|Developed by:||Cardboard Keep|
|Published by:||Cardboard Keep|
|Format played:||PC – Steam|
Usually when I review a game at VG Almanac, it’s something from my extensive collection. More likely than not, I bought it at release and either played it for about five minutes or never even opened the thing. Either way, my review is an excuse to go back and try to clear out some of my library.
Occasionally though, it get asked to review a new game. Not knowing anything about them, I come into them with eyes wide open. The quality of these games is variable. There is the very good, such as Sociable Soccer or Godly Corp. There is the perfectly decent, like Tanglewood. And there’s the, well, Raid – WWII.
Which brings us rather nicely to Witch Thief.
Witch Thief is a bullet hell shooter, a term that I was largely unfamiliar with until another of Edd’s infamous ‘fancy taking a look at this?’ e-mails introduced me to the bonkers world of Touhou Kobuto, a game that, if we were to judge it on the spectrum of crazy would fall somewhere close to ‘bat faeces.’ Although of course we have looked at this genre before, way back in our review of PS Plus title Ultratron, a game I retain a strong affection for.
For those unfamiliar, ‘bullet hell’ generally refers to those games where virtually the entire screen fills with ways to kill you, requiring fast reflexes and deadly weapons of your own to hit back with.
Describing itself as a story driven, 3D shooter, Witch Thief charts the tale of 4 witches, out to steal the magical Grimoire and all the power that it entails. I don’t know, it all reminded me a little bit of Voldermort and his horcruxes. Anywho, your plucky witch sets off to recover said McGuffin, doing battle against a series of demons and other foul things out to stop you.
Structurally it follows the same broad construct of other games in the genre in that you move from area to area with an end of level boss to defeat each time, the action accompanied by pop up text narrative to add some storyline context to your actions. Indeed in this sense it has a close resonance with Touhou. It doesn’t take long though for the first niggles to appear.
Taking on the first level, I fire out a volley of my projectile attack, destroying some pumpkins which release pick ups and power ups. Soon I encounter my first challenge as witches and dolls emerge to do battle with me. Projectiles are soon filling the screen, standing still a sure way to secure yourself a one way ticket to the great cauldron in the sky. A squeeze of the trigger button fires off my weapon. Each of the 4 selectable witches has a different default but pick ups allow you to modify this within the game, options including a fairly basic missile volley, heat seekers and a targeted beam attack. Added to this is a dodge move which grants you a short period of invincibility, allowing you to pass through enemy attacks whilst you reposition yourself. Being a witch, you can also deploy magic attacks. Again, these vary depending on your witch selection, the most useful one I found allowing me to turn enemy attacks back from whence they came.
Levels are populated with these ‘spot attacks’ with enemies appearing as you emerge on the scene. Your projectile weapon is limitless however your dodge needs time to charge and your magic attacks are limited to a handful of uses, unless you manage to collect a pick up to refresh them. These encounters are fairly straightforward, however they tend to come in waves, a new and more populous batch replacing the set of downed foes until the encounter is complete.
The most intense battles are saved for the end of level boss encounters. Here the game unleashes its full barrage of bullet hell attacks, the screen filling up with complicated patterns of death. On my first play through I was swiftly dispatched, some success only achieved after I learned to slow down and study the attack patterns and look for gaps to exploit.
It is all competently put together but it is also maddeningly frustrating. Boss encounters are brutal affairs. After a tense, cagey, drawn out battle, I managed to bash one up, the screen flashing to inform me of my success, only to then dump me straight back in the middle of the battle. It turned out that I had only done away with one health bar, there were two more still to go! And whilst being patient and learning attack patterns had earned me some success, in the heat of battle, I too often found myself swept up by a twirling pink beam of death that I couldn’t escape, or found myself holding the wrong weapon, it’s attack not effective enough in the cramped confines of the arena. Plus every time you die, you revert to your default weapon, and whilst no weapon is entirely ineffective, you will likely have deliberately ensure you entered the fray with a partiular tool, reverting to something else requiring a mid-battle change of tactics which is just as likely to result in your swift end.
With just three lives to play with, death is inevitable and your patience soon wears thin. But even with the difficulty dialled down and playing through the game in a virtually indestructible mode, issues remain. The graphical approach is, in some respects, impressive. This is no single screen blaster, you have full control of a 3D camera, allowing you to rotate, swoop and pan to your heart’s content. And yet enemies can spawn from all over the place, including from right behind you, meaning that you are always at the mercy of an incoming attack. The world also feels strangely desolate. Starting out in the Misted Forest, the name seemed like an excuse to hide a lack of detail. Outside of the specific, triggered encounters, the world is unpopulated with little in the way of incidental or background detail to bring it to life. You seem to spend most of the level just running / floating through empty space, waiting for the next villain to kill you, at which point it’s back to the start of the ridiculously drawn out and poorly paced level to do it all over again. The story itself is dishwater dull too, with weak scripting during boss battles that will leave you frantically stabbing at the button to skip. And in 2018, getting caught in scenery, unable to move and therefore having to quit the game is simply unforgivable.
It looks nice and mechanically it is competent but weak storyline, sparse levels and insanely difficult boss fights make this an experience that is far too frustrating to recommend.