It is always exciting when video game developers decide to follow their artistic ambitions by founding a new studio that gives them total creative freedom. This is what three developers from People Can Fly (who worked on Painkiller and Bulletstorm) did when they created The Astronauts. Their first title, released back in 2014, was the horror adventure The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a far cry from their action-packed roots, but also one of the most intriguing and engaging so-called “walking simulators” of its time. Now, after many years of development, The Astronauts are back with Witchfire.
A return to the first-person shooters that defined their early career with an added dash of contemporary trends, this dark fantasy actioner is currently available in Early Access on the Epic Games Store, with only two levels and a limited arsenal of weapons. The content is quite limited right now, so how does the developer justify the fairly high price? Simple – with a tremendous gameplay loop.
In Witchfire, players control a member of a religious organization, tasked with hunting down a powerful witch that has been terrorizing the country. Each level features one minion of the sorceress, acting as a final boss, with multiple enemy encounters of various difficulty scattered around the map. Heavily taking inspiration from the FromSoftware school of learning curves, the first two hours of Witchfire are a hellish experience: the starting gun feels weak against the hard-hitting enemies, the first area feels huge, and behind every corner, there is a danger that will kill you swiftly, from explosive bombs to ghostly ferrymen.
It might feel daunting at first, but sticking with the game ends up being a rewarding experience. Players must rewire how they think about both shooters and souls-likes: shooting from a distance and seeking cover only works in the short run here. Instead, the best defence is indeed offence, a true and tested tactic of old-school shooters that bleeds into Witchfire. Constant movement, dashing and double-jumping make it hard for the ghoulish monsters to hit the player, and hip-firing is just as accurate and deadly as aiming down sights. There is an excitement and thrill when all of these actions start clicking together. What at first was an instant failure becomes a full-blown run through the level, destroying all the enemies and facing off against the final boss.
The weapon variety and current selection of spells (which includes area-of-effect ones like an electric cross that binds enemies to their spot) are also impressive, with guns ranging from shotguns to sniper rifles that completely change the approach to each run. To upgrade them, it is necessary to play in specific ways and get a total number of kills with them, which leads to effect damage and other neat bonuses that revamp their use. The experience points that are collected by killing enemies (which, as expected, are lost in case the player dies and does not pick them up again) can be used to upgrade the character, but right now the levelling system feels undercooked, lacking a real sense of progression.
The visuals of the game are downright stunning: right from the main hub, it is clear that The Astronauts loves landscape paintings from 19th-century romantic artists like Frederic Edwin Church, with gorgeous vistas of dark forests and gothic castles that never get stale or boring to run through. The attention to sound and music is also noteworthy, as everything is perfectly balanced to give weapons the right kick and enemies all of the creepy and unsettling noises that make it easy to recognize their wounding-up effects after a while.
It is exciting to see how Witchfire will develop in the coming months as The Astronauts keeps adding more content and polishes. As of right now, ammo feels too scarce even on a good run, and the aforementioned upgrade system can use some fine-tuning. Everything else is very promising, from the range of weapons and enemies that are fought, to map-specific random events (like cursed chests with specific unlock requirements) that add a welcome element of surprise every new run. Despite its asking price, Witchfire is well worth playing, and it is shaping up to be a real standout among contemporary action games set in olden magical times.
Copy supplied by the publisher.