No Means Bullet Witch
My affinity for bad games has surged recently like the need to vomit after seeing the words Portal and hilarious in the same sentence. Don’t get me wrong, Portal is a clever game with a handful of mildly cute moments but I think I am either too jaded or too unhip to find it drop-your-pants hilarious. I admit, my expectations had been raised to a rather unreachable level by the ridiculous amounts of Portal references floating around the Internet at the time. I temporarily forgot that the teenagers running the Internet can turn subtle and even mundane gags into outrageously saturated meme so I often found myself thinking “What? That’s it? That’s what people won’t shut up about?”
Game journalists—wait, no such thing. Game bloggers went wild over the writing which I can only assume was because it was penned by someone who wrote for a website that was once popular among said bloggers. Said bloggers, particularly bloggers that cover geek culture, have a frighteningly exclusive clique so it seems that any time one of them is featured in a non-Internet-related project they all form a giant circle jerk and unleash a barrage of name-drops and praises onto the unsuspecting reader.
That’s not to say the writing is bad because it isn’t. The humor is subdued (most of the time anyway), which is a good thing, but it fails to produce the string of mirth-related acronyms the Internet promised me. Kind of like the Telltale Sam & Max games. Reviewers praised the episodes for being a “laugh riot” or “heck of a good time” from beginning to end. I can only assume said reviewers were playing an earlier build of the game that was actually funny because, despite the occasional smirk, the version I had featured topical humor and forced lines delivered via teleprompter. Add a laugh track and it’s Kyrandia 3.
For those of you born after the dark, autoexec.bat-fueled days of DOS, Kyrandia 3 would play a track of canned laughter anytime Malcolm, the main character, said something funny or, in fact, anything at all. “I can’t pick that up,” says Malcolm, queue laughter. I’m pretty sure it was optional, but to this day I wonder what kind of idiot actually thought players would appreciate that feature. It’s like adding a kick-you-in-the-nuts-when-you-die feature to Halo (as oppose to the watch-a-12-year-old-hump-your-corpse feature we have now).
When I talk about a game like Bullet Witch it’s not from the typical reviewer perspective of if-you-can-only-play-one-game-for-the-rest-of-your-life. Portal is a celebration of convention-breaking game play, the first season of Sam & Max accurately describes why the adventure genre has withered and died, and Bullet Witch is the perfect alternative to going out to see a movie you’ll later regret. Either you’ll lose all of the feeling in your arm as you awkwardly try to grope your date or you’ll feel cheap and violated as you attempt to brush off your date’s awkward attempts to grope you. I seem to have broken into personal revelation with that one but hey, I’m writing a review for Bullet Witch on a blog that no one will ever read so I can’t really sink any lower. I’m sorry, Jen.
Bullet Witch is not what I’d call a friendly game. A friendly game doesn’t start you off being shot at with no sense of guidance whatsoever. The difficulty randomly jumps about turning that harmless groping into attempted rape and the controls do nothing to alleviate this phenomena because they are about as smooth as an elephant’s thigh. So why, exactly, is the game worth the time and effort? Probably because if you can manage to forgive the initial, awkward assault you’ll actually find yourself enjoying it (the game, that is). By no means the prettiest game ever, Bullet Witch has a sense of very selective style that makes it more enjoyable than it ought to be. Though there are only a handful of creatures they are wonderfully grotesque, even the typically lame-o foot soldiers, the most disturbing enemies are the victims that have been possessed by, I don’t know, the devil, I guess. Their heads flower into giant, hydrocephalic tumors and they run about with their arms flailing behind them, all the while making this nightmarish, high-pitched garbled battle cry. Definitely one of the creepiest creatures I’ve encountered in a game, right up there with the evil demon children in the original Silent Hill.
Then there’s Alicia, you’re main character. I’m always a bit hesitant with games that feature a leading female character because typically they are written by men and thus completely unbelievable, oversexed, and annoying. Alicia herself is fairly mute most of the time which works in the game’s favor because had they given her more dialogue and, say, a personality she would have quickly become a Quentin Tarantino-esque bad girl. Even after we’re treated to (or possibly assaulted with) some character development Alicia remains pretty much unchanged. Her design is…inoffensive. What make’s Alicia interesting is her gigantic gun. Thing.
Alicia’s gun is beautifully obscene, a massive iron girder decorated in tastefully arranged shrapnel. She holds it upright by her side like a staff until she’s ready for battle, when she then spins it around with little effort, switching between it’s various modes. The only mode you need to worry about is the Gatling gun. Alicia’s mobility is limited to a slow walk while armed with this beast but the effect is wonderful. The encroaching sense of terror generated from a slow moving, methodical school girl armed with a massive rotating cannon is amazingly well done, like Vasquez wielding the M56 Smart Gun in Aliens except without looking like an angry Puerto Rican boy.
As I mentioned before, style is peppered lightly throughout the game but it’s potent enough to make up for the otherwise generic settings. Cities and forests display no visual difference to cities and forests in every other game released within the past 10 years. It’s inhabitants feature varied body types which is a nice touch but don’t quite reach the level of individuality of NPCs that are in Shenmue. Now that I think about it, the children in that game are probably creepier than the ones in Silent Hill.
Where Bullet Witch’s cities come to life is when they die. As you progress your more powerful spells become excessively destructive—to the point where they will level entire city blocks (and yourself in the process). Dust and debris obscure your view as you attempt to dodge large chunks of building powered by a rather unforgiving physics engine. Explosions are spectacular when you’re able to see it but most of the time you’ll either be dead or running away as fast as you can. Ducking behind large slabs of concrete or even other buildings isn’t an option because most objects in the game can be moved with the right amount of force. This means if you aren’t flattened by falling rocks you’ll be crushed by the brick wall you were cowering behind that was knocked over by the falling rocks.
Chatty NPCs seem to be a trend I must have missed out on during my next generation sabbatical and though they are nowhere near as annoying as the legion of expendable soldiers that routinely shoot you in the back of the head with a rocket launcher in Earth Defense Force 2017, I found myself tuning them out. I almost feel this takes away from the overall sense of terror that the game is trying to portray (almost because, really, it’s Bullet Witch). The best enemies, as I mentioned before, just make horrible noises. The foot soldiers speak in clear sentences and attempt comedy. This doesn’t add anything to the game aside from encouraging the player to kill these creatures faster.
Another quibble is that Alicia rarely displays any sort of reaction when being torn to shreds by enemy bullets and, before you can even notice the void in her health bar, has gently crumpled to the ground extremely dead. I experienced more than a few controller dropping moments as Alicia apparently couldn’t go on living and silently ended her existence. No suicide note, no razor scars, just run run run oh, I can’t go on any more, crumple.
This effect is amplified by the game’s biggest offense: the final boss battle. Much like Alicia, the last boss (which is essentially Blizzard’s Diablo with snakes for an arm) shows little sign that he is being damaged. Oh sure, your bullets spark off of him but they also spark off of other things in the game, such as rocks, trees, and the ground. This wouldn’t be so bad if the battle itself didn’t take a half-freaking-hour. To be fair the game does warn you that the impending battle may take some time but common sense says that no designer in their right mind would create a boss battle where the boss in question spends most of his time behind a shield that can only be taken down by the loser NPCs or, damn him, running away from you. When you finally catch up to him he lifts himself up and floats on down to the of the street. Did I mention the street’s about a mile long?
In order to use magic (your most powerful attacks) Alicia must fill a meter by taking down enemies. The only enemies in this battle are randomly spawned from Diablo himself and are in the form of ridiculously fast, sporadically flying ghost skulls that will gnaw on you and disappear if you get too close. What’s really annoying is that Diablo never launches the skulls when you need him to. He’ll zip around the same damn street for what seems like days before the game realizes that hey! You’re magic points are low. Have fun shooting down these ethereal humming birds with our hilariously imprecise targeting system.
Magic is, of course, the most efficient way to take out the boss, specifically Alicia’s mega spells: lightning and meteor. Meteor is a stupid idea because even though there are nice, wide-open portions of stage, it mainly consists of a narrow street so chances are you’re going to get hit by debris and die. Lightning requires you and your target to remain stationary for about 10 seconds which is fine if your target is parked car or an already-dead monster. If it’s a floating demon that summons vicious, biting skulls when you don’t want him to you are royally screwed. If the ghosts don’t cancel your spell you can bet Diablo has turned around (surprise! He’s only vulnerable from behind) so congratulations on wasting another 15 minutes of your life.
Eventually I discovered that I could take the giant bastard out with my Gatling gun so I relentlessly followed the big red twat like some sort of devil-worshipping groupie, ripping into his snake arms which does nothing. Turns out you have to wait for the audio cue that informs you his snakes can be taken out before you can actually take them out. Hooray. So I unleash a flurry of lead into the creature’s back, get the cue, and start on the snakes. Now he launches ghosts like it was the 4th of July in hell so I spend much of my time performing amazing acrobatics and trying my damndest to impress the Russian judge instead of saving all of humanity.
I’ll admit I’ve never been a fan of boss battles because they are typically stacked against you, require you to conform to certain tactics, and act as a roadblock in a game. Not to say there aren’t fun boss battles that actually allow for creativity or that aren’t rewarding, but to fake difficulty by testing the player’s patience doesn’t make me warm up to the cliché. Add in Alicia’s innate ability to suddenly relinquish her own life and you’ll soon find yourself smashing your controller against the nearest wall.
Despite the developer’s best efforts Bullet Witch, at its core, is a run-and-gun arcade game with a bit technique and style. Setting aside the game’s issues, it’s a pretty good deal for $10. Ideal even. As development costs and licensing fees sky rocket the slightly above average games are hurt the most. A publisher really cannot charge $10 for a title and expect to make a profit right now. The best you could hope for is making a downloadable game but then you must deal with a whole batch of new restrictions.
Average games can lead to incredible hits but if their predecessors can’t break even it is doubtful the developers will be given another chance. There is no room in today’s industry for average.