I had a plan, you see. An angle. Something that would take a whole new look at this game. I have a friend who is a Wiccan, and she was interested in the game. I figured we could kill two birds with one stone: she wouldn't have to spend $60 bucks on something she only wanted to see, and I'd get input from a real witch while I played a game whose leading character calls herself one.
It didn't work quite the way I'd hoped.
Developer/Publisher: Cavia, Inc / Atari
Release Date: February 27, 2007
Platform Played: Xbox360
Hours Played by Me: about 3 hours (that felt like 300)
Hours Played by My 18-year-old Son: 2
Number of times he offered to vacuum rather than play any more: 2
Completed: I got about 3/4 of the way, and then he finished it off.
The disk spins up, and tells us the world is ending. Demons scourge the earth, and humanity is losing all hope. The opening cinematic starts off with a first-person suicide and then it details a series of dramatic catastrophes that herald the end of the human race. After a melodramatic last flourish, we join the story with three demon/zombie/Reaver soldiers tormenting civilians and then killing them with great bloody glee.
Cue Alicia, our scantily clad dark heroine in a poof of raven feathers. She slinks over to the bad guys swinging an overwrought version of that tried and true third-person shooter weapon, the Big Frickin' Gun. Her ridiculous high-heeled boots clunk across the pavement. She strikes a pose and one of them dramatically sights down the barrel of his gun and asks her if she'd said her prayers. And the first words out of her mouth are, "Witches don't need prayers."
I was concerned about my friend's reaction. Using the word "witch" can be a loaded term in the Wiccan community -- sort of like dropping the N-bomb. Not to mention that it's not true. My friend is okay with the term and used to the misconceptions about her practices, but others won't be. She just sat for a bit with her lips pressed together and then she started laughing. About halfway through the game she decided she'd seen more than she thought she'd ever want to see again and went home. I stumbled on for a bit longer, then called in a stunt double (my younger son) to help me cap it off.
It's hard to find original ways to talk about something this derivative without comparing it to other lame things. It sort of reminds me of Sudeki if it was LARPing Vampire: The Masquerade with a wet-behind-the-ears Storyteller. What story there is comes off as paper-thin and overdone. Both the content and delivery of the hackneyed dialog sound like they come from around a card table in someone's basement.
Design-wise there's not much new here either. The main character looks like Yuna from Final Fantasy X-2, only in some sort of goth songstress dress sphere. Her main weapon is a brass steampunk monstrosity that looks like someone rifled Phil Foglio's wastepaper basket for a design of something that looked vaguely like a broom. Walking through the world just seems awfully familiar. I know I haven't, but I would swear I've killed zombies around here before. I spent a lot of time fighting off flashes of déjÃ vu between spawns of enemies.
There's even more déjÃ vu in the gameplay. There's a lot of backtracking involved. At various intervals you are stopped dead by colored impassable barriers. Then you have to hike back around to find this floating giant brain thing that hums like Guilty Spark. It's putting up the walls for obscure reasons that are never explained. They explode like a blood-filled water balloon when you pump enough lead into them. A cinematic shows the wall going down, and you hike back up to where that wall stopped you before to go on. I think they were hoping for a complicated and interesting effect, but it was just a lot of tedious shuffling around.
Some of the big boss fights are cool, but you've beat all these guys up before. The Gigas is making a cameo from House of the Dead 2. If you've put a few quarters in that machine, his weakness is as plain as the big lump on his chest. When the Air Demon broke the clouds it was immediately christened Everae, after Final Fantasy X's flying boss fiend Sir Auron refers to as a "red carpet with teeth". You even kill it in much the same way.
There is some ramp up on the difficulty, but the curve is pretty flat. And it's marred by technical issues. After a while the humming brains get a little more aware of the world around them and start telekinetically throwing stuff at you when you go after them. This would be neat if the collision detection wasn't so bad that in some instances you get killed by stuff 10 feet away, and other times they can drop huge hunks of debris directly on your head and it doesn't harm you.
This is not isolated to the brains. You're better off keeping your distance from just about anything falling or explosive. Killing a giant dude called a Gigas at close range is a crap shoot. The first time I did it the thing was on the other side of a building at least 50 feet away, but when it hit the ground my character flopped over and I got the continue screen. Another one literally stepped on me and I didn't feel it. Choppy framerates and issues with the shadows that trick your eyes during those big explosions and their aftermath are a frustrating part of every big battle.
There are three levels of difficulty in the regular game with Achievements that are earned by completing it on all of them. There's another one that's unlockable. But the technical issues obscure what little discernable difference there was between the easiest and the hardest. On the way you get four variants of your weapon, and you gain quite a few different spells.
You're not fighting alone. You have a mentor/boss who talks to you in your head. His name is Darkness, but I never got the impression he was actually evil. Mostly he just has opinions of how you complete the steps of your missions. The rest of the NPCs make you wish you were fighting alone. At various points an over-muscled pinhead named Maxwell Cougar shows up as the leader of a rag tag group of surviving troops. He's supposed to be airlifting civilians out of the city, but he makes a point of coming on to you like the street was a singles bar, but he's also creeped out about your powers. Every so often he gets macho and decides you need help so he sends along a couple of Redshirts, uh, I mean an escort. It would help if they were even marginally smarter than the enemy and could hit the floor with their hat.
The bad guy grunts, called Geist Soldiers, were kind of interesting. They don't shamble vacantly around. They are cruel, sadistic bastards walking around torturing people to death with smart-alec glee and wearing their skins. Some of them somehow keep the faces of their victims intact when they take the skin and they wear them endlessly screaming in agony over their shoulders. It feels good to see them come apart in a cloud of bullets and blood. They could have been cool, but for one tragic flaw. They are box-of-rocks dumb. They just stand there and let you shoot them. They will walk right up to you and position themselves for your melee attack. They have no strategic sense at all and tend to clump up in useful places like gas stations.
I do have to admit the gas station was fun. You fight your way through a parking lot full of these guys, and then come across the street to find 10 or so huddled around the pumps behind a derelict car. Darkness suggests you should try to make a car explode to deal with the situation. I could have poured a bunch of lead into that dead car, but my magic gauge was full and I decided to have a little fun. Two clicks of the left shoulder button and a tap of the A button calls down the lightning, and the place was a rapidly expanding circle of flaming debris. Pesky evil infestation solved. Hoping for more spots like that gas station got me a long ways, but those flashes of fun are far too rare.
Bullet Witch is mercifully brief, but if you want more it's on the way -- downloadable content packs with more missions and costumes for her. If you don't like black leather there's a rather brief schoolgirl outfit, a pixie/butterfly looking bodysuit, something they call a zombie outfit, and something in a tight white blouse with glasses. I think they were trying to make her seem intelligent, but it came off as more like a stripper trying to look smart. They're currently available in Japan, but not here in the US just yet.
I don't think new levels or even briefer clothing can add all that much to this. The problem is in the core game mechanics and implementation. Poor aiming controls, stuttering framerates, spotty graphics, buggy collision detection, and short-bus AI for the enemies don't work, no matter how scanty the panties are. Wandering through the levels schlepping that BFG and occasionally throwing a car with your magic is just not that riveting.
I felt more like a door-to-door salesman than a vengeful avatar of occult powers saving the world. After a while, your real feet and arms start to hurt in sympathy for hers and you start wondering if she's getting sunburned in some rather interesting places. I don't play games to feel this way. So I'll be on to the next battlefield, to paraphrase Mr. Maxwell Cougar, and this mostly forgettable experience will be left behind.