A little while back I heard Witchfire described as a first-person roguelike with Destiny-level gunplay, screen-shaking magic, and procedural missions. Unsurprisingly, this got me excited. Then I heard it was by a team of just nine developers, who most recently produced The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a beautiful but hardly bombastic experience. My enthusiasm wavered just a little then, even after I saw trailers for Witchfire. How could such a small team deliver on what I was seeing? Had to be dressed-up footage. Had to be. Then I played Witchfire, and by God, the crazy bastards have pulled it off.
The Astronauts have done an unbelievable job here. While Witchfire is only launching into early access right now and is still incomplete in terms of content and features, what’s here is not only insanely polished but also unique, well thought-out, and absolutely has room to grow.
As the Preyer, you’ve been dispatched by the Pope of this dark fantasy world to hunt down and destroy Witches, immensely powerful, almost god-like beings who have been at war with humanity for centuries. The tides have recently turned in our favour with the harnessing of Witchfire, a powerful resource used by Witches to cast spells, weave curses, and raise armies of demons and undead. A Preyer is able to bend Witchfire to their will – but it must be harvested from the Witch and their minions first.
Armed with blessed weaponry, you wash up on the shores of the Shrouded Hermitorium with almost no power. From this central hub, you must strike out on deadly missions to gather resources, research new weapons and spells, and ultimately take down the Witch by first defeating their six lieutenants. In the early access build there are two areas, and two lieutenants, with more to be added as we live forward.
The primary gameplay loop sees you travel to the mission are via a magical portal. The landscape never changes but the placement of enemies, resources, events, minibosses, secrets and power-ups is rerolled each time. A major upshot of this is being able to set your own goals each time you step through the portal. Do you want to earn Witchfire by killing enemies so you can head back and level up? Do you want to spend time in the danger zones to speed up reseaxh that unlocks new weapons, spells, and gear? Maybe you want to go right for the Witch’s lieutenant, or simply because explore for potion reagents. The choice is yours every time and you won’t be penalised for it.
The portal you enter the mission through will stay open for five minutes, usually long enough to make a daring run back to the last place you died to collect your loot and get out. As in a Soulslike, death will drop your Witchfire and any unbound loot, which you need to recover or lose. After that portal closes, you’ll need to go to one of two others that will be randomly placed in the area if you want to get home.
One thing Witchfire really nails is the sense of progression, even in the roguelike setting. You unlock all weapons, spells, trinkets, even upgrade paths, by researching them. Two research projects can be selected at once, and you progress them by spending time in mission areas. At present there are 7 weapons, two close, medium, and long range options and one Demonic weapon, which is a super powerful crossbow. There are also five light and five heavy spells and over a dozen relics and trinkets which grant powerful buffs. Each weapon has three upgrade levels, too, which unlock passive bonuses and increase various stats.
Spells, too, are fantastic. They work in a cool down system which you can affect in various ways. The light spells are things like AoE stuns, a quick freeze, lightning blasts, while the heavy ones can freeze groups of enemies, repeatedly stun, or dealassve damage to a single target. They shake the screen and roar with noise, reinforcing the fact that magic in this world is equivalent to heavy weapons and ultimate attacks in any other game world.
However, the tougher you get, the tougher the game gets. Witchfire has one of the meanest progression systems I’ve ever seen. Every time you level up, the Witch unleashes a new enemy, event, roaming boss, or magical trap into the mission area. You’ll be getting stronger with more health, increased damage, faster healing, etc, but each time you do you’ll have more and more to deal with.
Enemy groups are clearly marked on the map so you can always see where the safe zones are, and clearing one out will give you access to the Arcana. These are Hades-style buffs that persist for the run, and the right choices can make an enormous difference. Safe Deposit, for example, is an Arcana that preserves your Witchfire when you die – a massive boon every time you roll it. Then there are Arcana that regenerate health, speed up reloads, increase the power of spells, boost your movement speed, enhance your dash, stamina, or strafe speed. You’re always encouraged to take risks, but rarely forced to. As you learn to deal with the massive amount of enemies, your confidence will grow, and you’ll seek out those risks.
Witchfire features tons of different enemies, each with completely different movesets, attacks, and behaviour patterns. You’ll need to learn how to deal with all of them, as the placement and composition of each group is always random. Also, if you complete a few expeditions in a row without dying, regardless of what you achieve, you’ll piss off the Witch and they’ll dispatch tougher enemies. Now and then you’ll come across Calamity events, which are deadly curses cast by the Witch. One in particular shrouds the mission are in fog so you can barely see; another hurls enemies at you and you’ll need to kill a certain amount to lift the Calamity.
Witchfire is incredibly polished in terms of mechanics and visuals, and I’ve seen almost no bugs or glitches at all so far. It’s a gorgeous, heavily atmospheric game, and its world is steeped in secrets that will only get denser as we move through early access. Despite only two areas and two story bosses, the way Witchfire handles progression and ramping difficulty is exceptional, offering a genuine challenge while also rewarding even short forays into the darkness. This is one of those early access experiences that make me ravenous for more, and I can’t wait to see what other macabre wonders The Astronauts cook up moving forward.
Witchfire is out now via Early Access on Epic Games Store.