Sidestepping any potential controversy about whether or not they exist or if their persecution is merely an expression of historical misogyny, I think it’s a universal truth that if you’ve got a Witch, you need to be able to burn it. It’s an alarming development, then, that Wildfire begins with the failed immolation of such. Jokes aside, it’s an effective and surprisingly stark in media res prologue; a compelling sequence you’ll see in context later. Look, if it’s a good enough narrative device for The Outer Limits, it’s good enough for any video game.
Stealth games are a bit of a sticky wicket. Finding the middle ground between an experience organic enough to be immersive, but “gamey” enough to be fair is a bit of a balancing act. Traditionally, 2D takes on the genre have fared well in terms of raw gameplay but sacrifice edge-of-your-seat tension in favour of transparent, accessible mechanics. Wildfire is no exception. It’s a carefully designed, surprisingly adaptable take on side-scrolling stealth with a killer element manipulation twist – but not even once is it heart-in-mouth scary the way that the stealth genre can be at its most absorbing. It’s up to you if you want something that leans more unpredictable, or a game like Wildfire that feels much closer to the likes of Abe’s Oddysee (more so than its own remake did, but we digress) in presenting you with all the tools you need to succeed, avoiding any gotchas or obfuscating mechanics.
Movement is precise and highly regimented. It doesn’t feel natural per se, but it’s not supposed to. The granular nature of your character’s motion feels grid-based, which means the same thing will always happen if you push a direction, or hold ZL to run in said direction. The distance you can jump is set by stationary or running leaps, and if you screw up, you only have yourself to blame.
That’s the ideal with games like this – nothing is more frustrating in the stealth genre than getting spotted with no idea how or where you went wrong. Wildfire avoids this by giving you all the tools you need to succeed from the off, adding more as you make your way through the game. Besides simply making it to the end of each stage you’ll need to seek out Meteorite Shards for additional passive upgrades, hit switches to open gates that block your progress, and lead villagers to safety by escorting them as well as simply picking up the dozy sods and throwing them around. Many additional variables come into play; hiding in overgrowth, whistling to attract the attention of enemies, pickpocketing, sliding, climbing and – most prominently – casually manipulating the elements.
Yes, that title isn’t just a random word. Your initial attempted roasting seems to grant your Witch the power of man’s red flower, meaning you can suck in flames from any given source of such, then throw them around to create absolute carnage. Collectable upgrades let you extract ever more use from your pyromania, letting you bounce your fireballs off walls to terrify, trap or simply murder your opponents.
Intuitive controls mean you’ll always know exactly where a thrown ball of flame is going to end up, but not necessarily the extent of the destruction you’ll wreak. It helps that despite being a fairly stiff, regimented game – and remember, that’s not a criticism, merely descriptive – Wildfire has plenty of scope for, well, winging it. Thinking on your feet. Improvising. And sometimes, you’ll have to, because you’ll overlook some little detail and the ensuing chain reaction will quite literally send your plans up in flames.
It’s not just fire that you can play around with, mind. You’ll also gain the ability to manipulate water and earth, like a murderous Captain Planet. Freezing bodies of water and constricting enemies in vines (among many other practicalities) offers a ton of marvellous opportunities to be sneaky and for the level design to get ever more complex. You’ll want to keep playing just to see what opportunities for Rube Goldberg-style escalating madness you’ll be able to kick off with a single action.
Progressing through the game and levelling up your abilities can fundamentally change your playstyle in a way that keeps things fresh, also allowing you to return to previously-beaten stages in order to fulfil secondary goals and unlock even more powers. It’s neat that Wildfire retains its challenge despite constantly giving you more and more skills and approaches to situations, but ultimately it is fairly linear in its structure.
There’s nothing wrong with linearity, but paired with the extremely methodical and entirely systems-based gameplay, it can occasionally feel more limited in its scope than perhaps is necessary. This kind of stealth game isn’t for everyone and its artifice is writ very large, but it’s a richly-designed game that tells a decent story, not a richly-designed story fitted around a decent game. Despite its thoroughly organised progression, Wildfire does throw in some nice curveballs to instil a sense of genuine anticipation to the proceedings. You can play the whole thing in local co-op, too, which is always a joy.
The aesthetics let the game down a little, being as they’re so unremarkable, but they get the job done and never obfuscate the challenges, level layouts or goals. Frankly, the music went in one ear and out the other but we suppose that just means it never got in the way of our enjoyment. It certainly looks nice enough throughout, but it seems to be lacking a certain something. Its visuals are reminiscent of a lot of other indie games of recent years and while they’re far from bad, they didn’t really stand out to us. The only major issue here is slowdown – when there’s a lot going on, like guards panicking to and fro as an unquenchable fire rages – the game really chugs. It’s a little odd, given that the graphics here don’t exactly seem to be taxing the Switch, but will most likely be patched.
Taken at its intended pace, Wildfire is a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting game with a multitude of interlocking systems that caters to players who don’t mind thinking on their feet if their best-laid plans go scorchingly awry. The slow pace and frustration of failure won’t appeal to all (though checkpoints are generously placed) but for gamers who don’t mind a bit of a slow burn (tee hee), Wildfire is an expansive and inexpensive title that’s a healthy mix of tropes and ideas familiar enough to feel cosy, and unpredictable elemental action that rewards creative thinking. And the further through the game you play, the more interesting it becomes. An impressive debut.