The Best You’ve Never Played is a retrospective review series on ‘hidden gems’ – games that did not receive the level of recognition that they deserved. Perhaps they were part of a niche genre, or had too many flaws to attract a significant audience – nonetheless they are quality games that deserve your attention (to varying degrees).
The game is set in the 19th century Canadian wilderness as two brothers, Joseph and Jacques, try to protect and cure their sister whom is possessed by folkloric entities (though mainly werewolves). You can choose to play as either of the brothers, but playing as Joseph is easier, while playing as Jacques is considered ‘hard mode’; this seems as though it’s mainly due to the fact that Joseph is burlier and has more hit points, whereas Jacques has much less and thus must focus on traps. Game play consists of two phases – planning, and execution/survival. The first phase, the planning phase, takes place during the day, and consists of placing traps, visiting the town or Amerindian settlement to make purchases, investing skill points, and configuring your inventory. The player can only lay so many traps down during this phase, as each trap costs varying amounts of action points. After the traps are laid, spare action points can be converted into cash. The execution/survival phase happens at night, when the waves of mythical creatures attack your lone cabin. You take control of your chosen brother in third person mode, equipped with an axe and a rifle, ready to see through the execution of traps and strategies decided during the day. Each day and night cycle is one chapter – these are represented by days on a calendar. There are about 18 in total. Overall, the game offers about 10-12 hours of game play in one play through.
The relationship between the planning phase and the execution phase is brilliant. Most of the traps laid in the day phase, for instance, require an action from the player during the night phase to activate or use them. Perhaps the most interesting is the hanging net trap; after placing a heap of rocks suspended in air by trees during the day, the player is to then bait enemies underneath it at night, before firing a rifle slug at it from a distance, dropping it upon them below. Other traps, such as the bonfire, sacred tree, explosive barrel, and the wayside cross, simply require that the player walk up to it in the execution phase and press E. There is a great deal of tension caused in the relationship between these two game play phases as well. One has to consider exactly how much money and ‘action points’ to spend setting up traps during the day, versus what they think they can risk taking on in a fight during the night. Since Joseph has much more health, there’s more room for error, as leftover enemies are easily mopped up with the axe. Jacque, being more frail, has to plan more, and requires more combat skill, as he is not nearly as durable as Joseph. This hybrid game design is very well done; a gem of innovation. But of course, it’s not perfect – there is a lot of room for improvement. The third-person action game play is rather lackluster in terms of combat mechanics. It feels kinda clunky, and unlike a similar game called Hand of Fate, there is no attempt at mimicking the ‘FreeFlow’ combat system (made famous by Arkham Asylum). As the game progresses, more traps are added to the arsenal available during the planning phases. Unfortunately some of the traps acquired later on in the game are so powerful that there’s almost no reason to use some of the older ones. I found my beloved hanging net trap to be usurped by the likes of the exploding barrel, spike trap, and mortar. But despite its flaws, Sang-Froid is still one of the most interesting strategy games to come out in recent memory.
The game also does a good job at letting you survive in the way that you want. It features a sizable skill tree, identical for each brother, that allows the player to specialize in certain styles. Perhaps the easiest style of play is investing cash into weapons, and points into melee abilities, using Joseph to brute force your way through the game. This style of play also relies on the fear factor mechanic, which determines how intimidating you are to the enemies, and thus how likely they are to attack you. Fear factor can be manipulated by using the war shout to taunt enemies, or standing near a bonfire, among other things. For me, the game is at its best when playing as Jacques and specializing in trapping. This style of play requires a great deal of strategy and planning, so you’ll be spending a lot more time on the planning phase. There is also a ‘sniper’ style of play, which focuses on rifles, fast reload speeds, and hiding in watchtowers, but I have not found this style of play to be particularly effective.
It’s astonishing how many different ways the waves of enemies can be defeated by the plethora of traps. But this variety is curbed by the need for efficiency; using less traps means having more spare action points to convert into cash. There is an achievement for hoarding cash, but outside of actually having the cash, the game does not really reward players for being efficient. After a few days of playing as efficiently as possible, I had enough cash to buy the best axe from the hardware store, bless it, with still enough leftover for potions as well.
The game play is accompanied by a stellar original soundtrack that I found myself humming an alarming number of times. The music is very folk-heavy, with strings and traditional percussion instruments taking up the bulk of the focus. The intro loading screen, which is the first music you hear when you boot up the game, features a traditional French Canadian style of music known as Reel à Bouche. This style of music is notable for its attempt at mimicking the sound of folk instruments, such as the fiddle or accordion, with the mouth. It is quite good, as is the rest of the soundtrack; even if you do not play the game, the soundtrack alone is worth your time. Just don’t expect it to be on the same scale as Persona 5, Skyrim, or Cuphead.
The voice acting in this game ranges from decent to comical; it’s certainly not one of it’s strengths. The dialogue is in English, but you can hear a lot of French Canadian accents in the mix as well.
In terms of the art design and graphics, everything is decent. Nothing special, but certainly not bad by any means. The three dimensional graphics during the night phases, as well as the cutscenes, are probably the weakest part of the game in terms of its graphical fidelity. But considering this is an indie game, it’s impressive that it has polygonal graphics at all. Some cutscenes are simply voiced-over illustrations that pan across the screen. But most of the cut scenes take place between chapters, to set up the story – and they aren’t great. The character models are just sort of thrust into frame as a text box scrolls beneath them. The cut scenes, the graphics, and the voice acting are all constant reminders that this is not a triple-A release. But considering it’s an indie game, it’s passable. And the innovative game play more than makes up for it’s presentation shortcomings.
Considering this game came out quite a few years ago, some of you may be wondering why there haven’t been any sequels; I mean, the game’s full title – Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves, Tome I – sets itself up to be part of a series. Unfortunately, Artifice Studios went in another direction for their sophomore effort with the strategy title ConFlicks: Revolutionary Space Battles. Though I have not played this title, it is well-received on steam. That being said, I can only hope that Artifice Studios has something in mind for for the future of Sang-Froid.
Sang-Froid isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it’s sure to scratch a few itches for fans of the strategy and tower defense genres. And of course now that the game is free, the only toonies and loonies being spent will be at the Wolvesvale saloon, deciding between eau-de-vie and bagosse.