When I heard that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter developer The Astronauts was shifting its focus over from ghostly apparitions and unsolved murder mysteries to full-blown dark fantasy, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow or two. I, like many others, also felt that sudden need to see what the award-winning studio would build from the roots of a vastly different concept — and rightly so. Fact is, the so-called Witchfire wasn’t particularly anything we came to expect, yet something we couldn’t help but embrace nonetheless. Fast-forward several years and that pipe dream eventually blossomed into something surprisingly beautiful—a world in which elemental magics and paganism merged together to form a rouge-like shooter fit for even the most tainted souls.
Of course, there is still a fair number of loose ends to tie up yet, what with Witchfire still being in early access and in possession of a seemingly endless supply of unboxed content. For what it’s worth, though, first impressions were already pretty good from the moment I first laid eyes on the witch-centric universe—which bodes well for those at The Astronauts, of course. But there’s more to it than first impressions; there are also dozens of additional hours that need brushing over with a fine-tooth comb—hours that I, for one, planned to harvest just as soon the tools presented themselves on my doorstep.
So, how exactly did that relatively lengthy journey pan out? Well, having spent a good amount to time rummaging through its world and plucking its bones of any elementally-glazed meats, I can just about chalk up my final verdict and elaborate on that initial question — has The Astronauts finally found a foothold in the realm of dark fantasy, or has it taken a wrong turn somewhere? Let’s dive right in.
Your Trial Awaits
Before we go sinking our teeth into the bite-sized intricacies that Witchfire chose to adopt, we’ll go ahead and break down the breadth of the narrative, if only to paint a clearer picture of its characters and corresponding lore. Sadly, though, where we’d usually cast a spotlight on an enormous tale and embellish it with overarching plot points and backstories, there isn’t actually all that much to explain here.
The fact is (and the developer even touched base on this a little while back), Witchfire isn’t a story-driven game. It has its pockets of lore, true, but it doesn’t actually feature any cinematic aspects or explosive CGI effects, or anything of that nature. And while that does strike us as being somewhat disappointing and something of a wasted opportunity, we can also see where they were coming from. In a nutshell, it aims to course its players to uncover the lore through the means of getting out there and playing the game, and not, for example, having players sit back and watch a series of everlasting events unfold through theatrical cutaways and feature-length events. And it works, rather well, might I add.
To clear it up a bit, Witchfire is all about an ongoing feud between witches and The Church—the latter being a religious cult who’s essentially hellbent on using forbidden pagan magic to transform those who have sinned into immortal witch hunters. In short, this is where you begin your journey—bound for the witch of the Black Sea and an ancient artifact that reportedly has the power to turn the tide of war.
Welcome to the Loop
In order to progress in Witchfire, you must venture forth into one of several maps and acquire Witchfire—a soul-like substance that has the power to boost your abilities and transform your character into an all-seeing weapon of war. With each run you make, you essentially earn a set amount of said substance, with which you can use to gain more power via the Ascension Shrine and, in turn, tread deeper into the game’s maps for additional lore and objectives.
Like a lot of rogue-like games, progress in Witchfire isn’t something that can be made overnight. On the contrary, it takes several hours of scratching away at the surface, gradually improving your talents and learning how to survive even deadlier expeditions. And this is where a lot of newcomers will jump ship, as without a story to guide you, it really is the case of having to pour blood, sweat, and tears into foraging for the unknown—a venture that, quite frankly, can seem a little, I don’t know, pointless for some.
As it currently stands, there are only the two available maps that can be explored, both of which are crammed to the brim with steampunk aesthetics, foes, and lashings of details to absorb. On that note, it’s hard to fault it—even if the content it does have on display is a little bare bones. But again, it’s an early access game, so there’s nothing to say it won’t make way for another batch of playable levels in further updates.
Live for the Grind
Starting out in Witchfire comes across as quite the threatening experience, simply down to the fact that you begin your journey with fewer powers, weapons, and a misaligned sense of direction or purpose. From here, it’s merely the case of working to unravel more—a quest that involves having to slaughter a lot of the same enemies and rummage through the same areas. Needless to say that, if you can grit your teeth and power through the first several hours, then the world eventually begins to show its true colors. Again, this won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but as I came to learn after a number of hours scraping the barrel of each map — patience leads to perks, and perks lead to progress.
The good news is, combat in Witchfire is a whole lot of fun, and isn’t all that difficult to wrap one’s head around. It’s a lot like DOOM Eternal, really; there’s adrenaline-fueled, bullet-blazing elemental fights, and a substantial amount of foes to sift through. Sure it’s a little buggy on occasion, but only very rarely did I come across a dip in frames or any real performance issues, for that matter. And given the fact that the devs have already addressed said issues and rolled out a roadmap to have them fixed, there’s no reason to fret over what’s to come in the next three, maybe four weeks. Safe to say that my expectations will continue to remain equally as high as they were when I first placed my hands on the IP.
Steampunk Is Back
When all’s said and done, Witchfire is actually one of the most aesthetically appealing first-person shooters we’ve seen in quite some time. It’s almost impossible to believe, even, that it was generated by a team of just nine incredibly talented creators. But the fact is, the game doesn’t come across as half-baked or lacking in any particular field. Quite frankly, it plays out like a triple-A shooter—a tall order that, to be fair, not a great deal of independent studios can complete in this day and age.
Fortunately, this is really only the beginning for the latest steampunk shooter, so it’s definitely exciting to be on the fence while The Astronauts cross the final t’s and what have you. As for what comes next is unclear, though one thing’s for sure: Witchfire, in its current state at least, is looking mighty strong.
Having slugged through more than enough biomes and topped more foes than I could dare shake a stick at, I can safely bring myself to the conclusion that Witchfire, in spite of all its minor bugs and flaws, is actually in possession of something rather extraordinary. Sure enough, this isn’t as a top-shelf game, but it certainly plays like one, and it’s incredibly easy to see just how much heart and soul its mere nine creators have poured into it—against all odds, and with little to no experience in the dark fantasy field, to boot. And that’s what makes Witchfire all the more impressive; it’s born from a fresh perspective—a series of like-minded talents who’ve, once again, proven themselves as a joint force to be reckoned with.
There’s a lot to love about Witchfire—even in its early access state and with only half the content to boot. Mechanically, it’s swift, straightforward, and tough enough to provide any die-hard FPS fan with a decent challenge, and not to mention any newcomer with a bunch of incentives to keep trucking forward. Sure it’s a little grind-heavy, but its engaging combat certainly makes up for it in the most imaginative ways conceivable. And to reiterate, this is a game that was developed by just nine people, so it’s easy to sing their praises, really — more so when some full-fat studios often fail to tick even half of the same boxes.
To put it short, Witchfire is a great introductory spell for the whimsical and often dismal realm of dark fantasy first-person shooters. Yes, it’s a little light on the content now, but with an entire book bursting at the seams with lore, I for one can’t wait to read into the next chapter and see where the world takes me.
Witchfire Review (PC)
A Bonfire to Behold
Thanks to its blood-pumping action and quality aesthetics, it’s easy to recommend Witchfire to anyone who’s so much as seen a dark fantasy first-person shooter. Sure it’s a little content light, but that’s not to say it won’t come back with two smoking barrels over the coming months. And to that I say, light us another one; this bonfire needs to breathe!