Witch Thief is a bullet hell shooter with a whole new perspective. Rather than relying on old shmup styles, this new game, by developer and publisher Cardboard Games, has an underlying narrative and is played in third-person within a 3D environment. The game is available on Steam and the Nintendo Switch, this review was done for the latter. It largely runs smoothly on the Switch and suits the play on the go options that the platform provides.
Let’s take a look at this crazy and difficult shooter in more detail…
Story and Characters:
There is a short introduction told with a series of images and a few lines that give your character and your goal some context. As the Witch Thief, a severely sarcastic kleptomaniac known as Charlotte, you are trying to steal an ancient and all-powerful grimoire, the cause of many dangerous events in the world of Witch Thief. The story only really progresses through character dialogue which appears at the beginning of each stage or when in a boss fight. While I’m glad there is a narrative to give the gameplay some meaning, it’s pretty bad. Since you’re relying on dialogue for the story to progress instead of cut scenes or gameplay cues, the dialogue would need to be interesting and impactful. Unfortunately, it is neither. The game tries to hold a comedic tone but just like you will do many times, the punch lines die on its ass. There are some truly awful conversations that make you actually dislike Charlotte more than the bosses that you will face. She attempts to be funny and confident but just comes across as a smug and moody girl.
Thankfully as you defeat bosses through the game, you can then unlock them to play as for a different playthrough. Each witch has their own personality which adds a bit of replayability and a slight variation on the dialogue that takes place but honestly, by the end of my first playthrough I was completely done with the game. You know the writing of the dialogue is bad when for some reason there are emoticons in them to try and convey the emotions that you just don’t get from the writing itself. Of course, voice acting would have helped convey this but you don’t read a novel and wonder how someone was feeling when something was said, instead it’s implied through verbs and adjectives. The character models above the dialogue change their expressions as conversations happen which should be enough to show their feelings but it’s just never clear. It’s not great at all.
Don’t be fooled by the cartoony exterior of this game. This game is very difficult and lulls you in before slapping you in the face for being too stupid and thinking this will be a breeze. Things can get overwhelming very quickly and it can really test your patience so I would recommend playing in short bursts.
In Witch Thief, you control your floating character in a very static animation and can turn a full 360 and control your camera freely. It feels quite nippy and responsive which allows you to dodge the endless projectiles that will be launched your way. It feels quite fun and I like the special powers that you have as, such as with Charlotte where you can steal the magic thrown at you and return it back. I also enjoy the dodge mechanic where you become invulnerable for a couple of seconds and can relocate over a short distance. I do wish there was an option to cancel this on command though as sometimes while you’re dodging there can be an opportunity to land a good hit on an enemy but you’re stuck in the animation until the time finishes.
The main game basically plays like a series of waves as you enter each next room. The battles get progressively harder as you move through the stage and there are multiple very difficult bosses to beat within each one. It’s very simple but very repetitive, with no real variety. There is a game mode called dungeon mode which concentrates on the fighting aspects of the game but I didn’t find it interesting enough to keep trying.
One thing that can change in the story though is that you have the ability to pick up different weapons, but none of them really feel better than your starting attack except for maybe the beam once you upgrade it. Overall, the weapons feel very pitiful and, with the lack of sound effect for your weapons and with how long every enemy takes to kill, you feel very weak. The only other feature of the gameplay is a scoring system which gives you a rank based on your performance and how many shards you pick up from destructible objects. Again though, this can be annoying because if you’re floating around looking for stuff to smash to add to your score, you can accidentally pick up a weapon you don’t want, leaving you stuck with something you’re not happy with.
Witch Thief’s biggest problem in terms of gameplay though is what Cardboard Games have advertised the most to make it seem more interesting: the perspective. Sure, a 3D bullet hell game sounds fun but it has too many issues to be as good as it should (Rob: A similar problem I found within my Touhou Kobuto V: Burt Battle Review). With the camera set firmly behind your character at all times, you have no idea of what’s going on behind you. With many attacks that can spawn from anywhere in the arenas or rebound off surfaces, it makes it impossible to dodge every attack. Some of the arenas are just too wide, making seeing the whole area very difficult. Therefore, rather than being able to see everything coming at you, you will need to rely on using the very awkward and limited camera to see where the bullet-hell everything is coming from. As well as this, there are many attacks that give absolutely no warning as to when they are going to happen. Because there is so little animation in Witch Thief, there are no giveaways as to when an attack is coming, so they can hit you and leave you hanging on for the rest of the stage.
The biggest culprit of this is a beam attack that appears directly at you, making it impossible to dodge. It feels very cheap and builds up a lot of frustration because this game is a one-hit kill. Yes, one hit. On normal difficulty, you have 3 lives, 3 attempts at beating a section until you have to restart the stage. It’s unbelievably harsh and I even struggled a lot to beat the game on easy mode (10 lives). Thankfully the game does cater to all players and so adds a “chill” mode where you can’t die which I had to revert to just to complete the game for the purpose of the review. I really think the scale from easy to normal is just too high. Personally, I think normal should be the equivalent of the game’s easy mode, 10 lives per stage is much fairer. Yet, with stages that can last around 30 minutes or longer, I think even that is harsh.
An even bigger annoyance is how patronising Witch Thief is, just like Charlotte herself. The loading screens hold a few useful tips but are mainly consisted of quotes that just infuriate you. For example, you get told “of all the ways you could have died, that is the most embarrassing”, even when you haven’t loaded the game up yet. It’s very random and doesn’t fit at all. Even worse though, it’s like the game is laughing at you for buying it. Sometimes it’s not a lack of skill or gaming ability that means you die, it’s the camera or random outburst of projectiles, so for the game to make fun of you with lines like “what would your best friend say about that death?” is downright ridiculous.
Audio and Visual Design
From a visual standpoint, everything looks okay but it isn’t exactly one of the Switch’s better-looking games. The locations are varied enough to always look refreshing and vary a little bit in size and scale. There is a forest, a castle and a cathedral which all have very gothic and witchy vibes but they never look as dangerous or as unnerving as they should. The attack projectiles are largely pleasing on the eyes with bright colours and pretty patterns forming waves of magic being cast straight at you for you to dodge or sent hurdling back. There are a couple of attacks that sometimes blend in with the environment though, which can make dodging harder and therefore again more down to luck.
I’m not particularly fond of the character designs either, the enemies look very simple and look like something that I could draw (and I suck at drawing). Charlotte and the other main characters all have a unique look which is good but their faces look very strange and feel a bit more like caricatures than real looking people.
Another visual problem (which thankfully can be turned off) is that when you take a hit or defeat a boss, the screen has an extremely bright white flash that engulfs the whole view. It can actually make your eyes hurt and is potentially dangerous to people with vision-related problems such as epilepsy, so make sure to turn it off if that affects you. Although, I’d turn it off anyway because sometimes when the flash happens you lose all bearings and end up taking another unnecessary hit (literally everything is designed to damage you it’s crazy).
The worst part of the aesthetics around the game by far though is the sound. There are some sound effects that are just plain awful. They don’t line up with the attacks properly and just sound odd. For some weird reason, landing hits on a boss seems like it’s just there to put you off. The character model swells up like it’s absorbing water and makes a horrible “shhhh” noise with almost every hit that blends together into one massive annoyance. There is also a particular sound effect that happens when the tiny witch enemies spawn that sounds like a drunk woman trying to read a phone book into a microphone. The music is passable if a little boring but it remains upbeat and so I turn the music up to drown out the awful sound effects.
Bullet hell games are meant to be challenging because when you beat that boss you’ve been struggling with it can feel highly rewarding. Witch Thief doesn’t feel like that though because the amount of frustration that you go through just really isn’t worth it in the end. The story is underwhelming, the dialogue confusingly unfunny and the characters are generic and unlikeable. It feels fun to play at times, weaving between the waves of attacks is the highlight of the experience but you never feel like you give anything back. Instead, you just have to survive long enough for the health bars to disappear out of boredom rather than you being good. There is too much emphasis on luck and what makes this game unique is also its biggest letdown which makes it an unworthy addition in the bullet hell shmup genre.
With a few tweaks to the camera and to the difficulty, this game could have been more much enticing. There is a decent game here with a lot of replayability but it’s just not worth all the stress of going back through the same stages over and over again because of bad design choices getting you killed. At £11.99, it’s maybe a little steep as I’ve had much more rewarding experiences for a similar price range that hasn’t felt as much of a chore. Only play this game if you have a sadistic want to challenge yourself because unfortunately, it’s not even the best bullet hell game I’ve played this week.