The indie space has always been full of surprises in the gaming space, taking risks and making changes that established players are more reluctant to try, and that has provided plenty of gems down the years. Now, there’s one more addition to the list, with the 12-person team over at The Astronauts delivering a diamond in the rough that is Witchfire in Early Access on the Epic Games Store.
A roguelite first-person shooter might not seem like the kind of game that the folks behind The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will create, but the team’s experience with both Bulletstorm and Painkiller is put to good use for this outing into a magical medieval world, full of dangerous creatures and environments engineered to do just one thing – give the player hell.
The concept of Early Access brings with it some caveats, mainly that the game is still in need of improvements and refinements, but at the heart of it, the combat and upgrading systems are already solid, which bodes well for anyone looking to spend an extended amount of time hunting.
Casting players as a Preyer, an individual capable of escaping death and wielding magical powers alongside more conventional weapons, the overarching goal in each territory in Witchfire is to eliminate the Witch’s Familiar. That’s easier said than done, with the game emphasising the need for skill over arbitrarily higher numbers, with the challenge never truly subsiding.
By surviving expeditions or taking the opportunities to cut short a run to accrue Volatile Witchfire, players can then use it for a variety of upgrades; increased health, stamina, and even luck are indeed helpful, but as the Preyer gets stronger, so does the enemy. The Witch isn’t content with letting a powered-up hunter spoil her plans, and in comes stronger enemy variants, additional environmental traps, and an empowered Familiar that will be a nasty surprise.
Death comes at a regular cadence, especially for those who think that higher numbers naturally translate to an easier time. There is still significance, but ultimately, it is the skill of the player that makes the difference. Knowing the intricacies of the weapons equipped, understanding the lay of the land, and taking up smart positions will make life easier for any Preyer.
It can be an overwhelming experience after players go beyond the initial stages of just having a lone hand cannon as a companion. Throw in light and heavy spells, relics, accessories, and special weapons that utilize demonic ammo, and the depth of Witchfire shows, even in Early Access. However, that is tempered by the repetition required to even unlock these options in the first place, allowing players plenty of time to get familiar with everything.
Fulfilling certain conditions for the various weapons, spells, and items will unlock more powerful versions to bring out to the field, making it worthwhile to stick with a loadout that best suits your play style. Rather than risk incurring the wrath of the Witch by upgrading stats, improved weaponry and the increasing familiarity of using them is a much better leveller against the enemy.
There’s also a slightly awkward stamina system in place to reward players for strategic play. Every foe vanquished pushes the maximum limit up, eventually placing players in Focus, which then reveals a Soul Sigil that can be shot at for instantaneous stuns on enemies. The added capacity to dash and jump around definitely helps when faced with mobs, but the bonus stun mechanic is hard to appreciate when Sigils are often positioned just off the top of enemies. This makes it counterintuitive to pursue during heated combat, and the red tint that comes with the Focus state doesn’t help either. Depending on your preference, you might find the standard gameplay to be enough for most scenarios.
Naturally, the gameplay loop reveals itself in its full, albeit truncated glory. Head out on expeditions, fight and clear areas of otherworldly nasties, gain additional powers, seek out collectibles for the Pope, and try to make it out alive via portals or eliminating a Familiar. In between, death will become a constant bedfellow, but the knowledge gained is most certainly worth it.
Of course, Witchfire is not without its issues at this stage. Combat is fast-paced and intense, with ranged and melee dangers lurking in the numerous corrupted areas, but none are quite as frustrating as getting stuck in a piece of geometry and getting walloped. There is an option in the in-game menu to help players get unstuck, so get ready for some hairy moments throughout your time in the game made even worse by a rock or a tree.
The game also suffers from having too little variety in objectives, especially when it comes to the events that can occur in each of the territories. There are only so many cursed chests and duplicitous wisps to go through before things get too predictable and repetitive. On occasions, locations marked as areas that should be teeming with enemies turn out to be empty, making the trek to get there a futile one. And in terms of information, consumable items and collectibles can be hard to discern in the world, which shouldn’t be the case when everything else is in place quite nicely.
At its present state, Witchfire is more than a serviceable roguelite delivered as a first-person shooter. The core that is the combat and the various systems supporting it are well-placed to drive players to engage consistently, with The Astronauts having a lengthy year-long runway to refine and fix the rough edges of the game. Like the genre, Witchfire can be an acquired taste, but once you take a sip, it could well be an intoxicating brew worth waiting for.
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