Reviews | Xbox 360
By Alex Kierkegaard / December 10, 2006
In the year 2013 mankind's downfall is almost complete. A series of catastrophes, including earthquakes, wars, viruses, and extreme weather conditions, have decimated the population and left entire nations in ruins. It is during this time that magic is reborn and monsters start appearing, commencing a systematic extermination of the few remaining survivors...
Onto this bleak stage steps a dark-haired witch named Alicia, wielding the power of the devil. Armed with an enormous gun and an array of powerful magical spells, she is guided towards an unknown goal by a mysterious voice. Where did she come from, what is she searching for and where will her quest lead her, and is she even human?
Bullet Witch, developed by cavia and published by up-and-coming Xbox 360 überpublisher AQ Interactive, was last summer's most explosive action game. Starring the most stylish videogame character since Devil May Cry's Dante, and with outstanding art and music, a jaw-dropping physics engine, and a post-apocalyptic setting rich in atmosphere, it is one hell of a ride, and one of the 360's most enjoyable and inventive games to date.
The action begins in a ruined northeastern American city bathed in a majestic sunset, where the heroine, you, Alicia, is facing off against three zombified skeletal soldiers. A dozen hours worth of killing and destruction ensue during which time you'll vanquish countless such enemy soldiers, scores of disgusting monsters, and giants so huge, that when they go down they make entire city blocks tremble. And oh yeah, you'll also fight a dragon while riding on the back of an airliner, and make whole buidlings explode.
You'll accomplish all this using a vaguely broom-shaped weapon called the Gunrod, and nine magical spells. The Gunrod can assume one of four forms (machine gun, shotgun, cannon and gatling gun), and the magic is divided into a regular category, which includes six spells, and a higher one, which includes three. Only the first two Gunrod forms are available to you at the beginning of the game, and only a couple of spells; to unlock everything else you'll need to spend skill points in-between stages.
Borrowing from the now widely-adopted Devil May Cry formula, the game ranks you at the end of each stage according to several criteria (kills, clear time, etc.), and awards you a number of skill points based on your performance. These you can then spend to acquire new forms for the Gunrod and new spells, as well as to power them up, and to extend your health and magic bars.
Learning to use effectively all of Alicia's powers is key to beating the game -- even on the normal difficulty setting. The Gunrod is a powerful and versatile weapon, causing massive damage to enemies and terrain obstacles even in machine gun form, but it won't be enough. The challenges you face are often so difficult, that only magic can overcome them.
When enemies attack you in great numbers you summon a flock of ravens to distract them; when they bring in the tanks and rocket launchers you conjure a magic wall and take cover behind it; and when you are completely surrounded and outgunned, you call forth a tornado that simply flattens everything in sight (including yourself, if you are not careful).
Spells consume magic energy, of course, and so does reloading the Gunrod, so you won't be able to simply unleash one tornado after another. Use a powerful spell at the wrong moment and you'll likely have to face the next big challenge with only bullets and quick reflexes. Also, though the magic bar fills up as time goes by it only does so up to a certain point. To fully recharge it you'll have to keep killing enemies with the Gunrod (spells don't count for this purpose), though you'll always have a certain minimum amount of energy available -- just enough so you'll never run out of ammo.
Health works in a similar way, regenerating with time, so when you get hurt you can duck out of harm's way and wait until you are fully healed. Regeneration in action titles was first used to great effect in Halo (2001), and has since been adopted by several other games with varying degress of success. The point behind it is to avoid many deaths and restarts, so as to keep the game moving forward without actually making it any easier. In Bullet Witch it works out well and also fits the heroine nicely, what with her having supernatural powers and all.
Among the many things that surprised me about this game was the natural feeling of the control system, which took me all of ten minutes to master despite its peculiarities. The camera is fixed a certain distance behind Alicia and follows her around, and a target reticle shows you where she is aiming. Pressing in the right stick makes the camera get closer to Alicia's back, restricting your field of vision (and turning speed), but providing much greater accuracy for aiming. Moreover, though the bulk of the action takes place outdoors, one neat feature is that in those instances when you are fighting in small rooms, corridors, and the like, the camera goes as far as to switch to first person view when there is simply no space for it to maneuver. This is a seamless effect, with the camera slowly inching closer to Alicia's back as the area gets restricted, and finally becoming one with her. This is pulled off so well that you scarcely notice it, especially when it happens in the thick of combat.
Now combine all the above with a melee attack (Gunrod meets monster face), a Neo-style jump (essential for dodging anything from enemy fire to cars being hurled at you by magic-using enemies), and an always-useful crouch, and what you have is quite an agile and versatile lady indeed. Two minor criticisms are that her melee attack is very weak, and thus useless, and that the spell selection process can be somewhat awkward and time-consuming (you bring up and flick through three transparent menus, choosing from available spells using the shoulder buttons). It would have been much better to use a combination of the d-pad and the shoulder buttons to pick spells, and add a small icon at some corner of the screen to indicate the currently selected spell, instead of having this needlesly large menu get in the way of the action.
Next to the bewitching Alicia the physics engine is unquestionably the star of the game. Note that just because it's called a "physics" engine doesn't mean it has to be realistic -- the latest Ridge Racers all have physics engines, though they belong to a different universe than those of the Gran Turismos. Likewise, Bullet Witch is no Half-Life 2. Things here work a bit like in those Hollywood movies where two cars lightly bump into each other and are immediately engulfed in flames and rocking explosions. But this game goes even further: blow up a fuel tank and it shoots up to unimaginabile heights; shoot a gas station fuel pump and half a city block goes up in flames. The shit doesn't just hit the fan in this game -- it blows through the roof and takes the fan and the whole house with it.
And this really is what Bullet Witch is all about, and why it plays so differently to every other 3D action title around. Though the game has many other great aspects, it is the engine that makes it.
These days you are likely to come across many "internet videogame commentators" who seem to think that the Xbox 360 and the PS3 are too powerful for their own good. Their incoherent mumblings always go something like: "What do we need all this power for, Wii this and that blah blah blah". When they see Alicia demolish towering downtown buildings or go up against King Kong-sized monsters, trust me, they will be singing a different tune. THIS is what we need more power for. It's not just about extra polygons, higher-res textures and fancy particle effects -- the game is in fact rather unremarkable in those respects -- it's about the scope of the action the extra power allows for. Bullet Witch would simply not have been possible on something like a PS2.
To get a feel for what I mean by scope, consider the following scenario. You are on the runway of an airport terminal engaged in combat against a small army of enemies, including several magic-using flying brains which have the habit of levitating everything in sight (including refuelling vehicles and even small jets) and hurling it at you. About the only place where you can hide from their relentless attacks is under a parked jumbo jet, so you run towards it and take cover right beneath its fuselage, behind the landing gear. For a few blissful seconds all is well; you are picking off a few enemies at a time with the Gunrod and your health is regenerating quickly. But what do you do when the plane you are hiding under suddenly starts to rise, and you realize that within seconds it will come crashing down right on top of you?
It's unique situations like this that Bullet Witch creates which will make you look at the "Only on Xbox 360" stamp on the cover of the box in a different light. The game opens up the 3D action genre and forces you to do much more than just run, shoot and reload, all the while constantly running, shooting and reloading. And since level design is very uneven and inventive -- with the fighting sometimes taking place in wide open spaces, yet other times in claustrophobic little rooms, sometimes against armies of low-level gunmen, other times against single foes of overwhelming power -- you'll need to come up with strategies on the fly and use Alicia's powers creatively to keep going, at least if you are to avoid having to replay the same portion of a stage several dozen times.
Bullet Witch is something unexpected alright, but I am not at all surprised by the team of people who brought it to us. cavia is one of the most promising new developers working at the moment, with several impressive titles already in its resume, such as the tightly-focused Koukaku Kidoutai: Stand Alone Complex (2004) and the ambitious Drag On Dragoon 2 (2005). Youichi Take, who directed SAC as well as the light gun shooter Gun Survivor 4 (2003), makes games that betray a desire to not be confined by genre, and that is again obvious in his latest work: Bullet Witch is a third person game but it becomes first person when it has to, and the dual analog control system itself resembles that of an FPS. Take's knack for actually "directing" the action, instead of simply throwing a bunch of enemies at you as most everyone else does, is evident throughout. There are scenes of large-scale fighting when you have to painstakingly and methodically take down dozens of enemies one by one; there are segments when you are walking around massive enviroments, gazing towards the distant heights of some skyscraper in the blackest night or across a glittering sea under bright sunlight, and nothing much happens; and then there are moments when you'll be amazed that what you are seeing on screen is a videogame. It's this variety that makes you feel as if you are somehow taking part in an anime OVA, and not simply shooting enemies until you reach an end-of-stage boss. In fact, though the game has half a dozen stages there are only a couple of of boss fights, and the most climactic scene (which I guarantee will leave you breathless) takes place halfway through and not at the end.
Akira Ueda, who previously worked on the art of Drag-on Dragoon (2003), has created here yet another compelling setting. Consider the sharp contrast between the beauty of the heroine next to the ugliness of her enemies, and the fantastic effects of the terrible powers that she commands. Whether it is Alicia's blending of Gothic fashion with Parisian chic, the deeply atmospheric locations, or the truly frightening giants and Berserk-inspired monsters of the latter stages, the artwork and character design is top notch throughout. This is clearly not a cookie-cutter action game starring bald marines and stick-figure enemy soldiers, of the kind US companies pump out at a frightening rate nowadays. And though doubtless some will note technical shortcomings -- some low-quality textures here and there, or the cheap fog effects in two of the latter stages -- the art direction more than makes up for those.
And then everything is tied together with the wonderful theme song, "The Vanishing Sky", written by Masashi Yano (who made his name composing music for a lot of anime shows) and performed by Asako Yoshihiro (young and unknown but talented singer), and a mood-creating orchestral soundtrack. Voice acting for the few protagonists, basically Alicia, Maxwell (the leader of the obligatory human resistance movement) and the occasional demonic figure, are also typically excellent.
But in contrast to what I might have led you to believe up to this point, all is not well with cavia's latest. It is in fact indicative of how effective the core game concept is that, despite the sheer number of things that are not quite right, I can still unreservedly recommend this to anyone and everyone who's into 3D action titles. The fact though remains that cavia doesn't seem interested in investing time fine-tuning and polishing its games, and that's why even their very best work has many flaws and rough edges.
Now if I sat down to list all the game's problems we'd be here all day, but I'll mention some particularly glaring ones to give you an idea. By far the most annoying problem is the hit detection bug, which is perhaps the worst such case I've yet encountered in a 3D action title. It seems that oftentimes I'll unload a whole clip of bullets on an enemy or blast him point blank with shotgun shells, and he'll remain totally unharmed. Now I can't possibly express how maddeningly frustrating this can be, especially when it happens in moments when all hell is breaking loose and the slightest mistake means going back to the last checkpoint. Thankfully, this bug only happens on the low-level gunmen and not on the various other monsters, and furthermore the problem seems to be more acute in some stages and less so in others, so I eventually learned to live with it and work around it. It basically makes the game a notch harder, because it forces you to always try and aim for the center of your enemies, to make sure that all your fire registers. Other issues of a similar nature abound, such as poor enemy pathfinding A.I., or enemies firing through walls or getting stuck behind them.
But even if all such issues were fixed there'd still be many things in this game that could have used a lot more work. For example, though I've made much of Alicia's cool spells, sadly you don't get to use the more powerful ones nearly enough. So yes, you do get to flatten towering structures -- but only two of them, and in only one of the two instances are you actually given a choice, the other feels as if it's forced on you (there's even a cinematic to go with it). And yes, the boss fights are incredible, but dear cavia, couldn't we have at least a couple more? And a handful more enemy types while you are at it? And could you possibly come up with a trailer that doesn't give away ninety percent of the cool moments in the game, including the final boss fight?
The game just needed some more thought put into it; a few more details fleshed out. It's a damn shame really, because with a bit more effort cavia would have had one of the year's best games. I'll give just one more example of the company's laziness, out of a dozen that I wrote down on a notepad while playing. The first two stages make heavy use of Onimusha-style out of bounds areas, which you can get to only by killing a specific foe who is waiting for you in a specific location. This is simply a cheap trick to force you to take a predetermined path through a stage, and though it was acceptable back in 2001 for a first-generation PS2 game, we are entitled, I believe, to expect something better than that nowadays. What gets me is that this technique is used only in a couple of stages, so it's not as if cavia didn't know how to make a stage work without it -- the only explanation I can see for this is that they were just simply being lazy.
But for every single thing that doesn't quite work right, and for every glaring omission, you'll find a corresponding cool moment that will make the whole trip worth the effort. I fondly remember the intense fighting in the airport stage, which starts out inside the sprawling terminal building (complete with check-in counters, a baggage-collection area, and abandoned trolleys) before moving out to the runway and the scene with the airliner I've already described. On the one hand I was disappointed to find that there was no way I could break the glass windows (even using spells that were previously destroying tanks) and simply step out on the runway, and that I was forced to stay inside until I got rid of every single enemy. But on the other hand, when things started getting tough and I found myself under attack with my back to the wall, I was delighted to see that I could hole myself up in the restrooms to regenerate, and make short monster-killing excursions whenever I was at full strength.
So Bullet Witch is far from perfect, but in the end I am always willing to swap some perfection for a lot of reach. cavia reminds me very much of From Software, another Japanese company made up of very talented individuals, making compelling and ambitious, but always rushed and unfinished games. Just compare this to the Otogis, or even to Metal Wolf Chaos (2004), an outrageous and immensely enjoyable action title with giant robot destruction on an unrivaled scale. The latter just needed tighter controls and a bit more variety to become an all-time classic (and worldwide distribution to move more copies, and to be on a console other than the Xbox), but in the end only a handful of Japanese From Software fans played it and appreciated it. I can only hope that cavia's latest doesn't end up sharing the same fate.
Bullet Witch will be released in North America in early 2007 courtesy of Atari. cavia is reportedly busy improving the game, so the more annoying bugs should be gone by the time the West gets its hands on it.