Quick Look: WITCHBOUND
Designer: THATCHER COHEN
Publisher: DARK DOLL GAMES
Year Published: Coming to GAMEFOUND
The once-famous island of Coven Cove hasn’t seen a real witch in over 100 years, until now. Be it a mistake, or fate, you have awakened your magic and are now bound to the island. While the cozy town is full of fascinating characters willing to help, none can undo this. You must venture out into the wilds to explore the ruins of what the witches left behind. Perhaps you’ll find answers, or maybe, you’ll discover being a witch isn’t so bad. You will find, however, danger around every corner, as the island keeps a dark secret.
A grand adventure awaits you in this open-world style story-driven game. You’ll explore scenes full of details for you to interact with using the skills, items, and prompts you acquire. These interactions lead to entries in the massive storybook full of branching narratives, puzzles, and illustrated cut-scenes. As each day ends you’ll recover from your adventures but just as the moon changes, so does the world around you. As events unfold you will learn more about your journey.
Each and every decision you make matters.
A few weeks ago, while purusing my social media accounts, I happened to notice a cute little new game on the horizon at Gamefound with an artistic style that seemed all too reminiscent of my much-cherished childhood years spent with my Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
And the game itself looked intriguing. Again, most of this sense of enchantment probably had more to do with the art style than anything else, but then again I am a sucker for board games that evoke a sense of the classic years of 8 and 16-bit gaming. Some of my previous reviews such as with Overboss probably make this abundantly clear, if not the fact that I enjoy making tons of video game cover songs for fun.
So it was inevitable that I ended up following the project.
Now it just so happened that a short time later I got an e-mail stating that this same game needed a review prior to its crowdfunding launch.
Wow, that was a pleasant surprise. I was all to eager to pull the trigger and sign up…
Except for two wee little problems…
1 ) I discovered that the game is primarily meant to be a solo experience.
2) The play test for the review would need to be done online.
Well, as for the first problem this resides in the fact that I am generally much opposed to the solo-gaming experience. If you have noticed my history of reviews I only ever reviewed one or two solo games, mainly because I find that I need the social aspect that gaming provides. A secondary concern in this regard is that I hate playing against an AI, I would much rather deal with a human counterpart than a randomized deck of cards or some such device.
The second problem resides in the fact that I generally cannot do Table Tap Simulator reviews. I find these to by hard on my eyes, and in general, nothing beats the tactile sense of real physical objects—It is too complicated to constantly locate and manipulate objects on a virtual game space, and deal with the incessant shrinking and enlarging of various play areas just to see what would ordinarily be as plain as day in a real-life setting.
So I almost decided to pass on the opportunity.
But then Dark Doll Games informed me that should I go ahead with them review, all I would need to do is join up and chat with him via Discord and he would send a few pictures over, and a simple 2 page character sheet. I usually won’t bite for review opportunities unless an idea shows promise, but given what I had previously seen of the game and the creator’s assurance the experience would go smoothly over Discord voice chat with just a couple of photos, I was convinced to give it a try.
No virtual table top required.
And that was enough to pull me in.
Now as for the game…
The game is Witchbound.
What is Witchbound?
Witchbound is a picture-book oriented RPG…
**Note mild story spoilers ahead**
…that puts you in the role of a young protagonist who is inadvertently thrust into the role of being a Witch, and dealing with the complications that ensue.
**End of Spoilers**
Please note that for the further descriptions, I was working with materials that may change in the final version. Mechanics should be similar to what I describe in the final version, but I would imagine fine details, art, items, etc may change significantly between the timing of writing this review and the final product.
The game starts you out in a your own bedroom in the town of Coven Cove (wake up, Crono). And rather than being a mere text description, it needs to be pointed out that every physical place in this world has a picture to represent the space that you are in. So, surprise, you are treated to a visual of your bedroom. The picture denotes via numbers what objects you may inspect and interact with, and this is handled by looking at an associated text in a 200-ish page book filled to the brim with all of the various interactions that can take place in the course of the game.
In this particular case, since I do not have the physical book, text was read to me via our voice chat thru Discord. But things will fundamentally function the same with the book.
You are then given a basic rundown of how the game works, and it explains nicely how to proceed. No need to read an exhaustive manual, the game proceeds simply enough and at a pace that does not impact your brain at at all.
So after learning a bit about how you can return to your bed to sleep and recover Hearts (HP) Focus Points (your ability to sway luck in your favor) you may then proceed to go downstairs, which is indicated by a numbered path. Simply look up the number in your book and you can see the new room you have entered.
You can then generally :
Inspect (items in your possession)
Look (at various objects in the scene)
Touch/Interact (physical objects, not people!)
The most logical thing you can do after going downstairs is to go and converse with your caregiver who tells you about how you almost slept thru the Millennial Fair, er, um…*cough* who then talks to you and gives you your first quest. There may be a door or shelf you can look at, but for the most part, things seem pretty normal.
It is then that you are given your first glimpse of the “Real” world.
Because you then realize that each room and numbered area you have seen up until now is just a minor subset of a much larger depiction called a “Scene”. So in this particular case, you now realize that your house was part of a much larger area with many other houses, people and objects to interact with, all containing their own associated numbers. There may be wells, cats, trees, vendors, kiosks, and all sorts of other things to get yourself involved with.
Now, of the aforementioned Inspect, Look, and Touch basic actions these limited actions may initially give the appearance of being only able to procure and convey a limited amount of story and dialogue, but here is the neat thing.
Each and every Basic Action can easily be done on virtually every point of interest (numbered area or person) in the game world.
And every object you see or obtain has a number associated with it. For example, you may get a cookie, and all cookies may have an item number of 7. And every NPC (Non-Player Character) that you see in the game has an associated number.
So using the following schematics, you have basic actions / items within your character abilities and with a number for the persons/objections you want to interact with. For example :
To LOOK at something in the scene is always a 1
To TOUCH or INTERACT with an object is always a 2.
Now say you want to look at something you see in a tree, which has a number 45 next to in the pictured scene.
Well, you simply put 1 and 45 together. Look at section 145 in the text book to discover what you see.
Well, say for instance you want to try to interact with (perhaps climb the tree) once looking up the tree makes in clear something shiny is up there. Well, try 2 for Touch and 45 for the Tree. Look up section 245 in the book and it will describe what happens if you try to interact with the tree now (climb it). Nice idea, but what if that doesn’t work? Well…
You found a rock earlier (Item 72). What if it were possible to throw it and shake the item loose from the tree…
Select 72 for the Rock and 45 for the tree. Put them together, look up text number 7245 in the book and you see what happens when you try to use the Rock on the Tree. Voilà! You managed to knock a pendant out of the tree!
Or for the cookie (7) item described earlier, for a theoretical NPC Marle (57) just look up entry 757 to give it to them and see what happens.
Note that for above, there are no die rolls, this is just how the exploration works. However, as you proceed along, you will inevitably run into combat and encounters.
And these are handled with a small number of D6’s usually. You may occasionally enter areas with enemies, and you can of course proceed to fight things should you chose to.
For example, if you choose to throw your Rock at a Zombie (ammunition is a consumable, btw, you do need to maintain good stock of your ammo!), you may need to roll over a specific number on your D6 a certain number of times to achieve victory , or else take damage before attempting again.
Thankfully, you can (before rolling) elect to use a Focus Point (up to as many as you have) to add more dice to your roll and therefore better odds of success.
However, one clever perk is that you do not necessarily need to rely on brute force at all times. Sometimes, if you use your wits, you may discern a method of using an item on an enemy (say for instance what may happen if you use Holy Water, item number 27, on Zombie 88?) that enables you to perhaps completely bypass the encounter…
So you proceed along, exploring, completing quests (by writing them down on your character sheet and checking them off as they are completed).
Another interesting mechanic is that of Time itself—as you sleep and recover your precious HP’s and FP’s, but the Lunar Cycle also changes. What this means is that some quests may be inaccessible depending on the time of year you are in…
All in all, I spent about 90 minutes playing Witchbound, and I do have quite a lot of thoughts on my experience, and they were pretty much all good, which is really surprising considering my normal aversion to solo games.
First and foremost, let me get this out of the way… I did have to ask Dark Doll Games if the name of Witchbound is in any way, shape or form meant to be a name play on the classic Super Nintendo Game of Earthbound.
The response I received was (perhaps) very telling. All I got back was an elusive “Maaaaaaybe….” paired along with a speak not / hand over mouth” emoji, but for me, that was more than enough assurance that my hunch isn’t far off the mark. Paired with the way you start the game in a Chrono Trigger-ish sort of way, I can’t help but feel that I am dealing with a fellow classic video game enthusiast…
And my very first impression of seeing the isometric town views of Witchbound really felt identical to Earthbound when I first saw the board game.
But then the game play hit me. And then the resemblance became really uncanny…
The way you use items almost feels like I am navigating my pop-up inventory screen, searching for a key Quest item to give to a certain NPC to advance the story. Sometimes you have the right item, sometimes you don’t. And I know a lot of other games like Myst, King’s Quest, etc played like this back in the day, but the combat…
The way combat plays out in Witchbound feels like all of those cute cheesy encounters in Earthbound, probably owing to the fact that each fight or encounter has a card with cartoony art with an artistic fashion that is again eerily similar to that classic SNES game. I almost feel like Frank and his gang of New Age Retro Hippies will show up when I think of the next encounter I may face…
And then there’s the old-school video-gamey vibe that washes over you when you walk into virtually every stranger’s house in town to loot shelves with relative impunity (well, at least for now!)
I did also get a chance to see one more theatric way that the game uses art as part of its overall appeal—The central narrative is also conveyed with graphical comic style cut scenes, and what I did see was very cool, temporarily eschewing the more gamey vibe for a more manga-esque style of depiction, which perfectly feels at home within this medium, in spite of being a seemingly contradictory pairing.
Another thing that I discovered in both my playing the game and with my subsequent dialogue with the game’s creator is that actions can and will have very complex consequences. What you do will shape the future of what you may or may not be able to do in the future. If you become too good at crating potions, for example, you may make a town shopkeeper angry enough to stop doing business with your for example.
And, I know this game is recommended for “Solo” players, but the way we handled playing this game over Discord, with the text being narrated to me as I chose my actions…I almost feel like this could be a 2 player experience if one “player” elects to read the narrative out as it progresses. In this capacity, it would be great for a parent / child joint venture.
There will also be a means of becoming more powerful as the story progresses, too. You will for example, gain more maximums to your Hearts and Focus as time progresses.
I was happy to hear from Dark Doll Games that my 7-year old (being an exceptionally good reader, your mileage may vary) should be able to handle this game (perhaps minus a few tricky puzzles here and there), as this was my impression when I was playing the game. It handles very well in terms of the the efficiency of design and lends its way to easy immersion in the story, which is the central focal point.
But in spite of the fact that I think my 7-year old can get a lot of use out of this game, I am actually quite surprised to find that I myself enjoyed the game enough to want to play Witchbound all the way through all by myself. And as mentioned before, I am NOT a solo gamer 99% of the time!
What Witchbound does manage to successfully do is to immerse me in its world by keeping me glued with meaningful story, dialogue and interactions. And this is something that I was telling Dark Doll Games that a certain other “Dream Crawler” game that I recently reviewed did NOT do at all, even though I fully expected it to.
Witchbound makes up for this loss with me. I feel connected as I navigate and move about the streets and world within Coven Cove. My decisions have impact, and I care about making the right decisions at the right point in time. I feel the need to carefully consider what I do. It is not just an exhaustive exercise in trying every possible combination of items and interactions (even though the game very much invites you to do so!)—Rather, it really is an experience that you can really sink your teeth into. To me, that is what makes Witchbound a true RPG, with a new form that really sets a unique precedent by being not only visually and narratively remarkable, but also for the sense of control that you have over what you can do. And again, what I experienced was just the tip of the iceberg…
Witchbound is set to launch on Gamefound soon (January, I believe). In its current form, the game is expected to take around 30 hours to complete (without partaking in sides quests), and what I experienced was just a small snippet of just ONE scene out of more than 60 that are envisioned for the final product, with a sprawling overworld map to explore, too. I would highly recommend this to anyone looking to lock themselves away in an imaginary world, and despite my usual preference to avoid solo games, I will most assuredly be talking my wife and kids into playing this (as soon as I am done with it, that is!).
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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer
Jazz Paladin is an eccentric at heart — When he is not learning to make exotic new foods at home, such as Queso Fresco cheese and Oaxacan molé, he is busy collecting vintage saxophones, harps, and other music-related paraphernalia. An avid music enthusiast, when he is not pining over the latest board games that are yet-to-be-released, his is probably hard at work making jazzy renditions of classic/retro video game music tunes as Jazz Paladin on Spotify and other digital music services.