Dark Souls, and indeed, the rest of the FromSoftware’s hits, take dozens of longstanding game mechanics – like enemies that consistently respawn and the risk of losing all your XP when you die – and combine them into a new genre, the soulslike. Doom Eternal, meanwhile, is the high watermark for fast-paced, customization-driven FPS games, as you blast myriad demonic mobs and slowly improve your weapons, suit, and semi-supernatural abilities. Blending both these games, and also some elements from BioShock and Hunt Showdown, Witchfire, now available in early access through the Epic Games Store, is an imaginative roguelike shooter from The Vanishing of Ethan Carter dev The Astronauts, and it’s showing serious promise.
As the black-coated, skull-mask-wearing ‘Preyer,’ you’re dispatched by The Vatican to assassinate a powerful witch, who commands total control over a desolate, gothic wasteland. This is where I’d drawn the comparison to Hunt. The aesthetic of Witchfire is a gloomy, humid mix of steampunk and the 19th century East Coast. Low sunsets, starving cornfields, stinking swamps and shacks – The Astronauts bring vivid life to Witchfire’s weary world.
You can explore the map at your will. If you’re feeling brave, go and try one of the roaming sub-bosses. Alternatively, go hunting for gold to bolster your build and arsenal. As the Preyer, you’re able to channel the eponymous Witchfire, a mystical force that imbues you with powerful magical abilities, and unlocks the arcane potential of your equipment and guns.
Killing enemies lets you drain their Witchfire into yourself, which you can use in turn to empower new guns from the Vatican armory or ancient relics you find across the land. Seeing Witchfire in action, and how the Preyer casts destructive and telekinetic spells using his hands, I’m reminded instantly of BioShock’s Plasmids. A closer comparison, in fact, might be BioShock 2, as Witchfire lets you seamlessly combine magical attacks and guns.
With total dominion over the dying countryside, the witch observes your actions and responds accordingly. Persistence is met with increased resistance – the longer you survive, and the less susceptible you are to death, the more numerous and difficult enemies will become.
The Preyer is immortal, and the witch knows that the only way to defeat him is to drive him to total despair, and force his faith out of him. The further you progress, the more relentless and grueling combat becomes. Similarly, the witch can spontaneously create in-game events called Calamites. In some cases, this means that all the enemies you’ve killed around you suddenly return. In other instances, the landscape itself will change, for example becoming darker, foggier, and harder to battle through. It’s the perfect system to complement Witchfire’s beautiful-but-brutal, grimdark tone.
If you die, you lose all your accumulated loot, although it’s possible to get it back, just like souls in FromSoftware’s beloved RPG. Also, like any good soulslike, if you’re killed, the monsters you’ve defeated return from the dead, and collecting innocuous items like treasure chests can spring seriously deadly traps.
Gunplay wise, battles in Witchfire take place in larger, open arenas. You need to move quickly and pile on the punishment with the full range of your abilities and weapons. Dancing around monsters. Hot swapping between guns with different powers, strengths, and weaknesses. If you love the intricate but rip-roaring ballet that is Doom Eternal, Witchfire feels just like home.
And the best part? Witchfire is available to try right now in early access, via the Epic Games Store. There’s no word yet on a full release date, but already, The Astronaut’s latest is looking like one of the most in-depth and bold upcoming shooters. You can try it here.