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Witchaven (DOS)

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Developed by
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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
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Written by  :  Luckspeare (1502)
Written on  :  Dec 07, 2002
Rating  :  1.2 Stars1.2 Stars1.2 Stars1.2 Stars1.2 Stars

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A poor attempt at an early first-person slasher

The Good

Witchaven is among the first of the medieval fantasy-themed "first-person slashers," and is noteworthy in that regard, though it paled in comparison to its superior counterpart, id Software's Heretic, published a year earlier.

Using 3D Realms' "Build Engine," it had a feel somewhat similar to that of Doom, although far more over-the-top and grotesque and with less suspense. Indeed, the general tenor of the game goes so far as to be simply sophomoric, though it may have a gritty appeal for some.

The game has a good variety of weapons, from the measly dagger (which looks more like a kitchen knife) to the fearsome halberd. In between, there are no less than three types of swords (the short sword, broad sword, and great sword), a morning star, a battle axe, throwing axes, and, best of all, a "magic" bow. If the weapons aren't enough for you, you get to collect scrolls with which you can cast eight different spells. Too dark? Cast Night Vision. Can't seem to get up to that ledge above you? Cast Fly. Don't want to bother with finding the key to get into the next area? Cast Open Door. Combat spells include Magic Arrow, Fireball, and the dreaded Nuke (which, really, is just a spell that disintegrates your enemies; expect no fancy fireworks).

The level design, though not the best I've seen, is decent, and includes lots of lava, arrow traps, pressure plates and spontaneously-appearing mazes (as in, walk into a large open area, see the item you need at the other end, confidently stroll in to grab it, and watch a maze of walls rise up to block and trap you).

Witchaven includes such role-playing game elements as experience points and experience levels, random items in treasure chests (including "Treasure Chests" which simply give you up to 500 more experience points), and the fact that your weapons eventually wear down and break. While not much to bark at for even a casual RPG gamer, these factors add a little spice to the game.

The Bad

However, even its novelty, variety and sheer extremeness cannot overcome the fact that Witchaven sports rather dull and repetitive gameplay.

The intangibles are by no means compelling. The plot, of course, is pretext, as is customary for games of its type, so one has no right to complain there. The enemies are reminiscent of naked, demonic and sometimes-smiling figures in a sick, twisted Claymation film. The first sight of the goblins (the very first enemies you face) is itself likely to induce a bout of eye-rolling -- but at least it gives you one more motivation to kill the damned things. From there, you progress through further hordes of fire-hurling devils, tall fist-pounding man-beasts reminiscent of the Goons from Popeye, and strange, obese gray woman-demons who pull their own entrails out (ouch) to throw at you and who look like nothing more than Paleolithic fertility idols given life.

After a while, the weapons don't even feel very different from each other (except for the bow, of course), and I just forgot about spells until the odd time I needed an Open Door or Fly spell. Nuke is the only really useful combat spell, and even it comes off as a fantasy BFG 9000 (the ultimate weapon from Doom that inflicted high damage on everything in view at the time it was activated).

In fact, the whole game basically comes off as if the designers were trying too hard to make the game as raw, gross and creepy as possible, in the end merely making all the horror fixtures -- such as horrifically-tortured and mutilated body parts -- into ignored banalities by virtue of injudicious over-placement. What seems designed for shock value becomes ho-hum.

The Bottom Line

Witchaven was a passable attempt at a hand-to-hand first-person shooter that just didn't come together right. It is unpolished and seems more designed for novelty and "grodiness" value than actual gameplay value. The attempt to integrate role-playing elements into the game certainly makes it more interesting, but cannot make up for the game's other shortcomings.

Indeed, Witchaven failed to meet even the standard set my Heretic a year earlier in 1994, which really, truth be told, was not that exciting itself. (In my opinion, a truly-excellent 3D fantasy slasher that focused almost entirely on melee weapons wouldn't come until Interplay's Die by the Sword.)

Overall, Witchaven doesn't have much going for it. The gameplay is uninspiring, and the art and atmosphere are unimpressive at best. It it is truly not a game for children or even moderately-squeamish adults (ESPECIALLY conservative religious ones, who are likely to freak out at the demonic/satanic regalia found in the game.). And it's not really even a game for adults, as it comes off as just plain sophomoric. That leaves the teenage and young adult crowd, who are far more likely to be playing modern console shooters than this. All in all, I simply cannot recommend playing this game.

Instead, if you want period first-person-hack-and-slashers, check out Hexen, Heretic, Die by the Sword, or any of the glut of similar-type games that have become fashionable today. But the old genre has not aged well, as the similarly-themed games of today are far superior to any of the older first-person slasher games (except perhaps Die by the Sword).