the sheer panic when the wolves are almost ready to pounce and you’re still cramming that vital musket-ball into the rifle.
The only problem is that the combat isn’t very good. Attacks are limited by a stamina bar, which I assume is an attempt to prevent stun-locking, but it’s far too limiting in combat. When fighting an enemy like a werewolf with vast amounts of health, the battle is a long slog. You can attack once or twice and dive out of the way of the counter-attack (diving also uses up stamina), which makes each battle waste time you don’t have when enemies are attacking across the level. The alternative is chaining your attacks and using up most of your stamina, leaving you incapable of escaping their attacks. It’s an irritating dichotomy.
The only tactic I’ve found that works at all is to hit the booze hard. You can buy bottles of the hard stuff that can refill your stamina and health and through prodigious use of these, you can survive these battles, but the expense involved prevents the acquisition of better gear. This leaves you lagging behind the levels of defence and offence that you should be hitting, which in turn means more alcohol is needed and the vicious cycle continues.
Combat can be carefully minimised through sensible use of traps though, which although not enough to negate the problem, can certainly help. There’s direct damage traps, such as the wolf-traps and ballistae, net traps that you shoot to drop boulders on your foes and my particular favourite, the flame-based traps. The two that I saw the most use out of were the flame wall and bonfire traps: flame walls block off paths, forcing foes to run through the gauntlet of traps you’ve set up (the closest the game gets to traditional tower defence) and the bonfire boosts your fear factor, the flames causing enemies to act more cautiously while you stand near it.
The trappings of the game are a mixed bunch too. The aesthetics are crafted in wood and sweat, capturing a rustic and frontier feel. Cartoonesque folk live around the village and despite a strange tendency for these people to glide into the side of conversations, it’s a pleasant enough look. The soundtrack is folky and entirely fitting; it feels like a fiddler and drummer decided to take up residence in my ear and I really liked this aural invasion. In fact, I’d be more than happy to toss a few pounds on the purchase of the soundtrack should that become available in the future. However, the voice-acting is sub-par and incredibly off-putting; the voice-actors put out more ham and cheese than a sandwich shop. I found myself switching off the sound on my PC during dialogue sequences, not wishing to skip the intriguing plot because of the intolerable voicing.
Sang-Froid is perhaps not enough of a deviation from the tower-defence genre to convince critics. If you’re willing to look past the partially flawed combat, you’ll find a snow-covered fairy-tale with some really intriguing mechanics lurking beneath the wolf pelt of the genre conventions. Sang-Froid is currently available for pre-purchase on Steam, with instant access to the beta, and I can tentatively recommend a purchase, if only for the inspired fear-factor and scent mechanics.