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The Knight Witch shows a magical bullet-hell is a great match for a Metroidvania

A potent mix

Bullet hell shooters have never been one of my fortes in games. There is certainly something magical about watching masters of the genre weave effortlessly in and out of flying orbs in the likes of Gradius, R-Type and Ikaruga, but whenever I attempt to step up to the gamepad myself, my movements have always proven too flighty, too seized by panic, to make much headway with them. Enter The Knight Witch, which takes the thrill of the bullet hell shooter and wraps it up in a lovely Metroid-like-shaped package my brain can actually understand. It's a fantastic little game, and I'm only sorry we didn't cover it in more detail when it came out at the end of November last year.

In some ways, I'm shocked no one's made a Metroid-like twinstick bullet-hell shooter with witches before now (and if you have, apologies, please tell me about your game immediately). Putting you in the flying magic boots of a witch capable of shooting spells from their hands is such a great fit for fending off waves of orbs, spells and other beam-like nasties, and marrying it all to beautifully crafted Metroid-like environments is just the icing on an already satisfying cake. Did I mention your spells are also represented by a randomised deck of cards as well? Oh yes. The Knight Witch is something special all right, so strap in and let me tell you about it.

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You are Rayne, a kind-hearted magical lady who was almost selected to join the titular Knight Witches when the evil Emperor Erebus was threatening to destroy the planet with his big army of war golems, but it turns out you didn't quite pass the entrance exam to be part of the Knight Witch team proper. Probably for the best, really, as that climatic battle between Erebus and the Knight Witches didn't end up resulting in the happy ending everyone was hoping for, and while Erebus was stopped, it came at the cost of 'Hey remaining fragments of society, we all need to go and live underground now because we ruined the planet up top, sorry about that'. Hence the maze-like, Metroidvania-style structure of its beautifully hand-drawn environments.

The Knight Witches then disappeared in the mists of battle, everything was hunky dory for a while, and everyone lived in relative peace. Years later, though, some pesky golems start causing trouble again, and with no other Knight Witch in sight, it's time for the B-team, aka: Rayne on her lonesome, to step up and save the day. So begins the classic power curve of a newbie hero acquiring better, more powerful spells to take on the big bad at the end of it all.

A witch fends off bullets from a turret inside a mine in The Knight Witch
A witch fires magical spells at a bunch of bats in The Knight Witch
A witch does battle in tight tunnels inside a forge in The Knight Witch
Enemies are a mixture of monster and the mechanical, and all of them fire horrible orbs at you.

Brilliantly, you have the option of either deploying twinstick controls to fire Rayne's magical bullet spells, or just holding down the shoulder buttons on your game pad to fire automatically at the nearest enemy. For the most part, the latter works brilliantly, and often there's so much happening onscreen that moving and shooting manually is simply too much to handle. Individual enemies are fairly easy to take on, but occasionally you'll be locked into an Ambush, which is preceded by a big glowing warning light and some srs bsns kick-ass battle music.

These are much, much harder (more so than its actual boss fights a lot of the time), capturing that classic bullet-hell challenge in a tight and confined space. They demand much more precise flying and shooting, as well as smart deployment of your big spell cards, which are mapped to X, Y and B on your game pad. Each card requires a set number of energy orbs to cast, which you accrue by defeating other enemies, but the tricksy thing about them is that they're constantly changing as you go through your deck, so you don't know which of your deck's six cards will appear on that button next. It certainly helps keep things lively, although the number of times I've also tapped the wrong button in the heat of the moment (and thus spending all my energy orbs in the process) has happened too often to count. Still, I like the unpredictability it brings to each battle, and the number of cards you eventually get to pull from later on brings loads of different options and playstyles to the table.

A witch flies past a skeleton shop keeper in The Knight Witch
The skeleton shopkeepers are your only company in The Knight Witch, as everyone else is tucked up safely inside the big castle. They'll 'bake' you additional armour to give you protection from the golem nasties out to get you.

Naturally, when you combine this with The Knight Witch's Ambush pits, the luck of the draw can really screw you over sometimes. Over time, you definitely get the sense that some cards are better suited to some Ambushes than others, but thankfully you can freely edit your deck any time you get to a save point. Indeed, there were times when I frequently felt like I'd suddenly stepped into a Dark Souls game during these Ambushes, so sharp was their sudden difficulty spike. But it cuts both ways in the end. There would always be some runs where the right cards just kept on coming, which, all in all, probably made up for the time I spent bashing my head against its skull-laced walls a lot of time.

The gorgeous places you get to explore also help pull you through those difficult moments, and its artful puzzles and plentiful secrets make for pleasing return visits once you've acquired some new abilities. Most of all, though, I like the moments where Rayne has a bit of downtime back at her castle hub. You see, the ultimate power of the Knight Witches isn't an innate thing - it lies in the hope and belief of other people, which sounds a bit twee and touchy-feely, but it's a sentiment that gets interrogated to surprising effect in the game's overarching story.

A witch with a red hat prepares for battle in The Knight Witch
A witch floats in a large ornate room in The Knight Witch
A witch stands in front of a magical fridge door in The Knight Witch
A witch after my own heart.

Upon returning from each mission, for example, Rayne gets swept up in the castle's PR machine. The castle itself is the last line of defence against the golems, and the castle's 'Venerable' leader asks Rayne to hold press conferences to reassure the populace that everything is fine and that the Knight Witches (aka, still just her mostly) are doing a fantastic job. It's partly to inspire that all-powerful hope and belief that's so vital to their ability to conquer all evil, but you quickly start seeing the cracks in their bid for fame and glory. You're given the choice to lie and say everything's dandy (giving you a big Link bonus to level up your stats and powers), or tell the truth and stick to your guns about the reality of the situation at hand (resulting in a teeny, sometimes non-existent Link bonus). I've yet to finish the game in its entirety, but despite the obvious temptation to go with the former, I do get the sense that denying myself those tasty, tasty stat boosts will eventually come good for me in the end. Maybe.

Still, this questioning of the Knight Witches purpose, function and utility in the wider landscape of this war-torn kingdom wasn't something I was expecting going in, and it's refreshing to have something chewy like this to mull over in between its snappy combat sections. Chuck that into the pot with its gorgeous blend of genres, and it's the kind of game I could imagine coming from a studio like Supergiant and being an instant mega-hit - and not just because Damien Sanchez's excellent score has such big Bastion vibes that I would have sworn blind it was the work of Darren Korb almost as soon as I heard it. Alas, even I didn't quite clock The Knight Witch when it came out at the tail end of November a couple of months ago, and I have to thank Graham (RPS in peace) for putting me onto it when we were swapping Steam Deck recommendations over Christmas (and yes, it is a great Steam Deck game, too, in case you were wondering).

There are definitely moments when The Knight Witch will grate and frustrate with its sharp difficulty spikes, but it's also taught me to love a genre I've only ever dabbled in up until now, making bullet-hell shooters just a tiny bit less intimidating than they were previously (Drainus, I've got my eye on you next, you better believe it). It's also just a very good Metroid-like in its own right, and when there's currently a free demo on Steam available for you to try right this very second, it would basically be rude not to just give it a go at this point. It is, if you'll pardon the expression, proper magic.

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About the Author
Katharine Castle avatar

Katharine Castle

Former Editor-in-chief

Katharine used to be editor-in-chief for RPS. After joining the team in 2017, she spent four years in the RPS hardware mines. Now she leads the RPS editorial team and plays pretty much anything she can get her hands on. She's very partial to JRPGs and the fetching of quests, but also loves strategy and turn-based tactics games and will never say no to a good Metroidvania.