Every game has both good and bad points to it, but few manage to swing so wildly between utterly superb and dismally frustrating as frequently as Wildfire.
A 2D stealth platformer set in a world where magic has been banned, you play as a child who must save their village from an oppressive army. By wielding fire, water, and grass, you must take on both the army and the harsh environments in order to return your people to safety.
Where Wildfire succeeds is in its elemental systems. All three are open-ended in their uses, letting you experiment with how each interacts both with the environment and with each other. For instance, if you need more fire than there is in the immediate vicinity, setting a patch of grass ablaze will provide plenty more for a limited time.
Burning bridges will isolate the enemy, while the gaps left behind can still be crossed by trapping yourself in a floating water bubble, or by jumping from grassy vine to vine instead. Each element is individually upgradable and does a good job of allowing you to specialise for your preferred playstyle.
The aesthetic design of Wildfire is absolutely gorgeous. Its detailed pixel art is both vivid and intricate, but also easily readable. All the information you need is conveyed quickly and simply, letting you focus more on the stunning art direction each level offers.
One thing that can’t be conveyed through print quite as easily is the sublime audio design. The crunching of grass underfoot, the smouldering of extinguished fires, the growling of a feral bobcat, all are realised in fantastic 3D audio that begs you to play it with a decent pair of headphones.
Unfortunately, great systems and presentation don’t cancel out the frankly annoying stealth elements. As a massive stealth fan, it pains me to say that Wildfire is at its best when it isn’t trying to be a stealth game, and instead leans wholeheartedly into more of a puzzle-platforming vibe.
The controls are too stiff, the enemies are too aware of their surroundings, the ‘optional’ (each gives you an upgrade point, which makes beating them crucial) objectives are often flat-out unfair, and the tendency for levels to turn into bland escort missions with dull AI kills much of the experimentation central to good stealth design. And the less said about bobcats, who can detect you in cover and through walls via scent, the better.
Wildfire is a capricious game. One moment it’s a stunning platformer which encourages creative use of its elemental gimmick, the next it forces you into sadistic and irritating stealth that strips away the joy that comes with controlling nature itself. While the technology behind Wildfire’s physical interactions is impressive, it’s been bolted onto a game that fundamentally doesn’t meet the same standard.
The audio design is some of the best I’ve heard in a 2D game. Each sound gives the world a real sense of space that is a delight for the ears.
A beautiful game let down by its rudimentary and overly brutal stealth.
Format: PC (tested)
Developer: Sneaky Bastards
Publisher: Humble Games
Release: Out now