The world is burning down around you. Everywhere you look, something is on fire. While you might think I’m talking about the current state of the world (and in a way, I am), what we’re really talking about here is Wildfire. Sneaky Bastards is a pretty new team of developers comprised of veterans in the industry and Wildfire is their first title together. Players take on the role of a character imbued with the ability to harness fire, water, and earth and must work their way through dozens of levels designed around stealth platforming. Though Wildfire feels great when utilizing all the abilities, the stealth mechanics can feel at odds with the overall flow of the game.
Burninating the peasants
The story in Wildfire begins with your character (two characters if you’re playing co-op) being burned to death with your village aflame in the background. Quite the intro to an otherwise charming-looking game. As it turns out, your character is impervious to fire, able to wield it as a weapon, burning grass, vines, wood and other flammable objects.
This is thanks to a meteorite shard you touched just moments earlier. It’s this meteor that is the McGuffin of the story. But the main drive of the character is that of vengeance. A mysterious figure known as the Arch Duchess is the one responsible for razing your village to the ground, and it’s her you’ll spend your time trying to reach. You’ll pursue your enemy through your ancestors’ tombs, up into snowy mountains, and onwards to the ever-looming city in the corner of the map.
In saying this, the overall narrative isn’t the main selling point, it’s the systemic fire, water, and earth abilities that create (or destroy) options within a level.
Burninating the countryside
Much like the acquisition of your fire-bending skills, more abilities are harnessed at pivotal moments in the story. You will eventually gain the ability to move water and earth. These three elements all have a variety of uses. Fire can be used to burn down wooden barricades or turned into smokebombs to stun enemies, water can be used to create bubbles to float up and over obstacles, and earth can be used to grow vines for climbing and ensnaring guards.
When all of these abilities are acquired, it’s up to the player to decide which ones should be upgraded. With only so many points to go around, some tough decisions will have to be made, which has a direct impact on playstyle.
Outside of playstyle, some care must also be taken into how and when to use these abilities. Light the wrong bridge on fire and the flame will quickly spread, engulfing everything in its path. That swathe of grass you were planning to hide in to avoid detection? Burned to a cinder. The bridge that granted you access to an upgrade point? Ashes.
Unfortunately, acquiring all these abilities happens quite far into the game. It’s because of this that the earlier levels all feel rather straightforward and, quite often, rather tedious. The reason for this tedium is found in the game’s stealth systems which are more bearable further along but a downright chore to contend with during the first few hours.
Shh, I’m sneaking
Wildfire bills itself as a stealth game, where you use your abilities to outsmart and outmanoeuvre the enemies. While it does allow players to use unique abilities in interesting ways, the options only really open up when you acquire all the element-bending skills.
Early on in the piece, when you’ve only got access to fire, avoiding guards amounts to waiting in tall grass until said guard finishes its patrol route. This often leaves you sitting in one spot for several seconds, repeatedly, as you try to shuffle prisoners from point A to point B.
The reason you’re trying to avoid the guards is that you have no real recourse for defending yourself against their swords and arrows. While they can hack you to bits, your only option is to run and hide.
Even once you acquire all the abilities, if you’re trying to nail all the side objectives, you will still find yourself sitting in tall grass or in drifts of snow just waiting. It would have been nice to have a fast-forward ability, similar to that in Baba Is You, if only to make the guards hurry up and finish their patrol zone.
When it comes down to it, it feels as if Wildfire is getting in its own way. It tries so hard to focus on stealth which ultimately stifles the chaotic beauty found in the abilities.
Despite the pacing problems, the various levels and areas in Wildfire are creative in their design. When you’re not sitting waiting for a guard to move, you’re rapidly jumping from platform to platform, burning the right bridge, and otherwise solving element-specific puzzles.
In one particularly enjoyable level (probably because there were no guards), my partner and I had to get a flame from the bottom back to the top. The challenge was in the actual level design. It twisted back and forth on itself, with areas drenched in waterfalls, which immediately douse our flame. Some thought had to go into who was carrying the flame and where the other was to stand in order to catch it when thrown.
Another fun one had us trying to bait a fire demon back to the bottom of a shaft to set off some explosive barrels. After spending so long waiting and avoiding guards, it was pure joy to sew some chaos into the mix and sic a big demon onto enemies that had so swiftly put us in the dirt.
Visually, Wildfire is also a treat to behold. The pixel art has enough detail to relay information without becoming cluttered and each environment is evocative with its theme. Even the backgrounds suggest the presence of a rich world, full of detail and history.
On top of the visual beauty, the audio is lovely. Every footfall of a guard helps you track whether they're coming from the left or right, the sound of rustling grass and crunching snow brings areas to life, and the ambient noise lifts each level. Then there’s the soundtrack, which is beautiful and worthy of a separate release.
For all that Wildfire does right, there are also a few problems. Aside from the aforementioned pacing and struggles with the heavy focus on stealth, there were times when in-game functions weren’t clear. In one example, after pickpocketing a guard and dying, the on-screen text said to pickpocket the guard, despite the key still being in my possession.
There were also a few controller-specific problems. When attempting to launch into the game, Wildfire would not detect the controller, and at times would simply refuse to accept my controller had wireless capabilities.
For a game that relies so much on movement, the actual platforming isn’t as snappy and satisfying as it should be. Jumping can feel a bit sluggish and activating sprint seems like a coin toss, which isn’t good when you need to sprint-jump across a gap. With so much jumping and platforming to do, the actual controls need to feel as fluid as possible.
Much like its namesake, Wildfire takes a while to kick off, but once the perfect conditions are met, it can be chaos. The unique abilities make for interesting moments, which is needed thanks to the often monotonous stealth systems that plague the game. For those looking for a neat game to play co-op, you’ll find it in Wildfire.
This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Wildfire is now available on PC.
- Music lifts the whole experience
- A charming pixel artstyle
- Element-based abilities are unique and offer interesting gameplay choices
- Physics and fire effects create dynamic gameplay
- Stealth can feel tedious and at odds with the core abilities
- Platforming controls can be a hit or a miss
- Problems with controller support
- Some unclear in-game directions
Sam Chandler posted a new article, Wildfire review: Starting fires? It's my desire
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