If you've been reading the last few issues of D-3, you have no doubt seen the special previews on Capstone's newest 3D action/adventure, "Witchaven". This is a title we have been following along closely since its early beginnings to the final, shrink-wrapped boxed copy. Now that it is finished and shipping, it's time to get down to the nitty gritty and finally give it a well-deserved review.
As I've stated before, Witchaven truly is an incredible, ground-breaking 3D fantasy. In some respects, it's similar to Interplay's Stonekeep or Raven's Heretic, but it's also intrinsically different. Although the game is set up like a 3D shooter, it has many other elements not found in any of those types of games. In one respect, it's like a role-playing game; complete with hit points, experience levels and all sorts of mystical spells and fierce weapons. On the other hand, it proffers gameplay similar to the Dooms and Dark Forces out there, with huge levels and unending corridors brimming with all sorts of evil creatures. I cannot explain exactly what category or genre Witchaven actually falls into, but it really doesn't matter. What does matter is that this game is completely amazing and a blast to play. But, before I blow the whole review in the first two paragraphs, allow me to go into a little more detail about Witchaven and what you can expect to get with your hard- earned gaming dollars.
The story is set deep within a volcanic pit on the Island of Char. It seems your ancestors foolishly opened a portal to another Realm, and in doing so, lead the way for an evil witch and her army of demons. As a result, a shadow of death and destruction has been cast upon the land, shrouding your people in never-ending darkness. You have become the chosen one. Using your wits, spells, weapons, and courage, you must make your way deep into the mystical lair of Witchaven to once and for all conquer the demons and creatures who stand over and watch the darkness - while the storyline is actually quite good, with an accompanying eight page introduction in the instruction manual, it's basically only window dressing and really doesn't add or detract from the game.
One of the key and most unique features Witchaven offers, is it's the first game to hit retail shelves showcasing 3D Realms licensed, "Build engine". What this remarkable new engine does is add new depth and dimensions to the playfield that have never been accessible or present before. The best comparison I can make, is that it gives the player the sense they are moving around in "true architecture". Each various structure or building you encounter can now have numerous floors or levels and each of those levels can have real rooms in real space that you can not only look left or right in , but up or down as well.
Witchaven is set-up with huge, (we're talking gigantic) continuously streaming levels. The goal for each one is to uncover the Pentagram (key) which is hidden somewhere in the level and then find the corresponding teleport pad to whisk you away to the next. There are no "in-between level reports" with how many monsters you killed or number of items collected or anything like that... just the next level. And getting to the next level would be a simple feat if it weren't for the vast, deadly terrain you must traverse and the more deadly monsters that occupy said terrain. Of course, there is an on-screen map as well as a save feature with five slots for saved games, which should help defer the difficulty of the game. As you progress through the game, you gain experience points for each monster slain. As your experience points grow so does your strength and ability to handle weapons. Speaking of weapons, there are a total of ten to ultimately choose from, ranging from your own fists, to a bow and arrows, to ultimately, a nasty, two-handed bastard sword (my personal favorite). By achieving certain levels with your experience points, you will get the option to use two weapons at once. This works especially well with a spiked morning star in the left hand and a razor-sharp broad sword in the right for that one-two punch. In addition to the numerous weapons at your disposal, there are also a variety of potions, spells, items, and power-ups you can collect. The potions range from curing poison, to granting you temporary invulnerability to fire. The spells are also quite handy, ranging from the temporary gift of flight to the awesome "nuke" spell which obliterates everything alive (or undead) in sight. There are also certain items which act as temporary power-ups, like armor, rings, shields and scepters.
The gameplay is tight and easy to control. I will have to admit that I had a little difficulty with the weapon's systems at first. I think this has to do with the fact that I'm used to a 3D perspective game having projectiles such as Doom, Dark Forces, Heretic, etc. With Witchaven, combat, for the most part, is done in close range and you have to get used to being right in front of your opponent to capture a direct hit. But, with just a little time factored in to adjust, I was slashing and hacking my foes to death without so much as a scratch on my shiny new armor. The other item to do with control that I thought was a little strange was that the run button actually propels the player forward without having to push up on the directional pad. Again, after a little play, I realized this was intentional so you wouldn't have to push forward on the D-pad, hold down the run button and push the corresponding keystroke on the keyboard to jump up to that almost unaccessable ledge or platform. Way to go Capstone! If you do have to use the keyboard because you don't happen to own a gamepad, (my personal choice for almost every game that's not a flight sim) the keys are easily configurable to your own liking.
As you can see by the screen-shots, Witchaven is graphically striking with an amazing degree of stark realism. The textures on the floors, ceilings and walls are intricately detailed and can be experienced in both VGA and SVGA resolutions. As you can imagine, the hi-res, 640 x 480 mode is a little framey, but the good folks at Capstone made sure to leave no one out in the cold and included the option of adjusting the window sizes. The monsters themselves are a pretty impressive group, with juicy bits of nuggets that splash against the walls with each and every slash of your sword. Although they do tend to get a little on the pixeled side when standing close up.
The sound effects are also worth mentioning with some nice detailed touches. Weapons clink and clang, water splashes as you wade through it, lava bubbles, wind howls, rickety old bridges creak beneath your feet, and your shoes make this sticky sound when walking across the coagulated, spilled blood of some unfortunate sap. It's too bad the music doesn't stand up to the same high quality, as it's just average and barely noticeable in the background. For all you Death Match junkies out there who love the thrill of competition, Witchaven also supports full network play for up to 16 players and modem play for up to two adding a great deal to the shelf life and ultimate replayability of this title.
What Witchaven boils down to is an immersive, medieval sword and sorcery experience that delivers intriguing puzzles and plots, plenty of bloody, first-person combat and a damn good time. This is one of those titles that I kept looking at my watch and thinking, "just twenty more minutes and I'll stop at the next level". That twenty minutes has turned into four more hours and now I'm finishing this article at 3:40 in the morning. I think that says it all.Witchaven Reviews