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Wytchwood review: a dark fairytale to-do list you'll fall in love with

Eye of newt (1/2)

I am not great at keeping my mind palace organised. I don't even have a mind palace. If my mind were any kind of structure it would be a Lego creative box of randomly mixed bricks. Thus, like an advanced robot, I store my memory outside my body in the form of daily to-do lists that I write up every morning. Wytchwood is a to-do list game, with each item cascading into a sub-list of more things to be ticked off. The difference is, in real life, my daily to-do list only includes 'make shiny lure to catch an elf and steal its shoes' on Tuesdays.

Hahaha! I'm here all week! But seriously folks, as the title suggests you play a witch in this crafting RPG (CRPG isn't taken, right?). In fact, she's an adorable crone with a stompy little walk and a pot for a head, and developers Alientrap have had a lot of fun with that premise. Your job, as related to you by the Black Phillip-esque goat outside your swamp-cottage, is to collect wayward souls owed to him. Each of them turns out to be a terrible person, though, so it's cool.

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The path to getting each soul is littered with tasks. For example, one of the second group of souls is a rat living in an abandoned church. To get through the locked gate you need to craft an acidic reagent, and one of the ingredients is ectoplasm. You get ectoplasm from a specific type of ghost in the graveyard, but you need to make an exorcism charm to banish the ghost and get the ectoplasm. The exorcism charm requires two bat wings, and you only have one right now, so you'll need to craft a bait stick trap to catch another bat. But that needs a stick, some meat, and some thistle heads and you see where this is going.

And that's kind of the whole game: you get ingredients to craft traps for critters and monsters, to get ingredients to craft another thing a pixie or a sad unicorn has asked you to craft, to get you closer to your goal of stealing an evil soul. It makes Wytchwood sound far less lovely and engaging than it is. To describe a cake as eggs collected from a hen, flour ground from wheat, sugar refined from sugarcane, butter from milk collected from a cow, does not include how magical it is to eat a cake, right?

Dreadful grimoire
Your spellbook contains all the recipes you can make, and you learn more by taking a moment to look around using your special witch's sight. This allows you to highlight things and discover - or remind yourself - what you need to do to collect a certain ingredient from an animal or thing. The full list of things you can make is, as you can see, pretty big.

Wytchwood's world is playful and whimisical. It's flat, but has a sense of depth, in the way a paper diorama is both 2D and 3D at the same time. There are a few areas to explore, each with a few ingredients that can only be collected from that location, and you reach them via a network of portals hidden in decaying corners. The forest, the first area you go to, is one of my favourites: orange and autumnal, it feels cosy, and is a great contrast to the more dangerous and spookier levels later on. But I'm also a massive fan of the village and docks, especially the music. Different areas have different musical themes, and the village first introduces the little loop I think of as Wytchwoods "people live here" music. The docks music uses the same theme, but makes it more jaunty and cartoon pirate-y, and I love it.

And though I referenced some levels being harder than others, they're not really. There are some creatures that will become angry and move to attack you, but their attacks are telegraphed so you can usually scuttle out of the way like the wiley witch you are. I mostly stand back and enjoy the animations; if you go digging for ingredients in the sandpiles in the docks, for example, sometimes a crab will leap out, and do a wild snip-snap with its claws. This is also accompanied by an appropriate sound effect. In fact, both the animation and sound design are endearing from top to bottom. Look out for the "WoooOOOOoooooOOOOOoo!" you get as you walk past some of the ghosts in the graveyard, or the creaking and swaying of ents that come alive in the forest.

Instead, the bulk of its difficulty lies in the number of ingredients you need to craft something. Recipes become more complicated over time, and there are some items that are just one step to getting something else. There are times playing Wytchwood when you'll be like "What? The gargoyle wants three pairs of elf shoes and a gnome hat? But getting a gnome hat means I have to make a puzzle box. Augh!" And then you'll turn the game off for the night. But the next day you'll come back to it, feeling refreshed, remembering exactly what steps you need to take to build that puzzle box. As your no-nonsense little witch gets back into the swing of witching, and so do you: it's a similar kind of satisfaction you get from mastering a process in something like Dark Souls, but nicer.

Not that Wytchwood is entirely nice, mind. After all, you're collecting souls for Satan. It's quite dark at times. One of the souls you collect is an Ox who has sold his family to a bewitched scarecrow, in return for a good harvest. But it's fairy-tale darkness, the same way that if you take a step back from Little Red Riding Hood you realise it's super fucked up. So the Ox's rival in farming is a giant turnip in a straw hat who is growing a lettuce son. Sure, to get your lizard eyes you have to dispense with the rest of the lizard in a little burst of viscera, but you can't make an omelette without exploding a few critters, as the saying goes.

This year has blessed us with games that radiate care, where you can tell that the people who made it really loved the process of making it. Wytchwood is like opening a hand-drawn pop-up book and finding a cheeky little hag inside, throwing snares at living pumpkins and yelling, "I'll chop you good!" at giggling little changeling mushrooms. And who wouldn't want to tick "chop annoying little mushroom good" off a to-do list?

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