The Forest is dark, its inhabitants isolated and in pain. You are the light, a tiny, flickering mote, dragging yourself through brambles and rivers and mud. You are tasked with healing this place, with undoing the ruin that the Witch has wrought. And you’ll do it through small acts of kindness, bringing help to those that need it. Witch Strandings is an immersive entry in an emerging new genre, where physical transportation is a means of uniting and strengthening fractured bonds in a community.
Witch Strandings: Fragmented Fairy-Tale
The Witch’s presence is felt everywhere in the forest, her actions and their repercussions seeped into this shattered place. While Witch Strandings leaves much to the imagination, it provides just enough information to draw you into the mysterious nature of its world. The forest and the Witch, disappearances, and transformations. The modern world intruding, being reclaimed by this dark, primeval tangle of trees. This is a world full of texture and intrigue, and its often-minimalist trappings only enhance the desire to know more. To walk the forest, breathe its air, and brave its dangers.
As you travel, you’ll begin to find creatures throughout the forest, quickly discovered to be transformed victims of the Witch, each with specific needs. Hunger, thirst, sickness, and more. With each new day, they present a new need, but will only ever have one at a time. And there are items dotted around the world that each heals one of two statuses. For example, Berries can be used to heal the Hungry and Thirsty needs, Medicine can cure Sick and Thirsty, and so on. Taking these items to the creatures will help them for the day, granting you points and making progress towards healing the forest.
Witch Strandings: Sights, Sounds and Scrolling
Witch Strandings does a lot with a little. The game is comprised almost entirely of blocks that your mote of light can either pass through or drag around. While this could understandably have proven an obstacle to creating an immersive sense of place, Witch Strandings rises to the challenge. Vividly descriptive text is used sparingly but always effectively. Notes found near ruined structures deepen the mysteries of the forest while effectively landmarking small zones, allowing you to intuitively map out the forest’s initially confusing layout. Short flashes of prose serve to effectively characterise the creatures that you are bringing aid to.
Witch Strandings relies heavily on engrossing you in the act of travel, and does so through a novel, engaging movement system. Your mote of light is controlled by the movement of your mouse. This style of movement can be slightly jarring at first but is easy enough to get used to. Short flicks allow you speedy yet controlled movement, and long drags can lead to you careening across the screen at a breakneck pace, though this can at times lead to colliding with dangerous tiles without warning. It’s best to temper your pace with caution as you explore the forest, you’ll learn the intricacies of its routes soon enough.
Unfortunately, your delivery routes are rarely straightforward in Witch Strandings. Many different tiles can impede your passage. Certain types of tiles, Mud for example, simply slow you down, requiring frantic mouse movement to clear. Others, such as thorns and quicksand, actively deal damage as you attempt to cross, requiring quick thinking to prevent your death. Damage ticks up quickly, but health regenerates back – though not always to full – when not in direct contact with a harmful tile. Certain items, such as Haunted Mycelium, can be dragged and placed to negate and temporarily clear the negative effects of these tiles, allowing safe passage.
Additionally, as you progress through the forest, you’ll be able to repair ruined structures that act as fast-travel waypoints. Being able to warp between these locations drastically cuts down on the drudgery of repetitive travel, allowing you to quickly get supplies to where they need to be.
While Witch Strandings is worth playing entirely on its own merits, it is hard not to mention the elephant – or maybe whale – in the room. Witch Strandings takes both its name and copious inspiration from Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding. That game was purported by Kojima to be the beginning of a whole new genre, ‘Strand type games’. Witch Strandings is taking Kojima at his word and picking up the gauntlet, crafting a game similarly about delivery and connections while being a wholly unique creation. And if Strand type games are to survive and expand as a genre, then Witch Strandings will have helped pave the way by making a game so different in presentation and stripped-down in mechanics, while still keeping the thematic core intact.
Coming to a close
Following a short tutorial, Witch Strandings offers you little in the way of help. Your task is your own to complete, even useful amenities like fast-travel have to be unlocked along the way. And Witch Strandings slowly builds to a climax where the game’s small conveniences and upgrades are stripped away. All you are left with is your knowledge of the forest, ingrained through repetition, through journey after journey to help and heal and rebuild. The work is never simple, but it rewards your persistence.
But there are other rewards in Witch Strandings. Rewards of convenience, of subverting instructions and making your own choices. Dark temptations that make repetitive work unappealing in comparison. Without giving too much away, Witch Strandings deepens its initially simple gameplay loop partway through, with multiple endings to pursue based on the actions you choose to take. In so doing, it strengthens your connection to its world by giving you the choice of how to interact with it. In making empathy a choice rather than a default, Witch Strandings evolves into something stronger and more intriguing than its initial premise suggests.