When people say “it begins with a bang”, they usually mean metaphorically. But with Sneaky Bastard’s 2D stealth platformer, events begin with multiple. Just outside of an idyllic seaside village, a meteor lands, transforming the life of your player-character forever.
As so many fantasy stories begin: whilst a low sun burns gently in the evening sky, your village burns fierce, razed by the game’s forces of darkness. Finally, you burn – on the stake, accused of being a witch. Of course, for the first time in history the fanatics are right. Your witch bursts into flames and then explodes, sending the zealots scuttling, but leaving you intact to exact revenge, save the surviving villagers, and play with this wild gift suddenly bestowed upon you from above.
Fire, like the ancient myth, is a gift – to games, and to the pyromaniacal tendency hidden away deep within us. It’s also your first, and for a while, only, tool in the game. Yanking flames from campsites, or the torches of patrolling guards, you’re able to summon balls of fire to toss. Whilst sword-wielding guards are deadly, especially when they corner you, a thrown fireball can set wood and brush alight, causing enemies to scatter in fright – often off cliffs or down pits to their demise. With witchcraft, half the battle is fear.
The rest of the time, jumping – which is solid and thankfully forgiving, for those wondering – and clambering across pretty 2D landscapes, you’ll use ledges and bushes to hide and sneak amongst. Much of Wildfire’s early game requires patience, as you wait out simple patrol routes, and – almost puzzle-like – figure out how to navigate from left to right without being chopped to pieces with a sword.
You can drop on top of guards to stun or knock them out, whistle as a distraction, and hide bodies so as not to alert others to your tricksy presence. Guards even have oxygen meters, and can be snuffed out with smoke or trapped underwater. Wildfire is a proper systemic stealth game then, albeit one where the guards are goldfish-like in the memory department, and things can be a little too easy to game. With some crafty ledge-shifting for example, you can essentially reset things right from under the enemy’s nose.
There’s also a lot of escorting people around in Wildfire. Too much, I think. Whilst it combos sensibly with the stealth mechanics, forcing you to slow down and to not risk the lives of rescued captives, it can also grow tiresome as you shift helpless villagers inch by inch towards their rescue point. Thankfully, it’s not always necessary to rescue people. At the end of each level you’re rewarded for going undetected, being merciful and for saving villagers. But that also means you’re quite within your right to just bumble through it all as loudly and clumsily as you wish.
Spread out within Wildfire’s neat little levels are various opportunities: rickety, chasm-wide wooden bridges upon which guards unwittingly tread, patrol groups swapping small-talk in the midst of dense forest brush or besides a camp stocked with wooden crates and barrels. This is when your small humble fireball has the potential to grow into a blazing inferno. More often than not this will be an uncontrollable blaze too – a Wildfire, if you will – the consequences of which will surprise as well as delight, and won’t always be to your immediate advantage. Disaster can be as fun to witness as tidy genius, and even allows you to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, which is always a magical feeling.
Wildfire does a good job of keeping things fresh and introducing new elements to you slowly, both in the form of new things in the environment and actual elemental abilities. Before long, your witch can bend water and manipulate the earth. On your first playthrough, you won’t accrue enough skill points to specialise in everything.
And so you must make a choice: become a full-blown pyromancer, gaining the ability to self-ignite with your fireballs and rocket up into the sky, or learn to form smoke bombs so you can suffocate enemies or escape within the confusion of a blinding cloud. You can also control water more thoroughly, freezing guards or water, or guards in water – entombing them in ice for eternity. Earth abilities allow you to trap guards in vines, summon a leaf to glide across the rooftops and canopies, and even teleport.
As well as a simple upgrade tree where you learn these new abilities, there are optional “meteor shards” that can be found in the world, which more subtly transform how your powers work. One shard will return your bouncing fireballs to you if it doesn’t ignite anything, the “Hydrophobia” power up will cause your globes of water to terrify enemies when thrown at them, whilst “One Free Fright” (which I used throughout) causes the first alerted guard to take flight instead of stand and fight. Sneaking up behind an enemy and positioning myself next to them so that when they turned they’d panic and run off a precipitous cliff edge never got old.
It takes a little while to gather your different abilities, and to have enough meteor shards to really experiment. The first half of Wildfire can feel a little rigid and granular. Things are introduced too slowly, with the first half of the game feeling like one long tutorial, and many stages only having one or two real solutions. The experimentation and butterfly-effect style chaos comes either in short bursts or in later stages.
As you venture down from frigid mountaintops, moving bit by bit across a lavish world map, you enter a town of Gothic spires and towers which you can dip in and out of. There are sewers and rooftops too, which makes the whole space feel wider and more freeing. Possibilities begin to cascade in the mind like the propagating fire so central to the game. I only wish there were more of these kinds of levels, and that we got there quicker.
There’s a New Game+, as well as a local co-op option where you and a friend can more immediately specialise in particular elements and then combine them in a devastating concoction. Despite the lulls, Wildfire showcases a special kind of alchemy. Over its five- to six- hour runtime, the game turns from being this pretty but slightly mundane thing, into something radiant – fizzling with tumultuous energy and threatening to burst (into flames). Sometimes, like the alchemy of fables, it transforms into pure gold.
Wildfire is now available on PC.
Wildfire grows into itself, slowly introducing more and more elements until its levels are sprawling and the possibilities seem boundless. It’s a solid stealth platformer that lets you play with fire and push its systems to the limit, until a unique path through its many forests and caves emerges.
- Strong stealth mechanics within a complex, systemic world
- Chaotic magic system that throws up some great surprises
- A lot of freedom once you’ve unlocked all the different elements and abilities
- Short, but it’s worth playing more than once
- Pretty pixel art graphics
- Early sections can be a little slow and test your patience
- Escort segments accentuate the worst of the stealth systems
- Not enough done with the playable/companion wildcat