Witchfire from The Astronauts is in early access after six years of development, an ambitious roguelite-slash-Soulslike-slash a few other things thrown in for good measure. I spent a while with it and came away with mixed feelings. Witchfire is one of those games that just feels good to play, but there’s a bit of a problem with its main idea: You’re actively encouraged not to engage with one of its key features.
With power comes peril
Witchfire looks like a demonic fusion of existing ideas on the surface, with its roguelike structure, Soulslike challenge, and Darkest Dungeon-like flourishes. There’s a much deeper and more interesting network of systems under all of that, though, and it’s where Witchfire’s unique identity and identity crisis come from.
For starters, it’s one of the most innovative roguelites I’ve played in ages thanks to how it turns the genre’s core ideas on their head. You power up at your own peril in Witchfire. Harvesting Witchfire, the game’s eponymous resource, improves your attributes, but it also alerts the local witch to your growing power. They are, understandably, not pleased about that and send even deadlier foes to make sure your expedition ends. Making it out alive involves some serious risk-reward decisions, and while I appreciate the learning curve, this is one area that seems like it could benefit from some balance adjustments.
Witchfire feels like it’s just a smidgeon away from being unfair more often than not, thanks in no small part to the difficulty increasing disproportionately to your actual improvements. Slight enhancements to your health or magic abilities trigger big enhancements to enemy strength to the point where I started wondering why Witchfire-the-resource existed at all.
The way it handles weapons and overall progression mitigates some of the balance frustration, though it also makes the demon elephant in the room even more noticeable. Witchfire gives you a set of challenges for each weapon or important piece of equipment, and if you complete those challenges, you add a modifier or other special feature to that weapon.
These enhancements range from letting you fire chain lightning from your sniper rifle to adding magical explosions to your dash and movement abilities, but unlike the boons you get from collecting Witchfire, these don’t trigger stronger enemies. Fighting with these improvements frankly just feels cool, and it opens more ways to handle the numerous challenges Witchfire throws at you. It seems like the way Astronauts wants you to play the game, and it really makes me wonder why the less useful, more punishing loop of collecting Witchfire is here at all.
A tale of Popes and Preyers
Witchfire is pretty light on the narrative context. It drops you in the middle of an ongoing war between witches and a very Catholic-coded, Pope-led church. This church uses forbidden powers to transform presumably willing warriors into “Preyers” (badumtiss) who can wield magic and fight witches and their terrible minions directly. Your goal aside from fighting witches is bringing back witch-corrupted treasure for the Pope, for Reasons, and everything you do pushes the church’s cause one step closer to victory.
Right now, I suspect that reason is just to give Witchfire a splash of extraction flavor. Roguelites in the vein of Witchfire tend to emphasize action over story, and while Witchfire is no exception, I can’t help but hope that developer Astronauts has some additional narrative cooking during early access.
The twisted, broken world piqued my curiosity. Sure, it’s got your usual dark fantasy staples – ruined buildings, eerie fog, subdued lighting, and a general feeling of oppression. The underlying structure is rich with possibility, though. I want to know more about the leaders driving this conflict, the people forced from their homes and, more importantly, where you and your actions fit into all of this. While I can’t see Astronauts turning this into a story-heavy experience, I do think that extra narrative incentive – new lore or story scenes unlocked after reaching certain milestones, for example – would help smooth over some of the rough patches and make the repetitive mission structure more bearable.
What you do in this world is Witchfire’s strongest and weakest point right now. There are only two stages in the early access launch, and the idea is to keep playing them and gathering resources so you gradually improve your fighting prowess. Astronauts will naturally add to that over time, though it does get a little stale after a while. I played through the full set of what’s on offer twice, and even though I enjoyed it, there’s just not much reason to keep playing at present.
The Astronauts provided an early access build of Witchfire for the purpose of this preview. Witchfire is set to launch in 2024 for PC.
Josh Broadwell posted a new article, Witchfire is an ambitious roguelite with a big problem
So you're saying the reward for earning upgrades/power-ups is essentially just to make the game even more punishingly difficult. Sounds cool for the try-hard community, I guess?
Upgrade THIS, you're fine. Upgrade THAT, you're FUCKED.
“Preyers” has got to be one of the most strained puns I’ve ever seen
Seems like the bigger problems can be fixed in future balances. Happy to see that the core gunplay is solid.