Is it just me, or are stealth games just a little bit ridiculous? Out of all the video game mechanics, it is stealth that I undoubtedly find the most challenging to suspend my sense of disbelief for – and I can suspend my disbelief for professional wrestling, so that’s really saying something.
The idea that a secret agent can’t be seen simply because she’s crouching half-obscured in some identical bushes is plain silly, and why are all the guards doing their best to emulate goldfish? I just saw a heavily armoured ninja dash past me, they must think, but I’ll only be concerned for precisely ninety seconds before I forgot everything that happened and happily resume my patrol. Suffice to say, I wasn’t expecting much when I came to play the magical stealth ‘em up Wildfire. Fortunately, it’s brilliant, and it taught me an important lesson: I should stop playing 3D stealth games. Stealth in 2D is absolutely, positively where it’s at.
Wildfire starts in dramatic fashion. The player’s teeny and endearingly cute protagonist is tied to a wooden stake, about to be burnt to death for witchcraft. There’s no last minute attempt to rescue the diminutive bundle of pixels and they are instead immolated to a crisp. Fortunately, in the process of their fiery death, they are granted the power to control fire. So, that’s a win, I guess? With new elemental magic in hand, your witch – and one other pal in local co-op – sets off on a quest for revenge against the villainous Arch-Duchess and her knightly minions.
As a game, this 2D stealth and platformer hybrid is subdivided into roughly 30 small levels. Each acts as a puzzle box with the simple goal of getting your very easily killed spell-caster safely to the exit. Levels are packed with knights, archers and fire-demons, any and every one of which is capable of wiping the floor with your avatar in a matter of seconds. The odds can be evened thanks to the copious amount of wooden bridges, flammable fencing and exceedingly dry shrubbery that litter each level. With one carefully flung fireball, your witch can ignite the whole lot, creating wonderfully over the top – and occasionally explosive – chaos to evade and avoid your foes.
It’s an incredibly empowering mechanic, enhanced all the more by the zoomed out visuals. Seeing an entire screen reduced to billowing flame from a poorly considered fireball toss is one of the highlights of the game. One rendered even greater when you manage to survive the madness and make the most of your opportunity to reach the exit. Sneaky Bastards’ – that’s the actual name of the developer – genius is how much they can innovate within the limits of this gameplay. Each level offers a new challenge, from having to rescue villagers about to be exploded, to leading a fire-demon to do the dirty work of killing all the guards for you, there’s always something new to experience. I’ll admit it, Wildfire got me hooked; a quick ten-minute session soon turned into a marathon sneakathon that ate up the hours.
As new abilities and elemental powers are unlocked the developers throw the toolbox wide open, pat you on the back and seem to say “Right, we’ll leave you to it then. Have fun!” I lost track of how many ways a level can be beaten. Indeed, there’s not really a correct course of action – how you approach achieving your goals really is up to you. Often that statement can prove to be an empty promise from developers, but not here. Going in all elemental powers blazing or opting for crawling through the copious bushes are both equally viable strategies, as is switching from one to the other at a whim.
Thanks to the 2D visuals I also felt eminently in control of proceedings, you can see where everyone is at all times and a handy visual circle displays how far a noise you’ve made has travelled. This ensures that those annoying moments in 3D stealth games when an enemy spots you because the camera failed you are joyfully absent. In fact, Wildfire shares many similarities with my favourite stealth game of all time, Mark of the Ninja – okay, fine, it’s the only other one I’ve liked up until Wildfire.
If there’s one complaint I have, it’s that the conflagration really get out on control and ignite your character too. There’s really no way of telling a now burning torch of a witch apart from your co-op partner. This makes putting out the flame in a nearby body of water next to impossible. Two near identical tiny bundles of pixels can be tricky to tell apart at the best of times, resulting in an awkward moment where your character is spotted leaping from a vine because you thought you were someone else. A greater visual disparity between the protagonists would be most welcome.
Despite the challenge – and proceedings really do get challenging – there’s a generous replay feature that enables you to rewind time a few seconds to just before the stupid thing you did that got you and your partner very dead. It’s a wonderful feature and one that, in one fell swoop, eliminates one of the most aggravating aspects of a stealth game – when everything goes to hell and then ages to get back where you were to try again.
The slight problem is that this mechanic does lead to a few glitches. On one occasion after a replay, my partner and I found our characters wedged in the rock surrounding the level. It was a bit awkward really, and an issue that could only be fixed by a complete restart of the level. Particularly aggravating when we had very nearly beaten it!