My last review covered a good attempt at an indie horror game hampered by an inherently flawed premise. ‘The Blackout Club’ was full of creative passion but fell at the first hurdle by forgetting that matching me into a lobby full of stoned Fallout fans wouldn’t exactly make the experience a frightening one. I had a jolly good time but left quickly after for pastures new. So it was fitting when my editors came back to me a few days later with “Witch Hunt”, an indie horror title completely devoid of any multiplayer.
You’re on your own, sonny, and there’s werewolves in them woods. ‘Witch Hunt’ boasts a complete lack of tutorial, rather is designed from the ground up to make you fight your own way through the challenges you’re set. Needless to say, I was very enthused. Before we jump in, it’s important to state that ‘Witch Hunt’ is a 1-man project. It does show, but that’s not exactly the point. I’m not so much a snob so much as I’m an analyst with a platform, so know that the obvious lack of polish isn’t so much a problem for me. I just like to analyse game design. If that’s not how you see games, that’s all cool – But remember who’s writing the review. Ok? Ok.
So this game looks like shit, I have to say. Andrii Vintsevych, the game’s creator, clearly isn’t a man with particularly artistic leanings, yet he’s given the graphics a very good go – So if you like your rays traced and your cels shaded, this isn’t the product for you. But, that being said, I’ve always found poor graphics to be slightly… Creepy?
Perhaps that’s just me, but the jank factor of a game like this have always made my heart shudder a bit. As for why, perhaps it’s a result of being scared shitless by one too many PS1 games as a small child, or maybe it’s half-remembered echoes of playing early Resident Evil with my cousins. Whatever it is, I was in some way able to forgive the presentation. We continue.
Andrii likes to sell this game as an atmospheric experience, I must say – And I will admit it didn’t seem he’d not done a bad job of it. As the game starts with your character strolling into a sleepy town already half-murdered by monsters, there’s a definite feeling that you’re somewhere you don’t belong. It’s simple, but the care being taken to add crowing ravens and the distinct lack of music make the place seem hostile before you’re ever sent on a monster hunt. Speaking of the monster hunt, this is where I realised that the game was lying to me. Indeed, there was no ‘tutorial’ in the way you’d imagine – You are, indeed, dropped into the game world with nary a “press space to jump”.
…But there was tutorialisation galore, all you have to do is play the game and read what you’re told. Loading screens and merchants’ item descriptions will happily dump the game’s manual on you even if you were wanting to proceed blind, and the result is not a game that is challenging, but rather one that’s just playing hard-to-get. Thus, the issues sprouted. I was told about one monster before I’d even seen the one thanks to a tip on the loading screen – “You cannot kill Whisperers, only avoid them” they told me, and so, when I heard whispering in my ears, my first response was to simply walk back the way I’d came and avoid them like a good boy. Think that was easy? Turns out, these things were just jumpscares on a stick. They float towards you, yell “AAAAA”, steal all your mana, and then are gone forever. They even cover the screen with a still image of a scary face as if you’re suddenly playing a prank video from 2008 YouTube… But they’re far from the only monsters.
Zombies, Hellhounds, and of course the Werewolf you’re initially dispatched to take care of all lurk within the forest, theoretically bringing their own challenges to the pot. Unfortunately, they all bring their own flaws too – The Hellhounds were the worst. Charging from the brush at lightning speed as if your ankles are their first meal this week, it’s easy to be attacked from behind before you’ve a chance to react, die, and then be forced to restart from the last checkpoint. Checkpoints you have to spend mana to activate – Mana you’ve probably just lost to an antiquated jumpscare.
Soon, after a few hours of wandering around the forest, the well-crafted atmosphere was completely gone. What remained was a gauntlet of bland pathways occasionally interspersed by the game saying “Fuck you, I’m taking 25-100% of your HP.”, and this is not a matter of a well-crafted but overturned game design, this is merely poor combat that doesn’t allow you to play in a fair way. You’ve two guns, both take several seconds to reload, and both hold only a single bullet at a time. While one shot is enough to kill most baddies, actually getting a shot off against some of the heckhounds is not a game of skill, but of luck.
Miss once, and you’re dead, or near enough. It seems the shooting was designed to resemble a musket first and be fun in a very distant second, because any amount of playtesting should have revealed that this system does not allow a player to make interesting skill-based decisions. It allows them to think fast or lose, like the world’s clunkiest quick-time event. The graphical infidelity started to rub even me after a while.
Finally, I came face-to-face with the werewolf, who charged frantically at me up a hill at breakneck speed. I’d tracked him by setting traps and closely observing the clues the game gave me. I raised my musket and got him dead in the eyes, then prepared to respawn as it didn’t stop. Then, I waited and waited a bit more, When suddenly, whoosh! The boy ran straight past me and back into the woods with his tail between his legs, with an animation so janky I had to stifle a chuckle. Just like that, I knew this game wasn’t the game I’d hoped it to be. Horror is found not in jumpscares and ‘spooky’ iconography. Horror requires pacing, themes, and above all something to actually be scared by. That could be the concept of being forgotten when you die or a big monster that jumpps out of a bush and goes “boo”, but simply collecting some monsters together and having you fight them in the dark does not a scare make.
Sadly, after only an hour or so, the scare was gone and replaced by only frustration and eventually boredom. ‘Witch Hunt’ proves that a game is not just a sum of its aesthetic components; real thought must be put. The idea of figuring our a web of systems while hunting a beast and managing resources sounds fantastic, and as a prototype for this idea the game works fantastically; however, aesthetic and design mistakes make this a flawed example of a final product. With a budget and an actual team on board, maybe there would be something here. But as is, this catch is fit only for the hounds. Did I mention there’s a monster that near-instantly kills you if it sees you? Yeah, fuck that thing.