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Witchfire, the latest roguelite first person shooter from The Astronauts just hit Epic Games Early Access and Jay is here to take a critical look at the game

Product Brand: The Astronauts

Product Currency: USD

Product Price: $39.99

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As I’m hitting my 30s, I grow less and less excited about getting on video game hype wagons. I enjoy playing and reviewing games just the same, but it’s hard for me to get (over)excited about video games in this day and age. Six years ago was a different story. For six years, I have been patiently waiting for The Astronaut’s Witchfire ever since they dropped the first teaser. Sure, there wasn’t much known about the game at that time and it wasn’t clear if what we saw was actual gameplay or not. But the name ‘The Astronauts’ was enough to kickstart the hype train. After all, the indie studio was founded by the same three gigachads who founded People Can Fly, developers of such gems like Painkiller and Bulletstorm. Not to mention that The Astronauts also made The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, one of the most cathartic experiences I’ve had in recent times (more on that here.)


The wait has been tiresome and there were large gaps of nothingness in between where it seemed like the game had disappeared from the internet. Finally, in 2022, the developers released the Summer Game Fest trailer for the game as well as giving us actual gameplay information. People who expected the game to be a classic fast-paced FPS were disappointed upon knowing that the game would be a roguelite and would be released into Early Access on the Epic Games Store. Roguelite, Early Acess, Epic Games Store- I’m sure people have all sorts of feelings towards these three words but we’re not here to discuss the state of PC gaming in 2023. Witchfire finally launched into Early Access on September 20th and thanks to Evolve PR, we’ve had a chance to play the title a bit early. 20 hours, countless deaths and multiple ragequits later, here are our early impressions of Witchfire, the dark fantasy roguelite FPS! Do note that since this is a WIP project, the content in this review is subject to change when the game launches its 1.0 version sometime next year.

Just Look at it!

Before we get to the nitty gritty gameplay stuff, let’s get this out of the way first. I don’t know if you can tell from the screenshots, but Witchfire is an absolute banger when it comes to the visuals. I’m not really surprised since the game uses the same photogrammetry tech as the studio’s previous outing but damn if each and every frame of this game isn’t screenshot-worthy. Even while using photogrammetry, the game doesn’t look out of place in the dark fantasy setting and instead, oozes atmosphere from each of its crevices The excellent lighting, washed-out colors, volumetric effects, and detailed models really nail home the feeling of isolation and dread that was also present in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.


What surprised me was how good the game runs (oh the state of PC ports these days). Trust me when I say that the game runs as good as it looks. On my 3070 rig, the game easily runs above 120 fps 90% of the time maxed out without any upscaling at 1080p. I’ve also received reports that the game runs surprisingly well on older hardware as well. Heck, the game even runs at 60 fps on the Steam Deck on medium settings. There are a shitload of graphical options for you to tweak as per your needs as well. At a time when we’re getting one broken PC port after the other, Witchfire is a relaxing sight. Truly premium stuff!


A Lonely Place of Dying

Witchfire puts you in the shoes of a Preyer, a church-approved juiced-up witch hunter who hunts…witches. But unlike the Salem Witch Trials, the witches in Witchfire are the real deal and they basically push humanity to the brink of extinction. Your job is to recover a seemingly lost artifact that has the power to turn the tides of battle. You are thus sent to a desolate island housing the artifact. But getting to it will not be easy as the witch controlling the island watches your every step and is awake 24/7 to rain on your parade. Since Witchfire is in Early Access, there’s not much to the story other than what I’ve just said. And that’s okay because in Witchfire, gameplay takes center stage.


From the moment you boot it up, Witchfire looks and plays like a classic People Can Fly game, with the player having a lot of control over the movement and is treated with some satisfying gunplay. However, a brief tutorial informs the players that there is more to the game than running around shooting stuff mindlessly. The game begins at a dilapidated monastery which serves as the base of operations where the players can familiarise themselves with the gameplay mechanics, brew potions, conduct research, upgrade their stats, change out the equipment, and finally, embark on adventures. Instead of linear levels, Witchfire features multiple huge maps of which, players can explore one each run. Each map features opportunities to encounter enemies (mooks as well as mini-bosses), clear enemy encampments, engage in various kinds of events, disarm traps, find loot, and more. By killing enemies and completing objectives, the player receives witchfire (think of them as souls), which can be spent to upgrade the preyer’s six stats in the central hub. Players go up a level each time they increase a stat and at the same time, the witch also grows more powerful and deploys more enemy types, events, and traps in each of the maps.


But there is a catch. While it has all the trappings of a classic first-person shooter, Witchfire leans more into the Roguelite aspect of things with a pinch of Dark Souls (I know, I know) sprinkled in. Each time the Preyer dies in one of the maps, he loses all the items and loose witchfire he was carrying and is booted back to the hub. Similar to a Soulsborne game, players are given the opportunity to retrieve the dropped witchfire in the next run. Each time you wipe out an enemy encampment, players can choose one among two randomly rolled modifiers (called Arcanas) such as increased reload speed, boosted crit chance, a chance for enemies to drop healing elixirs, and more. These are not permanent upgrades and reset each run. Unlike most Roguelites, Witchfire doesn’t have randomly generated maps. The maps are all static but the item placements, events, Arcanas, and location of enemy encampments, are randomized each run.

Witchfire is a difficult game and I do not say this lightly. The first few hours of the game are some of the hardest I’ve seen from a modern game. Armed with just a revolver, players are tasked to venture out into the first map with the aim of killing the Witch’s familiar. Let’s just say that it’s gonna take more than a couple of runs to achieve that. Even the most basic mook can prove deadly if players are not careful. In order to even the odds, players are given the ability to research new guns, spells, items, and modifiers. The items and weapons can then be upgraded by completing specific requirements to a maximum level of 3, granting them improved stats and even new powers entirely. Upgrades like freezing enemies on critical hits or having near-death enemies get hit by random lightning are going to be crucial to your survival. A maximum of two research can be done at a time and killing enemies advances the time required for their completion. Unlike the Arcanas, these upgrades are permanent. Players will need to master the gunplay mechanics as well as item combinations to survive the challenges offered by Witchfire. By combining various FPS and Roguelite systems, Witchfire succeeds in being a highly replayable offering that keeps you coming back for more even after getting your ass handed to you 15 times in a row.


The Devil is in the Balancing

While Witchfire makes a strong (and I mean strong) case for it thanks to the tight gunplay and dopamine-infused Roguelite mechanics, balancing is one hurdle The Astronauts have to carefully tiptoe around. The biggest hurdle is the difficulty scaling. As I’ve mentioned earlier, each time the player levels up, so do the enemies. Normally, I’d be up for a challenge like this. As long as the progression feels rewarding through player empowerment, this design decision wouldn’t be an issue. RPGs have been doing this since the 80s and it’s a tried and true system. However, Witchfire doesn’t give the player enough incentive to level up. However, Witchfire inadvertently discourages the player from doing so by upping the challenge disproportionately. Instead of feeling empowered, the game makes you feel like it’s punishing you by bombarding the player with overwhelming odds each time they level up. The stat increases are not substantial enough to warrant the increased difficulty. The game can get around this simply by making the stats boosts worth investing in.

Another issue I have is with the stamina management in the game. Personally, I think the whole system is out of place in an FPS to begin with but YMMV. Stamina is required to sprint, dash, jump, and even fire certain weapons (bruh). Each time you take a hit, you lose a portion of your stamina along with HP. Enemies in Witchfire have a habit of draining the player’s stamina and slowing down the player’s movement to a crawl. In a game all about evading and circle strafing attacks, not being able to move is the most dire punishment. You’ll be casually running towards a group of enemies one second and slowly limping in the next, not knowing what the hell happened. Scenarios where I’ve resorted to hiding behind rocks and taking potshots at normal mooks have happened one too many times thanks to the stamina drain.

Up next is the amount of visual clutter in the game. There are so many dizzying and blinding visual effects in the game that affect visibility. Various status effects like running out of stamina, getting caught in fire, and getting low on HP are all accompanied by annoying visual effects that cannot be turned off. But this one’s an easy fix. Other fixes I’d like to see are upping the amount of ammo spawned in maps, tweaking the iframes, more keybindings, and better enemy/item visibility.

Witchfire has quite a few issues but thankfully The Astronauts have been quick on their feet to listen to community feedback and roll out patches. Within 3 days of release, they’ve already put out two patches based on community feedback that rebalanced some crucial stuff as well as fixed bugs. Such a shame that the game launched on a platform with terrible community support. Players have to rely on Discord and the Witchfire subreddit to discuss issues as well as offer feedback. How hard is it to have an in-built forum, Tim?

The ‘Early’ in Early Access

Early Access can be a touchy subject these days thanks to one too many “undercooked” projects. Witchfire launched in Early Access with 2 maps (out of the planned 6), and four weapon categories with the first three having two weapons each and the last one reserved for a special weapon. There are a handful of light and heavy spells as well as more than a dozen of Arcanas. If you’re someone who loves the gameplay loop of killing, dying, and trying again, then there are around 20 or so hours of content in the current build of the game until boredom and/or frustration starts to step in. Judging by the rate at which The Astronauts is updating/balancing Witchfire, it has the potential to become an absolute gem as long as more content is on its way. At the same time, it’s hard for us to recommend buying Early Access games at such an early stage in their development. But if I had to recommend any Early Access game, Witchfire would be the game I’d recommend. The reasonable regional pricing helps as well. Just make sure you know what sort of game it is.

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