There is absolutely a place in the world for simple Metroidvanias. We’re happy for developers to finetune their jumping and combat mechanics, open up a 2D game world, and then let a player have at it. There doesn’t need to be complex progression trees: just shove in a few upgrades and some biome changes to keep things trucking along.
We’re not saying that complex Metroidvanias shouldn’t exist; we’re just a bit partial to the ones that keep it simple and focus on the fun. Which is where Witchcrafty comes in. You couldn’t get much simpler and enjoyable – it’s a condensed experience, like a distilled Metroidvania vodka.
It helps that Witchcrafty looks so good. It may be 2D and pixel art, which might make a few snooty people turn up their nose, but it’s hard to deny that it looks spangly. There’s so much detail in the pixelwork, and the characters have all been designed with care. The animations in particular are smooth as Lurpack, giving proceedings the feeling of an animated movie.
You are Witch, who has managed to sleep through an attack on a Satyr village by goblins. But those goblins were agitated by a malevolent other-worldly force, located below their caves. You’re the only one who must investigate, so you’re sent through area after area on the hunt for truth.
The world is sliced up into five realms, each with their own boss at the end. You’ll be visiting castles, forests, caves and mountains, which are a reasonably uninventive bunch. But there’s the freedom to hop on a broomstick and travel back to any of the previous realms, so there’s still the outline of a true Metroidvania here.
Witch starts with a limited toolset. She can jump and thwack things with a weapon, but that’s about it. But true to Metroidvanias, Witch soon develops more. There’s a rush move that allows her to span larger gaps, and a similar iteration of it that can also do damage. The most frequent upgrades are spells: these tend to be elemental, and are tied to particular blocks and chests that require said spell to obliterate them. Of course, you can also use the spells to zap enemies too.
The controls are pretty good, all said. On occasion, we found the jump to have a spot of latency – we found ourselves failing to make a jump, even though we felt the button was pressed in good time. But mostly everything pops off like it should, making Witchcrafty a tight little action-platformer.
There’s limited mana, so you can’t use spells all the time. That mana gets replenished with every successful kill, so the bar is mostly there to stop you from going spell-crazy on a single enemy, massacring them with fireballs or electric bolts. The other collectible is a kind of gem, which accumulates in – hopefully – enough quantities that you can afford to buy a quarter of health or mana. Get four of those quarters and you receive an extension to the relevant heart or bar.
Witchcrafty may be simple, but it’s got a mean streak. The platforming and combat is mostly on the easy side, but it absolutely has the ability to spike suddenly. We’re still cursing some wizards that appear in the middle act of the game (and reappear as an almost unbeatable boss), who fire off volleys of three bolts that are almost undodgeable. Rush through the first two bolts and you’ll get hit by the third. Jump away and the final bolt will home in on you. We sweat in our sleep at the thought of the bloody wizards.
There were moments when we thought Witchcrafty was a touch too unfair, and it was a big enough issue to remove a half mark for us. Because Witchcrafty employs an extremely harsh save system, and we’re not taken with it. When you die – and, when you haven’t extended your health bar yet, that’s very likely to happen – all of your progress is rewound to the point where you last saved. Now, you can only save at extremely limited save points, so you will make progress that amounts to a dozen game screens, a couple of upgrades and plenty of treasure chests, only for it all to be taken away from you.
That’s reasonably common in Metroidivanias, but the saves are so sparse, and the upgrades so tucked away in corners of the map, that we found ourselves introducing some anti-fun habits. We’d unlock a chest and backtrack to a save point. We’d get an upgrade and backtrack to a save point. If the going got tough, we would take baby steps, and that wasn’t a huge amount of fun. If some progress was persistent, or save points were more common than a few per biome, then we’d have had more fun. You can say ‘git gud’ all you want; it didn’t stop us from being overly protective of our progress, and having less fun as a result.
There’s a spikiness, too, in the boss battles. Some are a breeze, and they passed us by like they weren’t there. But some (curse you wizards!) are so frustratingly intense that we genuinely didn’t find a good approach to overcoming them. We defeated them through luck and persistence, and we’re not sure we could complete them again if you put a gun to our temple.
Still, difficulty spikes and harsh save systems aside, there is a cracking, compact little Metroidvania to explore in Witchcrafty. If you’re partial to the thrills of getting further than you did before, racing to a save point before the last health pip gets removed from you, then Witchcrafty has skills in that department. It’s a lean, mean action-platformer, and it gets so much more right than it does wrong. And hey, it helps that it looks enchanting too.
You can buy Witchcrafty from the Xbox Store
- Beautiful pixel art
- Simple but effective Metroidvania
- Spanks your ass more than you’d expect
- Save system grates on us
- Plenty of difficulty spikes, particularly with bosses
- Doesn’t do anything stupendously new
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Sometimes You
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 24 March 2023
- Launch price from - £8.39