The thought of witches usually evokes childhood images of evil old ladies with greening skin, seeping warts and chins the size of jacket potatoes. In an attempt to change all that, Atari has released Bullet Witch, a game with a heroine who does everything she can to dispel the stereotype of wizened hags with glass eyes peering into cauldrons.
Alicia is a dark angel sent to earth in its time of need, and has clearly been designed to be the main hook of the game. Her icy pale skin, raven hair, intricate lacy goth-fetish clothing and outsized and overly elaborate antique machine gun will appeal to cos-players and teenage metal heads in equal measure, with her slender figure and leggy skirt turning the rest of our heads.
But what of the game behind this prominent front woman? With so much emphasis placed on the lead character, has equal attention been paid to the game? You’d be forgiven for thinking that Alicia might be a distraction from something far more unsightly, and to a certain extent, sadly that’s true.
The game’s plot sees our world ravaged by a series of increasingly horrific global terrors, from infectious diseases that spread homicidal tendencies to enormous natural disasters. In 2013 humanity has reached its dusk, trigger-happy monsters with all the military muscle, equipment and style of Vietnam Marines have overrun the world, and only the mysterious appearance of Alicia gives humanity any hope in turning the tide of the apocalypse.
The rather general and loose fitting plot precedes a disastrous opening level. It must be said that the game gets better, but the tutorial stage and the objectives that follow it immediately border on awful at times. The levels are huge and admittedly very pretty in places, but they are all too often just empty of character, atmosphere and, most importantly, action.
Identikit enemies pepper each stage, but sometimes vast areas separate any melees you may embroil yourself in. If this is an attempt to create a sense of a barren, post-apocalyptic world, it is misguided, and trudging through empty city streets just doesn’t qualify as fun.
The other main problem is the mixed quality of the in-game physics. Magical powers allow the alluring Alicia to run riot with the mixture of scenic objects that clutter every back alley and side street. Alicia can violently hurl everything that isn’t nailed to the ground, from pallets to trucks, with a simple superhuman energy she emanates. Scattering the contents of a car park into a crowd of enemies is glorious, and the detailed destruction physics and glorious explosions only add to the experience. Dumpsters crack open, fence panels splinter and concrete blocks split, filling the air with debris.
Sadly though, Alicia is not as perfect as her svelte form. She wanders through solid, she fumbles and stalls on steps, glitching her way through car doors, as she blunders into a constant barrage of invisible walls. In the past you could accept the odd invisible wall, but with the next generation already the current generation, these days they only serve to ruin the illusion of the game world, like an actor checking his script midway through a film.
The gaping emptiness of the levels also points to another failing in Bullet Witch. There are no in-game power ups, bonuses or ammo to collect, meaning there are no rewards for exploration. Furthermore, the infinite supply of ammo takes away almost all tactics, essentially turning the game into a mindless shooter. That would be fine of course, if there were a little more to shoot.
It’s not all bad though. Despite a rather mindless plot and some shameful cut-scenes, Bullet Witch actually hides a fairly playable game. It’s just a real shame it does such a good job of masquerading as a bad game.
The control system is basic but does a brilliant job, allowing you to juggle accurate shooting and spell casting with ease, and free of the usual number crunching associated with magic in computer games. The shoulder buttons call up a number of enlarged targeting crosshairs, with symbols in the same position as the face buttons of the 360 controller. This functions as a brilliant system for keeping an eye on the action while gently reminding you which buttons represent the myriad of spells on offer. A magical ability power gauge empties to varying amounts with each spell you cast, which is refilled by killing the gruesome hordes that harass humanity. This works well until you clear an area and then waste magical power, trapping you in a catch twenty-two situation where you need to kill enemies to give you the power to kill enemies.
The levels, too, develop and blossom, with later missions containing more goals and variation. The fear-ridden survivors that wander each stage are another nice touch, bringing some atmosphere and purpose to your mission. They interact with you and take most of the enemy fire, and heeling them is one factor that adds to your end of level score, which is in turn converted into the currency you use to upgrade weapons and abilities.
One you have access to varied firepower and magic, Bullet Witch is a thoroughly playable third-person-adventure game, set in a world bound to appeal to many, but rarely touched on by recent releases. It is unforgivable that a game should take three or four of your precious hours to get up to speed, but if that is something you can bear, then Alicia and the game she inhabits might be just what you’re after.