Title: Bullet Witch
Format: XBox 360
Approximate Time Spent playing at time of writing: 9 hours
Modes of play: Single Player, Online Leaderboards.
Bullet Witch is a single player “3D action adventure” challenge title. It’s immediately and obviously comparable to Bayonetta due to it’s stylistic similarities, however Bullet Witch is the originator that was released years before it’s imitator Bayonetta, although it itself apes stylistic elements from a lot of much older material, manga and anime in particular as is the way of the world. It also plays very differently to Bayonetta, being in the main, a 3rd-person shooter. It’s a little bit like playing a single player version of Gears of War, but with Bayonetta-style magic moves available. However the magic moves are far more interesting than in Bayonetta as, rather than being pre-canned sequences where you just mash buttons to do damage, in Bullet Witch you actually get to decide somewhat when and how you use your magical powers as well. Most of the magic simply augments your standard ranged attacks with area effects or extra powerful strikes, however some are more interesting – not got enough cover? Well, you can use your magic bar to create a barrier that blocks attacks. Friendly AI cohorts been downed? You can use your magic to heal them.
In fact the whole game bears a bit of this ‘freedom’ feel throughout it; even though the levels generally are fairly linear and the enemy AI rather basic, the levels are often quite open for roaming and don’t restrict things to the tightly contained ‘rooms’ that by comparison Bayonetta’s action mainly takes place in. Even when the routes are very pre-determined in Bullet Witch, you still quite often have many options for how to take on a set of enemies. Sometimes this works quite well, but at other times, it breaks down a bit when a pseudo-set piece that’s clearly “meant” to happen, doesn’t quite work out. For example the first time I gained the lightning magic ability, I was faced with a tank that I didn’t have any equipment capable of effectively damaging it – unless I used my new magic spell. So obviously I called down my magical wrath from the heavens… and, because I didn’t understand the buttons the first time around, I’d failed to actually aim it correctly, and the lighting crashed down, whiffed the tank and did absolutely nothing. After a deflated pause, I realised I was left with a drained magic energy bar and no way to deal with the tank. So instead I evaded past it (often an option in Bullet Witch), killed enough weaker enemies to refill my magic bar, and then backtracked to go and kill the tank, for no real reason other than to figure out how the lightning spell worked. This kind of thing happened quite a bit and can rather spoil the ‘drama’ of a challenge like this – such is the downside of allowing a more free-format approach to the mechanics & level design.
Like most single player titles with any notion of the word “adventure” in their genre, Bullet Witch is a classic “Gated Game” – please do read the link to understand what is meant by this if this term is new to you, or I will probably lose you from this point on. The trouble, as explained there, is that gated games aren’t games at all, as you’ll readily understand if you’ve read agoners for a while. They can be seen as challenge or puzzles, however, they still run into the problem that they generally don’t really WANT the player to fail – as the average “gamer” actually just wants to ‘see all the content’ or ‘finish the story’ and other such concepts that don’t apply to real games, however I do understand the motivation and the issue for designers. So the standard, and very simple solution for a “Gated Challenge” is one of difficulty levels, and making sure that the easiest difficulty is easy enough (which should be, well, easy) and that the harder difficulties provide more of an actual challenge for those that want one. Everyone’s happy then right? That’s exactly how many gated challenge titles have worked for years, from Panzer Dragoon, to Call of Duty, to Left 4 Dead and everything in between. Unfortunately though, even when appropriate difficulty levels are put in, with bad game design, there’s a lot that can still go wrong. Where Bullet Witch trips up is the all-too common mistake of offering a grindable persistent level-up mechanic (and all the player addicting qualities it brings – I honestly wonder if the ‘carrot’ is bigger for game designers than it is for players) that is layered on top of the difficulty system.
Why is this a problem? Well, I’ll explain how this played out for me in Bullet Witch, although this is a common problem across many titles. I selected “Normal” difficulty and, of course, started out with my bog-standard “level 1” character. As soon as a level-up choice appeared at the end of a level, I was bemused by all the options – there were far more upgrades available than I could possibly pay for, but I thought I’ll pick one that looks interesting and may fit my playstyle – but of course I didn’t know what my playstyle was as I was developing that along with the game. I also wondered if what I was picking would be at all suitable for the next level. For example, I could purchase a raven attack spell that sounded like it could be handy, but could only be used outdoors – and I had no way of knowing if the next (or any) forthcoming levels would be indoors or outdoors. So the first problem is giving the player options that could incrementally change the difficulty setting – and in the worst case here because the player does not have the information at the time they make these ‘permanent’ decisions to even be aware of how they might be affecting the difficulty (note though, this can easily be solved by a ‘re-spec’ option, although we get into a potentially bad kind of punishment rather than a challenge then). In the end this didn’t turn out to be a major problem in Bullet Witch though, as it turned out almost any abilities or upgrades you selected would be useful throughout the game. I ended up playing it safe though mainly (as would most I suspect) and finished the game with a fully upgraded ‘standard gun’ along with many health and energy recharge generic ability upgrades, and every spell at at least their first level of power (mainly because I wanted to see what they all did!).
I then re-started the game on “Hard” difficulty to see how it would play & to potentially try a different upgrade path… and promptly waltzed through the first level with ridiculous ease – because, I quickly realised to my surprise, I’d kept all of my abilities over from my previous character. Now whilst this persistence opens up all kinds of possibilities for the ‘toybox’ experiences in play, and experimentation, and even different methods of solving challenges within the levels (particularly with having all magic options unlocked from the start), it irrevocably damages the difficulty setting of the game. This is the second and much more important problem introduced – rather than “Hard” actually being harder than Normal for me now, it was instead ridiculously easy – at first I got the brief flare of fun of the Juggernaught ‘gamer type’, obliterating the hapless foes who’d previously impeded me, but after a short time, I was left really disappointed by this. I realised the only way to re-gain a real challenge from this title would be to grind my way to every single upgrade – and then, only then, when the playing field was levelled again, could I see what the real challenge of the even harder difficulties might be, and Bullet Witch does offer many. I was almost sucked in by this – there were even Achievements on offer (gasp!) – and the grind curve wasn’t too bad, I could see some relatively quick ways to actually get everything… however, as always when faced with a grind, I eventually asked myself why was I bothering to do this, and found the answer was rather wanting.
So, as is typical for me, rather than making me spend more time on a title like this, these grind mechanics actually put me off and made me spend much less time playing it, as I became quickly disinterested in a challenge that had once seemed very promising to me.
I’m actually wondering where any real challenge or real game can get away with this kind of design, I’ve explained why I hate these systems so much before, but I mainly focused on how they affected competitive games – and I’m honestly struggling to think of any challenge titles that manage to use such mechanics in such a way that doesn’t spoil the challenge in some way either. Even some challenge titles I’ve enjoyed a lot were hampered by this, for example the first Ninja Gaiden, Radiant Silvergun, or Gun Valkyrie. The only real way I experienced & enjoyed those challenges was on the first playthrough – I only went back and replayed sections with my ‘super-powered dude’ for a bit of ‘Juggernaught’ and ‘experience’ style fun at times – not for much of a challenge. It really damages the replayability, the potential actual ‘game’ aspect of highscores or time trials – all that potential is crushed by the weight of the grind.
I should note for the review that the graphics in Bullet Witch are a bit ropey at times as the game was I believe originally designed for the first Xbox and hastily ‘upgraded’ for the 360. However the great designs – great character design in particular – generally makes up for this. The storyline is B-anime movie grade… which is actually quite reasonable by videogames’ appalling standard but in places it is hilariously bad. And if you don’t predict the ending way before it occurs, you clearly haven’t paid much attention. The attract movie appears like Bullet Witch will have a lot of amusingly atrocious voice acting; I was really hoping for a rerun of Mangle videos swear-happy “fucking demons!” however there was sadly very little of this, it’s generally just bad-bad and bland and makes you wish for a Japanese voice & subs option. Bullet Witch is also rather short and lacking in simply enough challenges really. There’s a handful of really annoying glitches too. Whereas my whiffed lightning on the tank anecdote earlier didn’t impede my progress once I discovered a workaround, there are times when fluffs like this stop you dead in your tracks and kill you and force you to restart the section or level. In particular there’s one boss battle where I got repeatedly killed by glitches with the magic attacks (which you had to use) freezing my character – I almost didn’t bother playing past that stage!
Overall I liked the actual mechanics and the style of challenge in Bullet Witch much more than Bayonetta, there really is quite a lot of good stuff here – it stressed knowledge skills, some strategic and tactical thought, positioning and aiming skills far more than the twitch, combo-learning and pattern recognition skills in Bayonetta. In the end though, whilst it had a lot more potential for my taste, it suffered from the same underlying flaw that damaged the actual challenge within it. Perhaps one day I will decide to go back, grind my way through everything Witch has to offer, and then re-play the game on harder difficulties and see if there actually IS another fun challenge at the end of the grind (and I will be sure to re-review it if I do)… but as a single-player only title, my interest is always going to be limited anyway, so it’s pretty unlikely I’ll ever dedicate the time to do this. So for now, my bullet soul has been left unsatisfied by Bullet Witch.
Competitive Gaming Design Review: N/A.
Competitive Game Review: N/A. There maybe some online leaderboards etc, but until you’d finished the grind, there’d be no way to compete.
Interactive Story: Positive. You’ll very likely be hooked enough to want to see through to the end, and it’s actually pretty decent by videogame standards.
Toy/Experience: Positive. There’s actually probably more fun to be had than I realise (with my kind of focus) on just playing with the mechanics and physics engine on offer here.
Grind: Highly Negative.
Other good reviews found: For a good but overly positive review that mainly focuses on what Bullet Witch does do well, and what a fun toy & experience it can be, check out Insomnia’s review here.