It's a fair cop.

Released: 27 July 2006 [JP], 6 March 2007 [UK]
Developer: Cavia
Selected titles:
Drakengard (2003)
Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles (2007)
Nier (2010)

Note: This game is unlike any of the others I’ve exhibited in this column so far. Firstly, it’s not an FPS. Secondly, it’s an Xbox 360 exclusive, whereas everything else I’ve been playing (and intend to play) is on PC. However, that Metacritic average should tell you all you need to know regarding Bullet Witch’s credentials for judgement. I propose shoving it in a sack, hurling the sack into a pond and firing the pond into a volcano. It's the only way to be sure.

Here you are, callous and toughened by hardship in the grim ultra-future of 2012. You fall down a manhole and black out, then wake up. It’s 2007! How did that happen. You’re standing in a video game shop. Scissor Sisters are playing on the radio, and a half-awake clerk is stacking Xbox 360 cases for Bullet Witch onto the “New Releases” shelf. Problem is, they keep tumbling off the shelf into the bargain bin. He picks them up. They nosedive again and bury themselves deep within the bin, cowering underneath a dozen copies of Perfect Dark Zero. The clerk decides £5.78 an hour isn’t worth dealing with sentient plastic and shuffles back behind the counter in the hope it’ll be enough of a barrier to keep the customers at bay. You’re too busy giggling at the in-store graphic proposing you part with £425 to preorder a PS3 to notice.

Bullet Witch was born to be in that bargain bin. I don’t think I ever remember it being full price; the human brain is not set up to observe objects that exist in a certain state (such as being optimistically tagged “£49.99”) for only milliseconds. It’s a third-person shooter boasting a female protagonist (the latter fact, depressingly, a burden to commercial success), bathed in the yellowy, forty-watt glow of low budget production values. It’s rough around the edges and rough at its core, too, come to mention it. You run around blasting demon spawn with a gun shaped like a broom that’s taller than you are, wearing a lacy dress and high heels, hurling magic spells as you go. You’re a witch, alright?

It may be low budget, but it’s gloriously low budget. Its design shortcuts, cobbled-together assets and scant content are all plausible turn-offs for a self-respecting gamer, but they’re lined with silver, thanks to some good old fashioned well-made videogame that endures no matter how little cash you have handy to lob at it. Being stripped of so much works for Bullet Witch because Bullet Witch is not offering a cinematic experience but an arcade experience. You’re in it for the endorphin-boosting pleasure of tearing monsters to pieces, for the buzz of seeing massive explosions wrought by your hand and for the breakdown of your score at the level’s end.

Ah, scores: the arcade player’s heroin. Stamp a rating on something, someone’s going to want to do it again, but better. Complete a mission and Bullet Witch high-fives you with one hand and gives you experience points to spend on improving your gun and magic abilities with the other. The game’s pretty quick to complete once, but that’s because it’s an arcade game. You can beat DonPachi in twenty minutes, but if you walk away afterwards, you’re doing it wrong. Repetition and perfection of your run-through is where this game endures. Trying to reach an ‘S’ rating, along with the larger XP haul it brings in, requires you to be quick, lethal and willing to run around healing cowering civilians being stomped on by demons.

There’d be no reason to do all this were the game not fun to play. Fortunately, what little budget this game did have went into making its mechanics satisfying and tight, if not polished. The variety and visual fidelity of the environments are what suffer, but diving acrobatically through the air, fluidly switching weapons and bringing your magical prowess to bear are all extremely enjoyable. Your broom gun can be modified and upgraded with four separate modes: machinegun, shotgun, cannon and gatling gun. All four look suitably preposterous and menacing, and sound and feel powerful and vicious. Magic’s a mixed bag, with some abilities being useful and exhilarating to wield and others being altogether pointless. Discern which is which, however, and you can happily ignore the duds for no penalty and concentrate on activating abilities that ape JRPGs in their setup, providing an elaborate spectacle as a precursor to wanton destruction. Only, unlike JRPGs, their utilisation isn’t greeted with a damp cluster of hit points rising out a baddie’s ears, but a scene of destruction that I still found phenomenal, five years on.

This is the other explanation for that bland backdrop, because the engine is engaged elsewhere. To demonstrate, activating Bullet Witch’s Lightning magic causes the sky to rapidly cloud and lightning strikes to flash high in the atmosphere, before my witch sweeps her arm downwards and the camera pans out to see a gigantic bolt scythe through my chosen target, obliterating everything within a hundred yard radius and causing whatever scenery – buildings, forests and cars all made up of hundreds if not thousands of individually physics-influenced pieces – to detonate in a fiery cataclysm. Once, I destroyed a gigantic logging site, filled with huts, trees, scaffolding, dozens of enemy soldiers and a hovering helicopter in an electric fury and the game didn’t drop a frame. I was impressed.

The story is nothing too interesting, except in its implementation, which is also tinged with equal dollops of financial deprivation and amusingly (but endearingly) Japanese interpretations of American culture. At one point, the excellently named Maxwell Cougar, commanding the remnants of human resistance to the demonic incursion, embarks upon a long and flippant baseball analogy to describe unfolding events: it's the bottom of the ninth inning and the injuries are piling up, also known as billions dead, civilization torn apart and the species close to extinction, hounded by monsters formed from their own nightmares. Another time, he gives his soldiers an apparently rousing speech detailing the weight and seriousness of their role in saving the world, and they all immediately run off shouting “woo” like someone had just rung the recess bell. It’s jarringly written, badly acted and entirely hilarious. I concluded, after a while, that the game was pulling my chain. The demonic soldiers can be sometimes heard, in between bouts of staccato gunfire, exclaiming the entertainingly gory ways they’re going to kill you, possessed humans gibber like tripping rodents and move like their joints are spring-loaded and the game’s telekinetic, hovering foes are referred to as “walnut heads”. It’s amusing filler to a shooter that doesn't overstay its welcome and never takes its gothic overtones too seriously.

There’s a lot to like in Bullet Witch, its sometimes fiddly magic, bland visuals and cheap presentation aside. At its core it’s an unrepentant arcade blaster that plays well and can still impress with its destruction (years before both Red Faction: Guerrilla and Battlefield: Bad Company). I’d say it’s entirely worth rummaging round a bargain bin, prying it free of its snug place in the dog pile and giving it a home. More importantly, this is one shooter that is more than mediocre. The next one’s going to be even better, I bet! (I bet it won’t.)

Bullet Witch Gallery

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