After nearly a decade, independent Polish studio The Astronauts has finally given the world its next title after 2014’s gorgeous walking-sim mystery The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Launching in Early Access, Witchfire is a white-knuckle first-person roguelite set in a dark fantasy world of magic and automatic firearms. Your witch hunter is introduced with a barebones opening slideshow, giving us enough context to know that a powerful witch is unleashing devastating calamities and undead hordes upon the world. Anointed and commissioned by the Vatican, your witch hunter is known as a Preyer, but that’s about as much narrative as you’ll be treated to. Supposedly you have what it takes to quell this abomination, but not without dying countless times on your crusade.
Getting through your first hour in this world is a vicious trial that will make or break prospective players. Armed with nothing but your weak little six-shooter, players will quickly discover the hubris that comes with wandering into a camp of undead husks and soldiers and unloading into one or two of them. While reloading your revolver, all it takes is two stray arrows to hit you in the back before you are savagely confronted with your witch hunter’s frail mortality. But if you persist, manage your ambitions, and tactically pick out a single camp of foes by using cover and evasive manoeuvres like the dash, you might just survive and make it back to your starting portal before it closes, Witchfire intact.
The titular Witchfire is a red substance that forms from the obliterated remains of your paranormal enemies. Desired by all witch hunters, successfully extracting from a level by opening a portal will allow the player to retreat and channel the retrieved Witchfire back at the Herbitorium, or player hub, to gain permanent level increases. The player ticks up their overall level once they’ve paid the required Witchfire into one of a half dozen stats that affect everything from health to magic cooldowns to Witchfire drop rates. Beware though, venturing back into the wilds with unspent Witchfire is a considerable risk, as death at the hands of your enemy will see the accrued Witchfire turned to dust, forever unattainable…just kidding, Witchfire takes that popular page from the grand Souls canon and allows you a single attempt to retrieve your earnings upon returning to where you were defeated.
Keep enemies at bay before they quickly encircle you
During its Early Access launch on the Epic Games store, only an initial two out of six locations were available for expedition. Every zone will require a powerful member of the witch’s entourage to be slain. This is quite a mean feat, as for every few minutes spent surviving and exploring during an expedition, threatening new events and enemies will come to plague your world. Not to mention that your enemies aren’t pushovers, and the presiding witch’s familiar, or zone boss, will likely give you more than a tickle if you face it underprepared without sufficient firepower and magic. Move fast and carefully if you aim to take your Witchfire back to base and get those much-needed power boosts.
Once this dark power fantasy of being a gothic Doomslayer kicks off properly and you’ve got all your equipment slots filled, some magic on deck, and a full rotation of weapons that have secured enough kills to surpass their base level, Witchfire properly comes together and shows itself off in a frankly impressive display. The double jump and dash become necessary manoeuvres to master as mobs of elite enemies spawn and rush your location. Often, there isn’t enough stamina in your bar for subsequent dashes to avoid the myriad undead encircling you, resulting in exhilarating shootouts where a split second could result in success or failure. As your power increases after successful extractions, players unlock the ability to land headshots that power up subsequent bullets with staggering critical hits, while also being able to exploit the enemies’ weak spots that appear when dashing. The game performs that beautiful kind of bullet ballet mastered by modern shooters such as Doom, Destiny, and even the recent bullet-free Immortals of Aveum. This is all aided by gunplay that feels fundamentally impactful, once players get properly off the ground with the often underperforming base-level weapons and some questionable balancing that sees some sidearms perpetually redundant.
Dynamic events require you to quickly resolve disruptive objectives such as alarms
Soon you will have racked up enough kills to upgrade your weapon to its second or third tier, unlocking special weapon abilities and a desperately needed damage boost. Eventually, you’ll find enough of the weaker mobs and annoy those fragile ghouls to death, levelling up your new weapon. The ramping up of power that comes from luckily selecting two overperforming weapons and grinding them to their second and third tier is immense. It is at this exact point when the player can stop hiding behind fences and praying for easy kills, and simply become the headlong force of reckoning that aims to slay the archwitch of this world.
To the team’s credit, Witchfire boasts a perfectly acceptable roguelite blueprint set in an atmospheric, dark fantasy landscape. Each level is hand-crafted with immaculate detail, with every camp and clearing defined by name and a sentence or two that gives it just a lick of thematic flavour. As you look out from the boundary of the starting island, you can see the game’s other levels on the horizon, recognisable from the level selection that has you looking across the lake from the dock by your hub. The random generation that occurs here is the placement of enemy bands and their threat levels, chests, traps, and dynamic events such as powerful monsters that patrol the zone and disruptive calamities. As you become familiar with the layout of the level, the game opens up an addictive ‘just one more run’ flow state of enthusiastically diving back into expeditions with new toys and pushing your luck that bit further to gain even better arcana or power-ups. All in the hopes that you might just have what it takes to face the boss of the zone who waits in a static area marked on the map of each level.
There is grim beauty throughout the world of Witchfire
As a bonus, levelling up might make your witch hunter permanently more durable for the upcoming challenge, but the game also adds further new enemy types and excruciating dynamic events at the same time. It means that the ever-satisfying ramping-up that comes with a good action roguelite doesn’t begin to stale despite the heavy reuse of two rather small levels.
Something that needs to be emphasised about this game is the atmosphere. There is some incredible talent over at The Astronauts because this game boasts some stunning environment design that manages, quite often, to suffocate me during play. This won’t come as a surprise to anybody who has played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and the vertical freedom at play with the double jump means that this team has crafted a world that looks amazing from every angle and scalable approach. The environmental effects that come with calamities as well as the special effects that continue to linger in the air after a firefight are as intense as they are sublime.
After such an impressive and ambitious early access launch, free of all but the silliest and forgivable bugs, I am left hopeful that Witchfire will be able to leverage a similar roguelite experience to Returnal, doing for first-person roguelites what the aforementioned achieved for its third-person counterpart.
Witchfire is currently available in Early Access on PC.