Sang-Froid. Sang-FREUD? San-Fwah? I cannot say Sang-Froid, but also I have never been able to stop talking about it. Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves is as close as I’ve come to a dream game, a game made purely for me. It’s the 19th century and you’re up in Canada in the wilds of winter. Every day you earn money and build your defences and lay your traps and plan your strategies. Every night, your planning collides with reality as werewolves descend and try to destroy you.
Sang-Froid was tower defense, but it was tower defense in the same way that a DeLorean is a means of getting to the supermarket. It was tower defense reimagined in such a weird, defiant, personal way. It was dark and folksy and intriguing. Its enemies felt canny and cruel and genuinely non-human. It was so cold to play, so overwhelming and exhausting. Man, it was so exhausting! A game about never having enough time, enough money, enough energy left in the legs and arms. Reader, I loved it.
Sang-Froid was the work of Artifice Studios, who went on to make Conflicks, another unique and almost indescribable strategy game, this one about space armadas and eggs. Now Vincent Blanchard, one of the small team at Artifice, has gone his own way. He’s created Autoexec, a new outfit, and he’s back with Wicca. And suddenly we’re going to need that DeLorean.
God, I have watched the Wicca trailer so many times by this point, delighted confusion giving way to something that feels like the dawning of understanding, the instance of the fingerpost. But then delighted confusion is back. Wheels within wheels. A glimmer that I might just get what’s going on. And then?
I am pretty sure this is what excitement feels like. I am terribly, terribly excited about Wicca, even if it means that I now have to try and tell you what Wicca is. Wicca is, once again, a dream game for me. And once again it’s tower defense for the PC. And once again it’s tower defense taken to places that almost nobody would ever think to take it.
Two things to start with. Your character, Teagen, has one HP in Wicca. Just the one. And also, oh jeepers, she can control time.
Let’s get into this properly. Wicca’s set in Scotland in the 16th century. Witchcraft is real in this version of Scotland. Magic is real and frightening stuff, and monsters are on the prowl, spreading out across the green and craggy land and cankering everything they touch.
Teagan’s a witch and a glass canon. But what a canon! Put that one HP thing aside for a second and consider Soul Sight, a fundamental skill that allows her to leap from her body on the ground and zip into the sky to move over the game’s rugged, rambling map and plot the mayhem to come. The map I’ve seen is a beautiful place, mountains and valleys, gentle slopes and spindly bridges. There are two points to defend on this map, two characters I need to protect from waves of creeps whose paths are marked in red arrows. It’s like Sang-Froid all over again, but the snow is replaced with grass and heather, and the horizon has been massively expanded, and while I’m weak I also feel dangerously powerful.
Soul Sight is for plotting, and the first plot to handle is a bunch of creeps advancing from the east, ready to pile on down a hillside to where Teagan’s currently standing. This is a problem, because Teagan’s one HP means she’ll quickly be overwhelmed by the mob. But here comes time travel. Creating a time breach at the bottom of the hill, Teagan can run up the hill and start zapping the creeps with magic.
Tower defense, but you’re also down on the map yourself getting stuck in. Again, this is Sang-Froid, but with twists. The twist here is the time breach. When Teagan gets into danger, the breach pulls her back to the spot at the bottom of the hill and also to the time that the breach was set. Now she can go up the hill again fighting alongside the echo of her earlier actions. She essentially has double the fire power and a limited ability to let the echo take all the aggro. The creeps see two of Teagan, though, so the battle’s a bit different, just as it’ll be different when Teagan does the whole thing again, building echoes upon echos until she’s run out of time mana, should she want to.
Across the map there are other problems and they can’t all be solved by time travel. A different kind of mana – spirit mana – allows Teagan to raise stone walls from the ground, changing the path of a different set of incoming creeps, funneling them towards a point where they can be dispatched. Spirit mana also allows her to infuse a nearby tree with life, at which point its branches become lashes and it starts laying into the creeps.
Spirit mana also allows for something else, and this one really blew my tiny mind wide open. The map is huge here, and while Soul Sight allows Teagan to float above the battle and see the whole thing, she’s still down on the ground and a victim of geography if she wants to physically move anywhere. But Spirit mana changes all that, allowing her to create portals for instant travel between stone circles set up on the map at certain points. Instant travel! Even better, she can cobble a bunch of portals together, essentially creating a junction box or a sort of instant-travel train station which brings many points of the map into the same space.
God, there’s more. Teagan can raise the dead – the spell works best in graveyards where you get more of the dead – and can vacuum up ghosts to regain Spirit mana. There are multiple mana types, all with spells and skill trees attached. There are allies on the map to defend who will then join the action with their troops, perhaps turning the tide of a battle. There are huge, huge monster baddies who can be hit with a befuddlement spell of some kind that encourages them to lay into their own side.
So many choices, so many strategies and possibilities. And yet that one HP always there, meaning that you’re as weak, really, as you are powerful.
I would have taken a straight sequel to Sang-Froid at this point, but Wicca promises to be so much more than that. It’s gone back in time, but it very much feels like the next part of the conversation. I’m terribly into this. How into it? I have a whole interview with Blanchard but I’m going to save that for another day. For now, just look at this glorious, improbable, monstrous thing. Just look at it! And be excited.