‘Witch Strandings’ review – an experimental ‘strand’ game that fails to deliver

Wilmot’s care home

Witch Strandings bills itself as a sort-of Death Stranding demake. Assuming the role of a “point of light” you must help lift a Witch’s curse from a dark and mysterious forest by carving pathways through the woodland to reach isolated animals, before delivering said animals an array of supplies to heal both them and the forest at large.

It’s great to see developers looking to elaborate upon Hideo Kojima’s most unusual game, but beyond a broad structural similarity, Witch Strandings bears little resemblance to Death Stranding. Instead, it’s more like Wilmot’s Warehouse without the warehouse, an overly simple game of tile manipulation that doesn’t really give itself the chance to evolve into something interesting.

Viewed from a top-down perspective, Witch Strandings’ “forest” is constructed entirely out of coloured tiles, resembling the bathroom floor of a nightclub specialising in UV parties. Differently coloured tiles represent different types of terrain, including benign tiles like mud and moss, alongside more hazardous tiles like water and “poison thorns”. Most dangerous of all are “Hexed” tiles, which if strayed upon will drain your health faster than a hemlock smoothie.

Witch Strandings. Credit: Strange Scaffold.
Witch Strandings. Credit: Strange Scaffold.

Each in-game day involves looking for ways to navigate this forest, threading your mote of light through gaps in hazards with elegant sweeps of the mouse. Scattered around the environment are items that can aid your traversal. For example, “haunted mycelium” can be plucked from the ground and placed on other tiles, creating a pool of purple jelly that will remove the hex from surrounding tiles so long as the mycelium is in situ. By placing multiple mycelium deposits, you can establish narrow pathways through the game’s throbbing hex barriers. It’s a bit like Moses parting the Red Sea, only you use fungus instead of the power of God.

As you explore, you’ll periodically encounter colourfully named animals, all of which need your help. You might stumble upon a hungry dear, a thirsty bear or even a squirrel named Chad Shakespeare who is “disturbed”, probably because his name is ‘Chad Shakespeare’. These negative status effects can be nullified by delivering an appropriate item to that animal, which will not only makes the creature feel better, but also bring you one step closer to alleviating the curse.

Incidentally, you can also choose to kill these animals if you so wish, by delivering them a different item found in a specific area of the forest. You might wonder why anyone would want to murder cute forest creatures. But I’ll admit I was tempted on several occasions, because some of them are – and I’ll use the technical term here – right needy fuckers. Animal needs are randomly assigned with each passing day, which has the effect of making them seem entirely arbitrary. There was one bear I encountered that was constantly hungry, despite living in a grove of abundant berry trees. Just pick them yourself, Winnie-the-Pooh! I’m not hand feeding you like a Roman emperor.

Witch Strandings. Credit: Strange Scaffold.
Witch Strandings. Credit: Strange Scaffold.

For a game with such simple presentation, Witch Strandings creates a surprisingly moody atmosphere. Areas like the Flooded Bend, which is subject to a perpetual drizzle, accurately convey the feeling of tramping through a wood on a damp autumn day. Then there are more sinister areas like the Killing Fields, where the ground becomes increasingly littered with desiccated bodies the deeper you traverse into its blighted landscape. These bodies are only pixel sketches of curled-up skeletons, but there’s a powerful sense of foreboding to the place nonetheless.

The worldbuilding is aided by some quality writing, which adds nuggets of backstory into every item, character, and ruined structure that you come across. The pastoral descriptions are particularly strong, conveying the age and dilapidated beauty of both the forest and the civilisation it has apparently grown over. Beneath this, however, is an undercurrent of irreverent goofiness which is less welcome. Not because it isn’t funny, but because Witch Strandings is such a compact experience that it doesn’t really have room for that duality of tone.

This leads on to the broader problem with Witch Strandings, namely that the game is far too mechanically rudimentary for it to make this notion of returning a forest to life satisfying. Neither moving nor interacting with the world are particularly immersive or engaging, which means that ferrying groceries around the forest like animal Deliveroo has no sense of weight or significance. Death Stranding was a game all about creating memorable journeys through its complex hiking simulation and its rich layers of systems that let you establish elaborate logistics networks. It was how Kojima Productions executed that concept which made it fun and engaging, not the concept itself.

Witch Strandings. Credit: Strange Scaffold.
Witch Strandings. Credit: Strange Scaffold.

There’s also a distinct lack of challenge in the game’s tile-manipulation. You only ever need to establish narrow pathways through hazardous areas once, and it never evolves beyond the basic “X affects Y” interaction. All the progression is gained through making deliveries, which quickly become repetitive because Witch Strandings has no way to make its journeys surprising or varied or dynamic.

There’s potential to build a more involved puzzle game here, with you deploying increasingly elaborate combinations of tiles to beat back different kinds of malignant magic afflicting the forest, resulting in a transformative effect on the environment. Perhaps one tile type diminishes one curse, but exacerbates another, forcing you to think carefully about where and how you place it. That isn’t to say Witch Strandings should do this. It’s merely a suggestion in lieu of a proper mechanical hook.

Witch Strandings is not a complete failure. Its experiment in minimalism succeeds in building a moody forest atmosphere out of precious few parts. Mechanically though, it takes on too big a target, and in its oversimplification loses the essence of what made Kojima’s game compelling. Sorry, Chad Shakespeare, but you’ll have to fend for yourself from now on. I’m done being your pastoral postman.

Witch Strandings launches on July 7 for PC.

The Verdict

Witch Strandings is a bold experiment to build a barebones version of Death Stranding’s core loop. Bold, but ultimately futile.

Pros

  • Well written
  • Advanced platforming

Cons

  • Tonally inconsistent
  • Oversimplified systems
  • Doesn’t make the most of its potential
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