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I played Witchfire and it’s like dipping wagyu steak in ketchup

Witchfire could be one to watch, but it's not there yet

I’m surprised by how much Witchfire feels like a service game. When The Astronauts left their previous studio, People Can Fly, they did it with a mandate of founding a company where story comes first. Witchfire feels closer to Destiny than the studio’s debut game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

Before they were The Astronauts, this team worked on Bulletstorm. They know how to make guns that go bang, heads that go pop, and how to layer over all of that with the fizz and crack of screen-filling special effects. So Witchfire feels good. Very, very good.

I just don’t want to play it anymore.

You play as a gun-wielding witch hunter who’s working for the Pope. As setups go, it’s not a bad one. Your mission? Kill loads of demons and eventually the witch herself. Witchfire just launched in early access, so there’s only that sliver of context and two missions to fight through, which amounts to about 10 hours of getting your arse handed to you repeatedly.

Witchfire screenshot showing a battle with magic.

Don't let these screenshots fool you - there are way more enemies than this on-screen in Witchfire. 

I think it’s fair to make a game about chasing witches relatively arcane in its mechanics, but there’s a lot of trial and error before Witchfire clicks. When it does, you enter a flow state, dashing, jumping, and shooting as you spin around and pull the trigger, strafing and aiming in as an enemy floats into the center of your screen. When you’re doing well, it feels like a dance.

Witchfire takes that flow state literally, too. Do well and you’ll get more stamina, allowing you to dodge more, jump more, and generally move around more quickly. When you top the flow meter out, you can follow up a dash by shooting the soul out of an enemy’s body, but get hit yourself and you’re snapped right out of it.

That means you’ll likely spend the first few hours of the game getting absolutely bodied. It’s structured like a roguelite so you can take your currency and extract from a level, or risk losing it all by pushing on. Each group of enemies defeated also grants you some kind of boon – faster reloads, larger magazines, or a higher chance to find healing items, for example. Escape with the goods and you can spend your currency on more health, stamina, magic power, etc. But as you do that, the witch drops new enemies, traps, and more into the levels.

Witchfire's environments are gorgeous. 

Witchfire's environments are gorgeous. 

Think of the witch as an AI director akin to Left 4 Dead. If you’re scrambling for ammo or it smells blood, there’s a good chance it will spawn in a hunter force to take you out. Witchfire hates your guts. You’re going to bash your head against the wall for hours before you find your feet.

There’s an excellent game here, but it really wants to turn you into dust. It wants to make you cry. I’m also all for that, but it takes far too long to show you its full potential.

At the start, you have a simple revolver that’s only effective if you’re right up in an enemy’s face. Later on, you can add shotguns, SMGs, sniper rifles, and more into the mix. And then there’s the equipment, which can alter your abilities and imbue them with magical power.

POV: Witchfire is about to mess you up. 

POV: Witchfire is about to mess you up. 

By around ten hours in, I’m a god. Every enemy I hurt gets finished by a lightning bolt from the heavens, and when I dash away, I leave behind an energy orb that explodes by my pursuers. My SMG spits fire, and I can summon a crucifix that electrifies and pins my enemies. When it all comes together, Witchfire feels exceptional, but I fear that most people will bounce off it before it clicks into place.

I like a bit of friction in my games, but there’s a fine line between friction and affliction. I don’t want to farm ammo in a game where my main interaction with the world is to spit bullets, but there’s no backup for when you’re dry. I also don’t want to go back to the first level to farm the plants required to make health potions, but the second level is mostly stone. Being forced to face new enemies because I dared to get a 1% increase in my magical ability isn’t the best, either.

Break it down and there’s an incredible shooter underneath everything else – it feels good, looks good, and every gun sounds like a whipcrack – but it’s wrapped in a design that undermines that solid core. It never feels good to write negatively about a game – especially when it’s been in development for as long as this, and with a core team of only 12 people. Hopefully things change as it closes in on 1.0. Maybe one day it’ll join our list of the best FPS games