It started with a single tweet, a tweet downcast about a high-profile negative review of Wildfire, a game I had not heard of before. I was instantly curious: I was sure the team behind it had some game design nous. So what had gone horribly wrong?
Wanting to know more, I asked for a press key and began a journey in June which I finally completed five months later.
Wildfire (Sneaky Bastards, 2020) is a glorious 2D stealth ’em up brimming with environmental interaction. The truth is there’s substantially more to Wildfire than meets the eye.
And that, unfortunately, was the problem.
The title “Wildfire” implies the player’s core activity will involve fire, but the Steam description is a little more expansive: “Master the elements in this stealth game where everything burns. Use your elemental powers to start fires, freeze water, and move earth as you outsmart superstitious enemies in this mischievous 2D stealth game.”
I didn’t read anything about the game before I started playing so I wasn’t aware there were any other powers beyond firestarting. Even if you did absorb this, there’s a clear signal to the potential player that Wildfire is about magical powers. But Wildfire is also a stealth game. I’ve played Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass Studios, 1998), so I interpreted the fire as a method to control the environment like Thief’s arrows permit progress. The only element you have control over at the start of the game is fire and, well, it seems that’s your main tool, right? Got fire? Use fire!
Ah, Thief. That was a game about not killing your fellow citizens even if you were convinced some of them were filthy shits that deserved it. Gods and zombies? No problemo. People? Hold the phone. Now Wildfire has a No Kills objective each level which will earn you a spirit point. So Wildfire is more tolerant of violent murder but it still coaxes you to be gentle and nice towards filthy shits who deserve it. Unfortunately, this put me into a Thief mindset which is to run a perfect game: never be discovered, never kill, no mistakes.
And you’ve only got that fire power at your disposal which seems, frankly, to kill people easily. Aside from doing the cruel, which is to set light to their greaves and watch them cook, you’ll often scare the silly out of them and off they potter as fast as they can, right off a cliff and be deaded.
Certainly, you’ve got a ton of other non-deathy options at your disposal. Hiding in grass, hanging off rope bridges, alternate sneaky routes but… but it’s called Wildfire, mate. I’m supposed to use my mad fire skills, amirite?
And that’s the paradox that wound me up for a good chunk of the game. How can a game be a Thieflike if the mechanics translate into Murder by Misadventure Simulator 2020? This paradox is illusory, though, one created in the imagination. Wildfire fails to project its true nature; it implies Dishonored, stealth with superpowers, but that’s not it at all.
Most of the player’s actions have significant irreversible consequences. Fire toasts grass so that it cannot be hidden in and, in fact, makes movement noisy. Fire is a finite resource, because once you embrace it from the Wildfire environment, it’s gone. And if you lose it rather than use it, it’s truly gone.
While it’s possible to rewind to a checkpoint or autosave, it can take three clicks to undo any incident. Wildfire would prefer you lived with those consequences. Scrape away at the stealth veneer and you’ll discover the true heart of Wildfire, a machine of chaos that has more in common with Magicka than Thief. Thief perfectionists are not welcome here.
This realisation came slowly. First, it was figuring out that fire wasn’t meant to be used everywhere, a mental gear shift made easier once other powers entered the fray. And later I finally acknowledged that brilliant planning was a vulnerability: brilliant plans are likely to end you. Tactics won over strategy every time. Man plans, God laughs, as they say down the pub.
Wildfire sands off edges so you can’t gauge your digital limits precisely so no cones-of-sight. Sure, you’re offered a visual pulse whenever you make a sound but I was never confident about how far a pulse would reach before I made a noise. Sometimes I’d drop from a ledge and attract everyone’s attention so it was better to look for a grassy landing pad. I wonder whether Wildfire’s lush but sharp 2D aesthetic is at fault for implying precision that doesn’t exist; whenever you foul up because you gauged the sound wrong, it can feel like the game is at fault and not you for rushing, you impatient shit.
Making matters worse, Wildfire floods the controller with purpose. Left stick for movement, right stick for aim, buttons to grab fire, suck up water, make a smoke bomb, jump, run, carry, whistle, make coffee, Zoom conference. Press the wrong button and *poof* your plan is in ruins. But this also magnifies player frustrations. I often took a moment to rehearse the buttons before going into a dangerous situation. Wildfire tries to ease the pain by offering constant controller prompts; it’s not perfect but it helped.
But if you can embrace the game’s desire for chaos, it is chef’s kiss marvelloso. Sometimes much, much, much more burns than you intended. Sometimes guards you scare off end up patrolling a different area with another guard… and now you’ve got two problems. Sometimes shit happens and it’s just not your Wildfire day. It is no clockwork world: it’s a bomb primed to blow.
The environmental interactions are a lot richer than you might expect at the outset and I have numerous examples of learning-through-accidental-comedy. Once I climbed down a vine to the bottom of a Wildfire level with a villager, intending to set them free then climb back up to grab a meteor shard – each shard confers an upgrade. An archer targeted me, but, ha ha, I was too quick: he fired and missed. His arrow instead thunked into the vine, severing it, sending the pair of us plummeting down. We survived the short fall but there was no way to climb back up for that precious upgrade.
Another time, I wanted to bubble myself up to a guarded bridge and grab a meteor shard that was begging to be swiped. I wasn’t exactly sure how this was going to work out but I was planning to wing it, the kind of winging it that involves screaming. Except I failed to jump into the bubble. It rose without me, gracefully smashing through the bridge, alerting the guards, absorbing the shard and continuing to ascend. Reader, I laughed.
Even sometimes the frustration made the journey worth it. In another level, I had to transport several villagers safely across a level full of soldiers and moving villagers one at a time through danger zones was exasperating. Yet the euphoria of completing that level was such a reward. But Wildfire’s frustration dial is extremely sensitive.
The City is the final great level, pulsating with possibility. It’s not easy but there’s just too much optional good stuff to ignore and multiple routes to take. After that, however, you get the prison level, which is an enormous slog; each villager has to be taken on a very long journey, although there is one shortcut in the level which helps. You don’t have to save every villager, but hitting those optional goals will reward you with upgrades which are always powerful.
After that, there’s a set of three upsetting boss tasks, each of which is linear on the whole with some reliance on controller athleticism, disposing of Wildfire’s core of chaotic tactics. Still, there is innovation here: the order you perform these tasks has level-changing impacts on the others, and I had to admire that, but it didn’t feel like it was a choice I could leverage on my first game.
And finally, there is an actual boss. While there is, again, cleverness at work, it is an unwelcome inversion of Wildfire, a game of imprecision and accident replaced with combat you have not been trained for. I’ve never played Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montréal, 2011), but the notorious incompatibility of its boss fights with a stealth character build is exactly what hurts Wildfire’s endgame.
So I look at the reviews and I can see why some were disappointed. Wildfire didn’t put chaos centre stage and cloaked itself a bit too much as a stealth experience. Wildfire’s name advertised the “fire” part too heavily. The ending, the last thing you remember when putting review words to paper, is a poke in the eye. And I guess I am the only person who liked the bobcats.
Wildfire has far more going on in its mechanics and environment than any of us deserve. It’s not that Wildfire’s mistakes aren’t mistakes – but that they have been amplified over its craft and flair because Wildfire didn’t do enough to dissuade players from the wrong type of play.
You may disagree with this but that is exactly what God made the comments section for.