Bullet Witch is a clunky, messy game. It was clearly made on a very low budget, and it looked dated even when it first came out for Xbox 360 in 2006. If you’re the kind of person that needs your games to be polished and pristine, with production values coming out the wazoo, you’re going to want to give this one a wide berth.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get on to what actually matters: Bullet Witch is a fascinating game with a lot of creative ideas and a surprisingly heartfelt and thoughtful story beneath its B-grade trappings.
Bullet Witch takes place in 2013—which, at the time the game was made, was the near future—in a world that’s been overrun by demons and zombified soldiers. Cities are in ruins and humanity lives in fear; a small resistance force made up of former soldiers tries to fight back, but there’s little they can do.
Enter Alicia, a witch whose broom his the form of a massive rifle, and who looks like a sort of proto-Bayonetta. She’s guided by a strange, disembodied voice (“The Darkness”) and for reasons not revealed until much later, her mission is to stop the demon hordes once and for all.
That sets up the first of Bullet Witch‘s innovations: magic. In a lot of ways, this is a typical third person shooter, but the various spells available put a unique twist on that. You can, for instance, summon a wall to use as cover where there isn’t any—something that becomes crucial when you start encountering snipers and their instant-kill bullets. You can call down a pack of ravens to harass and debilitate crowds of enemies, and use a “force push” type spell to move objects around to give yourself a tactical edge.
Bullet Witch isn’t the first shooter to incorporate magic—not by a long shot—but the way its implemented here brings so much to the game. It gives you the the tools and the freedom to get creative in how approach each challenge: you could position a wall in such a way to create a bottleneck for enemies trying to reach you, or magically herd foes together to get skewered on a pit of witchy spikes, or call down a pack of ravens to incapacitate a group of zombies while you line up a powerful, tank-destroying lightning bolt.
Granted, the the game doesn’t force this sort of creativity; weak AI and generic enemy designs (at least in terms of their attacks and patterns) mean you can do just fine with minimal use of magic. In fact, it’s probably more efficient to treat the game as typical third-person shooting gallery, especially on easy and normal difficulties where Alicia had enough health to just soak most incoming damage.
But the option to get experimental and creative is there, and liberal use of Alicia’s magic—even if its not strictly necessary—makes playing Bullet Witch a lot more fun, on an intrinsic, fundamental level, than most of its peers.
It’s also a refreshingly short. In a world where games seem to just get bigger and longer to meet some arbitrary expectation of “value”—often to the detriment of pacing and storytelling—it’s nice to play a game that you can get through in five or six hours. This is especially true for action games, given the focus and attention they demand. You can jump into Bullet Witch, have a whole lot of fun for a few hours, and then be finished, without the burnout or tedium that often comes with longer games. If you still want to spend more time with the game after the credits roll, there are a few bonus missions and such that were initially released as DLC.
Sins of the Father
That brevity also helps Bullet Witch tell an oddly thoughtful and moving tale. At first glance, it’s very typical video game stuff—zombie apocalypse and a superpowered hero—but there’s a lot more to it than first meets the eye.
About halfway through Bullet Witch, we learn the source of the demonic horde: an unnamed archaeologist who, grieving the sudden death of his daughter in a plane crash, turned to necromancy to try bring her back. In the process, he opened a portal to hell, and threw the world into chaos.
I don’t know if the writers were psychic or what, but they achieved a potent deconstruction of the “sad dad” trend a good decade before it became the cliche that it now is. Instead of a faux-emotional look at the Power Of Fatherhood to let a man get in touch with his feelings, Bullet Witch questions the toxic masculinity that stunts the emotional maturity of so many men in the first place. In his inability to deal with his emotions, in his selfishness, and in his refusal to acknowledge that some things are beyond his control, the archaeologist unleashed an apocalypse that someone else has to clean up. (Prophetic much?)
That someone, as you can probably guess, is Alicia. She was the kid who died in the plane crash, and her magical abilities are a result of her otherworldly resurrection. That’s also why she fights the demon horde: she feels a responsibility for her father’s sins. She didn’t choose this life, and it’s clear that she has nothing but disdain for her father, but she still carries the burden of redemption.
With this development, Bullet Witch also takes aim at the old woman in a refrigerator trope (where a woman is killed off in order to further the story of a man). When you first learn of the archaeologist, it’s easy to assume that he’ll end up being the big bad guy. Setting aside for a moment how obvious it is from the outset that Alicia is his daughter even before that’s properly unveiled, the archaeologist’s whole story hinges on the off-screen death of a girl we never see.
But then, rather than simply being killed off, Bullet Witch reveals that the refrigerated girl is actually the hero we’ve been embodying it the whole time. Further, the archaeologist never becomes more than a nameless piece of backstory. He never makes a pact with the devil to become shine sort of super-powered daddy demon ready for an epic father-daughter showdown; he dies a pathetic, unceremonious death at the hands of his daughter while she’s en route to saving the world from his mistakes.
End of spoilers
That Bullet Witch can achieve so much with such concision speaks to the talents of the writers. With just a handful of cutscenes spread across six levels, the game manages to tell an insightful and poignant story. The B-grade tone and low budget add an element of trashy fun, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that this isn’t a narrative with a lot of depth to it.
Diamond in the Rough
Yes, Bullet Witch is low-budget game and it shows. Even rendered in high resolution on PC, the graphics look dated. The controls are clunky, and the UI isn’t intuitive at all, especially for life and keyboard players. Environments are big, empty, and forgettable in their visual design. There isn’t a lot of variation along enemies, and their AI is abysmal.
But what Bullet Witch does well is worth so much more than what it doesn’t. This is a game that brings fresh ideas to an incredibly stale genre, and uses that as a platform to tell a more moving and thoughtful story than many would give it credit for. I couldn’t be more grateful to XSEED for giving Bullet Witch another shot at life, because it sure deserves it.
Bullet Witch is developed by Cavia/Marvelous AQL and published by XSEED Games. It’s available now for PC (reviewed) and Xbox 360.
A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.