Reviewed: March 1, 2007
Released: March 1, 2007
Bullet Witch is the hot new action shooter from Atari and Japanese developer, Cavia. Combine one hot, sexy, female witch; one big-ass gun with infinite ammo, and an arsenal of devastating supernatural powers and you might just have the makings for an incredibly fun few days with your Xbox 360.
The Japanese seem totally infatuated with demons and such, and once again the world has been overridden with the ugly buggers and it’s up to Alicia, a mysterious lone female who carries a big stick (a boomstick, or is it a broomstick). The story is pretty cryptic, but you can sort of guess what happens from the chaotic opening montage. Things get more clear…and surprising…as the game reaches its predictably unpredictable conclusion. You just can’t have a story without a good climactic twist these days.
We learn during the opening movie that something went terribly wrong in 2007 and over the course of the next six years it only gets worse. We meet up with Alicia in 2013 just outside New York City in the suburbs as she takes down a few demon soldiers who are killing off the local residents. Thus begins the tutorial and level one of this six-chapter adventure in hell on earth.
Alicia controls much like any other typical action hero. Her overall look and movement reminded me very much of BloodRayne, but that could be the flowing black dress sparking those memories. She carries a gun that is as long as she is tall. Normally, this gun is slung across her back introducing the first of several subtle gameplay nuances. The first time you pull the fire trigger she will swing the gun into the ready position. This takes a good 2-3 seconds, so you don’t have the luxury of instant fire all the time. Once you stop firing, she will put the gun away after a few idle moments.
The gunrod is merely a machine gun at first, but it can be upgraded throughout the course of the game to function as a shotgun, cannon, and gatling gun. Each of these functions can be further enhanced with elemental upgrades so your machine gun can inflict fire damage, the shotgun can create a wind to repel enemies, and the cannon can turn into a sniper weapon.
You move Alicia around with the left stick while aiming and looking with the right. The cursor changes based on the gunrod mode and turns blue or red when over a target. You can click down on the right stick to zoom in slightly. This gives you a bit more accuracy while sacrificing your movement speed, but Alicia will also keep the gun ready while in this view.
Weapons are fun and all, but when you are playing as a witch it’s all about the supernatural stuff and Alicia has an impressive selection of spells at her disposal. You start off slow with Willpower, which acts like Force Push in a Star Wars game. It’s great to shoot a car until it explodes then push the flaming wreck into a group of zombie demons. Ancient Wall is a defensive spell and creates a magical wall you can hide behind. The wall has a certain amount of hit points based on the level of the spell, but it’s a nice place to recoup your auto-regenerating hit points.
Lightning is a really cool spell you get surprisingly early in the game. When cast, Alicia will summon a massive lighting strike you can aim at a singular target. It works well on tanks, roadblocks, and some of the bigger sub-bosses roaming around the levels. There is usually a nice area-of-effect radius for some collateral damage.
Rose Spear has the potential for being a cool spell but by the time I actually “bought” it I had too many other cool spells to use. Basically, you throw out rose petals and they spring up into thorny spikes that impale anybody who happens to be standing there. The few times I did use it the results were most satisfying.
Ravens Panic is another spell that came into the picture just a bit too late, but when I did purchase it I only used it twice and again, wish I had had it for several other encounters. This spell summons a flock of ravens and they attack any group of enemies incapacitating them. So while they are swatting away at the ravens you can unload your gunrod into them. This is especially useful on fast-moving dodging demons.
Sacrifice is a unique spell in that it actually heals rather than harms. Alicia can go up to an injured (kneeling) person, or at greater levels, a group of injured people, and cast Sacrifice healing them and helping add to the survival rate variable used to calculate your final mission score. Healed civilians will often reward you with food (health) while healed soldiers will assist you in combat.
I should make it clear that some spells like Rose Spear and Ravens Panic need to be purchased in the between-level upgrade menu, while other spells classified as Great Magic are simply unlocked at certain key points within the story. Sadly, you cannot use these Great Magic spells in earlier levels, even on subsequent replays of the game.
Great Magic comes in three flavors. We already covered the Lightning earlier, but about halfway into the game you will get the Tornado spell, which might just be the second coolest visual effect I’ve seen on the Xbox 360 to date. A giant funnel cloud spawns from nowhere and starts to travel in the direction you were facing when you cast it. The path of the twister is often unpredictable and I’ve even had it double back on my own location, but for the most part it behaves much like a real tornado, so if you cast it at a trench or gully it will tend to stick and follow the natural terrain. It will rip trees from the ground and tear roofs off of buildings, not to mention picking up demons and spinning them around for a few minutes before dumping the whole mess back on the ground. Just don’t be anywhere near ground zero when the funnel cloud vanishes and trucks and helicopters and roof panels start to rain back down to earth.
Meteor Storm is the final Great Magic and it is so powerful you don’t even get it until about 30-50 minutes before the end of the game. Arguably, there is nothing between the time you get it and the end that is any more difficult that what you have already faced, so I’m not sure why they saved it for so close to the end, but this spell by far is the best special visual effect in the game. Alicia summons a dozen or more fiery meteors from the heavens and they rain down on NYC much like the opening segment in Armageddon. The first set of meteors levels entire skyscrapers and can reduce one or two city blocks to rubble, then the second wave of meteors strike and reduce the rubble to ash and a few sizable chunks of concrete and exposed rebar.
If all of this sounds like fun you are absolutely right. I haven’t had this much fun with a game, probably all this year. Yes, the game is short, clocking in at about 8 hours for an initial pass on Normal difficulty, but the scoring system and achievement points are geared to make you want to replay the game, and this is one game you will want to play again.
The underlying RPG-lite system is pretty clever. You are graded on your performance for each level based on enemies killed, the completion time, and how many humans survived. This determines the number of skill points awarded and these are what you spend to upgrade your gunrod, level-up your spells, or even increase Alicia’s ability to heal and regenerate magic power at a greater rate.
Once in the game, there is a clever mix of spell and weapon combat. Most of the Great Magic spells will nearly drain your magic meter and the only way to restore it is to kill demons with your gunrod. It quickly becomes a balancing act of knowing when to save your magic and when to cast it. If demons are in short supply you might have trouble refilling your magic meter before the next big encounter.
Control is pretty simple once you grasp a few simple concepts. The B button cycles through available gunrod modes, the left trigger dodges, jumps and flips, and the right trigger fires the gunrod. Pushing down on the left stick crouches and down on the right stick zooms the view. The RB and/or LB buttons bring up the magic ring menu and continued presses will cycle through the three-ring system. I’ve already heard some complaints from people about the magic system but it is so easy if you just look at it like a combo. Even the splash screen hints try to make you think of it in these terms.
So if you want to cast Ravens Panic you just hit LB-LB-X or if you want to throw up a protective wall you hit LB-B, and if you want to bring down a few city blocks you hit LB-LB-LB-X and at any time in any ring you simply hit Y to return to the gameplay. You’re ultimately going to settle in with a few favorite spells anyway so memorizing a few combos is child’s play compared to the rest of this game.
Bullet Witch is spread across six massive chapters. I was amazed at just how big these levels are. A good example was the very first level where I started high up in the suburbs and ended up at a suspension bridge leading into the city. From the bridge I could look back and see the entire area I had just blasted my way through including a large winding road leading up the hill to those suburbs just beneath a gorgeous sunset. The level took me nearly an hour to finish but I could still see the start from the end.
The game continues with you going into the city and joining up with some resistance fighters, or perhaps more accurately, they join you. This offers some nice interactions and a few witty one-liners like, “Would you look at the size of that gun!” The city levels (Chapters 2 and 6) are made a bit more complicated with colored barriers that prevent you from going directly to your final objective.
You’ll need to find and kill these giant brains that are generating these force fields. Normally, they aren’t much of a problem, at least until you get to the airport and then they start fighting back as only giant brains can do. They start picking stuff up - you’ll see items slowly levitate and float inwards toward the brain actually protecting it from your bullets, and then it will hurtle all these items at you, but unlike an angry girlfriend throwing a book or a lamp, these brains are throwing trucks, and chunks of buildings, or a city bus, or even a 747. “If the brain starts a suckin…you’d better be duckin” – words to live by.
Once you make it through the city you’ll return to the resistance base located within the sewers then head for the airport to fly off in search of the origin point where all these demons are coming from. This leads to one of the most spectacular boss fights in my gaming career (at least from a conceptual standpoint) and your untimely crash landing in the mountains.
After a trek through the mountains you end up at another military base where you secure a chopper to fly into the woods where you crash again. Security gets heavy in the hills outside the woods with dozens of demons and tanks and snipers, but eventually you make it into the woods (and these are mighty creepy woods) filled with mist and demons and spirits (oh my!). After a most startling revelation (one that I had predicted two levels prior but I still won’t spoil it for you) you seal the demon hole and return to NYC for the final battle with the biggest, baddest demon boss in the game. Just try to leave a few building standing.
Bullet Witch looks good but not great, at least by 360 standards and what we’ve been seeing with recent titles like Lost Planet and Gears of War. Starting with Alicia, who looks much better in close-ups and movies, her movement is a bit robotic. The gun is always swinging and her left arm is pumping a mile a minute as she runs and the click…click…click of those damn high-heeled boots will drive you up a wall. There is a certain flapping to her dress and hair that adds some realism, but overall, she looks and moves like a last-gen game character.
The rest of the character models are pretty basic and similar. There are only one or two models for the soldiers, so they all look and move alike. The skinless zombies are really gross and reminded me of the aliens in They Live (how’s that for an obscure Roddy Piper movie reference). There seems to be only a half-dozen random civilian models for Alicia to talk to and heal.
The levels are massive with tons of architecture and moderately detailed textures. Considering that most of these levels are fully destructible (right down to the ground) I’m surprised they could pack as much detail as they did. I haven’t seen this much free-form destruction since Red Faction and their Geo-Mod technology. And the first time a meteor brings down an entire skyscraper and chunks start falling toward you and you are running away (into the screen) with the city collapsing behind you…well you just wait. I can’t describe it with words.
Lighting is pretty cool and eerie at times. The opening level takes place at sunset with a lot of orange and high contrast and long dark shadows. One thing that bugged me was the unpredictable shadows. You’d be running along minding your own business and the shadow of a tree would appear (or disappear) for no good reason. It wasn’t a draw distance thing because I could turn ever so slightly and it would pop back (or go away). For the most part the shadows were spot on and very good looking with the exception of the jumbo jet boss fight where Alicia’s shadow was very blocky for some reason. Not that you’ll have time to be analyzing the composition of her shadow.
The cutscenes are all created with game-engine graphics and there are some cool newspaper summaries of the missions that cover the highlights of your previous actions. There is also a cool closing movie that shows more newspaper clippings giving some post-game updates. Sadly, there is no teaser clip or bonus movie for sticking through all the credits.
Of course, any minor quibbles I might have with anything visual is immediately overshadowed by the amazing spell effects. Even though I summoned lightning 74 times, and called forth 48 twisters, and rained down meteors 7 times I never once got tired of watching Alicia’s cool summoning animation and the resulting elemental action followed by the devastating results. These are truly the WOW moments in Bullet Witch and the core of the gameplay.
There is some suitably haunting music for the movies and a few scripted sequences but most of the time you are left in total musical silence. In fact most of the game you’ll be hearing the click…click…click…(make it stop)…click of high heels on pavement, tile, or dirt. They don’t click so bad on dirt.
There are some impressive sounds for the gunrod and the Great Magic comes with all the expected supernatural flavor associated with summoning lightning, twisters, or fiery chunks of rock from the heavens. There are also plenty of collateral sounds, explosions, rumbling tanks, thumping attack choppers, and crumbling rock and concrete.
The voice work is spotty in places but overall I enjoyed it for what it was, a campy B-movie adventure with a hot witch fighting ugly demons. Alicia is a woman of few words but I enjoyed every syllable she spoke. Darkness (the unseen voice who guides Alicia) is really creepy, but also fun and even cracks a few sardonic jokes, especially about Alicia’s bad luck with flying. At the end I was sure she was going to hop on her gunrod and fly off into the sunset.
The rest of the cast is equally as good with some truly memorable lines coming from the unexpected mouths of the demons you are fighting. Gems like, “Why are corpses so cute?” and “Oh, she has pretty skin” will keep you laughing – if you are into sick, twisted humor.
Bullet Witch is short by design. On Easy you can probably walk all over this game in 6-8 hours. It took me about 8 hours on Normal and I’m going back on Hard now with an average of 70-80 minutes per chapter, just because I die and reload a lot.
Speaking of reloading, the game has a liberal checkpoint system so you never have to manually save provided you have turned on the autosave feature. I would have preferred a save anywhere scheme because there are numerous COOL moments in the game I want to show people, but they are almost always near the end of a 50-60 minute level. Once the checkpoint is overwritten you can never go back without restarting the entire level.
Achievement hunters will be able to earn some quick points by merely finishing each of the six chapters on any difficulty. I was extremely annoyed that the game doesn’t retro-reward you for easier skill levels, so even though I finished the game on Normal (and soon Hard), I will still have to play it on Easy if I want 50 more A.P. You’ll also need to unlock hidden difficulty modes and beat those if you want all 1000 points.
Along with the quest for maximum achievement points, the ranking for each level will certainly encourage players to replay previous levels. The Chapter Select option unlocks after you beat the game the first time, and while you cannot increase your skill points and upgrade Alicia, you can best your previous chapter scores and increase your rank, which is also tracked on Xbox Live leaderboards.
Atari is promising additional content packages for Bullet Witch in forthcoming scheduled intervals. These will include new challenge levels as well as new costumes for Alicia. I can only imagine what they have in store for us based on the conceptual artwork I’ve seen. Some of this content will be free while other packages will cost a nominal fee.
Yes, Bullet Witch is a short game, and it’s probably not going to appeal to graphics-crazed gamers who live and die by the textures and pixel shaders. What you can expect is an original heroine with a big crazy gun, some killer spells, and enough demons and destructible environments to satiate anyone’s appetite for destruction.
Play it once and you’ll be under its spell. I literally couldn’t put the game down until I finished it. Bullet Witch might not be as next-gen as some of the other stuff competing for the same shelf space and your gaming dollar, but it certainly is one helluva ride and a bewitching good time.