Here I stand. Surrounded by evil forces in a strange, disorienting world. I'm looking at a map, deciding where to go next. Where to die next, in a war against the witches that's only just beginning. Six years on from its reveal, Witchfire has entered Early Access and is every bit the unforgiving descent into bullet-shooter hell as developer The Astronauts promised. Produced by the small 12-person team behind The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, who had a hand in Bulletstorm and Painkiller, this roguelite first-person shooter is a strange, confident confluence of ideas with a couple of jagged edges.
Release date: September 20, 2023
Publisher: The Astronauts
Something I really appreciate about Witchfire is how little it seems to give a shit about you, the player. The Astronauts has totally eschewed a traditional cycle of progression, where harvesting accrued 'Volatile Witchfire' at an Ascension Shrine succeeds in both incrementally improving your survivability and hastily empowering an almighty Witch's Familiar. Invest this corrupt ether into bolstering your vitality or endurance, the demons will sense your power growing and respond in force – unleashing new enemy variants here, or forms of hellish trap there. Witchfire is an exercise in fighting helplessly as the enemies of god become more proficient in punishing you.
As above, so below
It's cruel and unusual. And at times brilliant fun too. Witchfire was always positioned as a skill-based shooter, and it's surprising to see such a vision materialize in this manner. Less is the need for twitchy movement or resource management, greater the focus on quick, careful shot placement and hasty positioning as your field of vision becomes overwrought with projectiles and pulsating lights. Content is limited in early access, opening space for combat to shine. The heft of the hand cannon and bolt-action rifle is evident, and a delight to wield in such challenging circumstances. Firearms combine seamlessly with the forbidden magics burning off crafted relics and rings, and a small armament of deployable light and heavy elemental spells bound to snappy cooldowns. If there's room for growth, it's the overall feedback loop, particularly with medium-ranged weapons and melee, which feel and sound a little weightless.
Witchfire is constructed around this idea of repeating expeditions – the goal is to kill a Witch's Familiar, but most of the time you'll be feeding firearms with kills, gathering 'witchfire' to level up, and collecting corrupted treasures for the Pope. Die before escaping through a portal back to the Hermitorium, the beginning and end of every journey, and you'll leave most precious resources behind. It's a cycle that should be familiar if you've played any game infused with roguelite sensibilities, from Dark Souls through to Hades. Witchfire clicks once you understand that, while leveling up can ultimately make the experience more difficult, your gear improves independently of character progression.
Weapons, spells, and magical items come with three unknown powers, with Mysterium Incarnations unlocking once certain conditions are met. Perform enough required actions with the gear and it will improve – critical hits may trigger a radial shockwave, or perhaps heavenly lightning will begin to spread amongst a group of converging demons. This is where you begin to gain the capacity to survive in increasingly deadly territories; your proficiency with powerful weaponry is perhaps more impactful than incrementally improved healing or metanoia, either of which can earn the ire of the witch.
While Witchfire encourages you to aim-down-sights, extending the range of many of your weapons, it isn't required to survive. In fact, the decision to strip away any accuracy penalties from hip-fire is a smart one, pushing further prominence to sharp movement and quickfire crowd control.
With these cycles in place, success is often found scribbled in the margins instead of being tied to progression through large maps or a lightweight narrative frame. With that in mind, there's an increased importance on visibility and ingenuity, two areas which are in desperate need of improvement as Witchfire fights its way through Early Access. The binding of healing elixirs to the collection of herbs feels misplaced, with these integral resources nearly imperceptible across the environments. A greater variety in objective type would be welcomed too, as the continuing return to the same handful of locations becomes increasingly tiresome without anything to do that doesn't necessitate bloodshed – The Astronauts has a keen handle on atmosphere, it just needs to do something with it.
I also struggle to get a real handle on the layered Stamina mechanic; killing enemies increases the gauge maximum, eventually allowing entrance to a Focus state. Once there, dashing with an enemy in your sightline will spawn a 'soul sigil' which, if hit, will enact a stagger. It's convoluted, and its placement slightly above the horizontal axis necessitates the pulling of crosshairs into unnatural ground – a problem shared with certain heavy spells, with the act of tolling the Cursed Bell coming at a heavy sacrificial cost to situational awareness in crowded combat encounters.
These are points of friction which can be eased over time. What's important is that the assembled bones of Witchfire are taking shape. There's a sharp compulsion derived from the core components which bodes well for future expansion and iteration, with The Astronauts targeting another year of refinement before final release. Built for roguelites lovers and those who hate 'em, Witchfire is a promising FPS offering a nightmarish change of pace.
Witchfire was assessed on PC, with code provided by the publisher. Our full scored review will go online when Witchfire leaves early access in 2024.