The elements of stealth.
Stealth games are a bit of a rarity on the Nintendo Switch. The highest profile ones are all ports of years old games like The Swindle, Mark of the Ninja, and Invisible, Inc. Fans of the genre are probably a little starved. Recently, Sneaky Bastards released a new addition to the stealth crop in Wildfire. The successful Kickstarter campaign paid for the development of the PC version, but it has now made the jump to Nintendo Switch.
Wildfire contains a lot of familiar features if you’ve played other stealth games. Enemies have set patrol routes that you must navigate while avoiding their line of sight. The player character’s actions generate noise that enemies can hear. Sounds are visualized by a ring emitted from the player character; enemies outside the ring won’t be alerted to your location. Objects in the environment can be used as hiding places to conceal the playable character. It’s standard play for the type of game this is.
How Wildfire twists gameplay is via the element system. You get to control and use fire, water, and earth to evade or defeat foes. Starting a brush fire will cause nearby guards to panic allowing you to run through unnoticed. You can grow vines on the side of a cliff face to climb to a path that wasn’t reachable before. Turning a water ball into ice will allow you to freeze enemies or other bodies of water. While the uses for each element are interesting on their own, I wish there were ways to use them together. All of the abilities are mostly isolated from each other. Holding a fireball will melt nearby ice you’ve made, but that’s about the depth of the interactions.
The visual effects of these abilities are a mixed bag. Fires have a very cool simulated pixel smoke effect that gives them a kind of liveliness. This wouldn’t have been possible if the smoke effects were done in a different way. How neat that particular visual flair is leaves the other elements wanting; nothing reaches the same heights for grass and water. They’re static and in the same style of the rest of Wildfire’s assets. Wildfire is a good looking game, so the art assets for earth and water still look good, but they do feel flat in comparison.
Each level is a playground to use these abilities in different ways. There are multiple routes to completing the objectives of each level, so it’s up to the player to find success in their own way. Wildfire pushes you toward experimentation through its challenge system. Completing a level without being noticed or without killing a guard will pass a challenge. The level City 2: Crematorium is easy to finish by going through the middle route if you’re okay with dropping a few guards into the cremator. However, If you want to clear the challenge of not killing any guards, then you’ll have to figure out a way to move along the top or lower routes in the level.
Clearing a challenge rewards you with spirit points, which are used as part of the RPG elements of Wildfire. Spirit points allow you to upgrade the abilities of your character, like increasing their throw range or how many hit points they have. The elemental abilities can also be upgraded, but this requires a different method. To improve element abilities, you need to find a shrine each level and then throw the element you want to upgrade into it. The element points will unlock new abilities or improve already unlocked ones like staying alive while on fire longer or increasing the length of spawned vines.
In addition to challenges, the game has a large number of difficulty settings for people wanting to spice up their replays. The difficulty options get down to a surprisingly granular level. Increasing how much area enemies patrol or whether outlines of your character show while they’re hidden are two examples. The fine detail in the settings also includes accessibility options. The standard colorblind mode is here, but Sneaky Bastards also included a mode that automatically rearranges the control scheme to make Wildfire playable with one hand and an option to have your character automatically jump while sprinting.
Unfortunately, Wildfire has a lot of slow down. In larger levels, which become more common later, setting a fire or alerting a few guards will cause frustrating amounts of lag. This is a slower paced game, so more time to consider maneuvers isn’t game breaking, but the slow down also affects the ability to execute those maneuvers. Occasionally during times of intense lag, Fire Jump, basically a fire-propelled double jump, wouldn’t trigger. I had to keep jumping in place until it would activate.
Any attempts to alleviate the lag didn’t work. In the settings, there is an option to disable extra particle effects that didn’t help. Whether I was playing in docked or in handheld didn’t change whether levels had lag or not either. I did notice another weird impact of playing in handheld mode, though. Wildfire zooms in on the player character in handheld, which may be to keep a certain amount of detail visible. This has the consequence of cutting off some dialogue during story beats. The handheld zoom can be turned off in the settings, but it’s weird for the default settings to harm the gameplay experience.
The frequent slow down significantly hurts my ability to recommend Wildfire on Switch. The back half of the game features a near constant lag that had me hoping for the experience to end. There is fun to be had still; I liked going back through early levels trying to puzzle out how to make it through while completing the optional challenges. However, the amount of joy I gained from those experiences doesn’t negate the fact that Wildfire just runs poorly on Switch. If you’re interested, it’s probably better to play this on PC.