The Hound of the Baskervilles freaked me out when I was a kid. I was one-hundred percent absorbed when I read it, gripping and flipping the pages. The image that haunted me every night as I put it aside was this: standing alone amidst a vast, empty moor, with not a living soul around, having no real defense, and knowing that somewhere out there a horrifying beast was coming for me. Worse: when it found me, I would not be able to outrun it, as its frightening visage would paralyze me.
This is why Andrii Vintsevych’s Witch Hunt gets me.
This indie title is a horror-themed hunting game with a focus on “exploration, non-linearity, and atmosphere.” In it, you play as a traveler who has been attacked by some beast. Your horse has run away, and you find yourself at the entrance of Bellville. It’s a spooky little New England town, complete with a hanged woman near the front, a church, empty houses, a locked cabin (with a door that knocks back), and problems with undead and other unholy monsters in the neighboring woods.
Sounds like my weekend getaway.
As you wander the vast wood, with frightening beasts hidden throughout, and nothing but single-fire guns to protect yourself, you feel vulnerable and alone. You feel like you would if you were crossing a large area - say, a moor - alone, at night. It’s this feeling of loneliness and vulnerability that makes Witch Hunt a successful horror game.
Survival Elements to Gameplay
At the start, you’ve got a musket and a flintlock pistol. You fire one bullet, and then you have to reload. Relative to most other shooters, the reload process takes a while. The game recommends that you switch to your other weapon rather than reload. You can’t reload as you sprint, so if a scary monster stampedes you and you miss, you’ll be scrambling to switch to your other weapon. Reloading is impractical in the midst of action, but by the time you’ve got your other weapon out the monster is already on you.
As soon as a monster sees you, it’s booking right to you, and they more often see you before you see them. Monster noises can be red herrings, so you never know when the creepy growl you’ve heard off in the trees to the right is real or just a phantom. A well-aimed shot is hard to pull off when a monster is running straight at you.
One-shot weapons aren’t the only element that make you feel weak. If you go into the water, you’ll begin to suffer a cold effect. There’s also a living plant creature that spits acid on you, and if you’re covered in this acid, you have to wash it off in the water. The environment can work against you.
Witch Hunt’s got some nasty foes. One freaky adversary is the “Whisperer.” These things are shadowy figures that speak some nonsensical, scary gibberish and inflict a screamer on your screen when they run into you. There were several times I was fleeing one, hearing it approach from behind, and then had a creepy face appear on my screen with the accompanying scream. You can’t kill these ghouls. You can only dodge them and flee them. Once they’re on you, there’s no escaping their frightening effect. I hate them.
Zombies scream and run at you with arms upraised and stretched forward. They scare me so that I struggle to aim my gun at them, and am relieved when they fall after I fire. There are also demon hounds, spiders, and large ungodly beasts you are tasked to hunt. While playing, I occasionally saw a flying beast overhead. A well-aimed shot led to the corpse of a frightening vampire bat creature careening to the ground. Witch Hunt has a solid group of monsters to frighten you throughout its spooky landscape.
If you want to see the game in action, you can watch GameLuster Plays Witch Hunt.
The game is successful as a horror title not just because of frightening monsters. The gloomy atmosphere is palpable in each area of the game environment. The small town, complete with church; the desolate, eerie woods; and the lakes, with gray mist sitting right above them, are each scenic and spooky. As you play, you keep encountering new sites: a view in the distance from on top of a hill, a river, ruins, artifacts, and so on. I even saw a treehouse.
The knowledge that a beast could appear and start chasing you at any moment creates tension. Several red-herring monster noises sound off as you walk. When you hear these you will usually see nothing. Other times, a more telling scream, or roar, will sound. Then, a creature will suddenly run up behind you, or you’ll spot movement close by. You’re always on your toes while playing Witch Hunt. There were many instances where I thought shadows or crevices on trees or rocks were figures; I was paranoid.
Another chilling factor is a ghostly voice that speaks to you every so often. I assume it’s the title’s “witch.” Whatever it is, I’ve heard it a few times telling me something like “Gather,” and it’s rather unpleasant.
As I noted, you begin with a flintlock pistol and a musket. These weapons afford you one shot that must be well-placed, but there are also abilities at your disposal. A key ability, and one you begin with, is a heartbeat skill called “Darkness Sense.” It senses when you are close to the main monster you are currently hunting. Another skill, and a creepy one, is “Evil Sight,” which allows you to see from the eyes of the monster you’re hunting. You can purchase new abilities from the town’s merchant, or acquire them by picking up books lying about the game world.
To use abilities, you need mana. You pick up mana from dead monsters or by using sacrificial stones. When you use one of these, your character inflicts a wound, and blood spatters. The cringe this induces is just as much a cost of receiving the extra mana as the health you sacrifice.
You can only save at certain stone structures, and this requires mana. No mana, no saving. So if your heart-beat ability drains your mana down, and you reach a save point, it’s no go. This adds tension to the game, but also holds it back from complementing a pick-up, play, then put-back-down lifestyle. If scattered stones must be used to save, that is acceptable, but rid the mana requirement. As is, you have to find a save stone, and have enough mana. This has made it very hard for me to keep my progress saved.
Guidance on the Hunt
The main progression in the game comes via felling specific beasts you are tasked to track. I want some method of finding my current objective beyond the “Darkness Sense” heart-beat skill. As is, when I want to find and engage the objective beast, I’m sprinting around a vast territory and have to listen for my heartbeat. Then, I frantically run, and turn in every direction, listening closely for when it beats faster. If I run out of mana, or lose the track and my heartbeat stops, I’m directionless again. Wandering is moody and atmospheric, but it wears down, and I can’t find the monster I’m looking for.
I’ve encountered the first beast a few times. After one shot, it runs out of sight, and you must find it again. This slow process bogs the game down and makes it unnecessarily repetitive. I would rather an encounter with an objective beast last until you defeat it. If it runs, it should remain in view as it gradually escapes, and not disappear out of sight immediately.
Unavoidable Mana Depletion
I have not gleaned a way to activate or deactivate the passive heart-beating ability. So, if I want to save my mana, but my heart is beating for the monster I’m hunting, I can’t help but watch my mana dwindle down. I try to get further away from the target creature so my heart will stop beating so. I wish I could deactivate this ability so I could save my mana for other things, like saving, and only activate this ability when I'm not looking to save.
When you press the appropriate key and bring the map up on screen, you can’t interact with it. Once you obtain the compass you can see yourself on the map, but the indicator for your current location is hard to see. I had to turn all the way around to tell where the red arrow marking me was at - I barely even saw it as it spun around.
When you select a new key to assign an action to, you have to click “Replace” before pressing the key you want. Usually in menus like these, you click the action you want to rebind, then press the key you want to use – there is no Replace button to click. Another nitpick is that you also cannot back out of this menu by pressing Escape; you have to click a back button.
Another issue: neither clicking “Main Menu” nor “Quit” gives you a prompt. Once, I accidentally clicked Main Menu and lost my progress. Yes, it was a mistake on me, but a prompt would be courteous.
There is a nice UI touch worth mentioning: you can adjust your mouse sensitivity from the pause menu. Adjusting this on the fly with no additional menu you must access is very convenient.
When you are killed, the phrase "You Died" suddenly appears onscreen, with a black background. It's so immediate it comes as a relief - it gives you an escape from the scary monster attacking you. If the screen lingered on the view of your assailant gnawing or clawing at your corpse, death would be more taxing.
Witch Hunt has great potential. The atmosphere, monsters, and difficult gameplay premise each make strong first impressions and could be the foundation for a great game. Its promise of non-linear exploration and atmosphere are met. It just needs more fleshing out. It’s in Early Access as of now, and I eagerly await seeing it form into a full game.
Witch Hunt is in Early Access on Steam and costs $9.99. Trevor played it using a copy he purchased.