There's a certain joy in playing a game you aren't sure you're supposed to really enjoy. Calling itself the second "Strand" game, Witch Stranding takes after its proverbial father, Death Stranding, in more than a few ways. It's equally self-assured and focused on organic worldbuilding, even if it never quite sticks the landing.
To put it simply. Witch Strandings has you play a single strand of light within a dark, treacherous forest. Overgrown in nasty tiles - a manifestation of a great old witch's fall to evil - you have to make your way through it, saving as many souls as you possibly can.
At least, that's the pitch. In actuality, you have a choice over the life of this forest. Where you want the story and land to go is ultimately up to you. Witch Strandings is a light course in the power of worldbuilding like Death Stranding before it. Except, this time, it's a minimalistic indie game with aspirations far bigger than its pixels can capture.
Story Through Limitations
Almost the entirety of Witch Strandings can be played with your mouse. You control the central light by simply flicking across the screen, where you can pick up tiles with a left click. Everything can be analysed by hovering over it, giving you a rundown of what each item does. You can clear out hexes with mushrooms, nullify quicksand with a staff, and more.
The entire world is split up into tiles, making navigation easier and much more methodical. It has a day/night cycle, where resources can restock, allowing you to inch just a little closer to your next central area. There's quite a lot of waiting in Witch Strandings. It's designed to slow you down at many points. As well as having to wait for resources, your little light has a limited speed and, if you put your sensitivity too high to counteract this, it will forcibly slow you down, until you change it back.
Even though it shouldn't take you more than an hour or two to make your way through it, you aren't supposed to speedrun Witch Strandings. It's intended to be a bit of a slog at points. Ultimately, the "right path" is rarely the quickest route to your goals. Alongside the witch, there are 12 creatures you can find throughout the forest, all with their own unique needs. You can pick up a handful of different items throughout the forest that can help cure animals that are hungry, sick, thirsty, injured or, most importantly, disturbed.
You can only help them with one thing each day but doing so will strengthen the heart of the forest, allowing you to further grow it into something wonderful. You never have to do this though. If you so choose, you could guide the light to something wicked, killing all the forest's inhabitants and letting it grow harsh with hex and thorns.
The Tales We Tell Ourselves
Inspired by fairy tales, Witch Strandings' greatest story is the one you tell. Its actual story is pretty basic but sincere: a surprisingly warm expression. If you want to explore the forest, you can wait through each day, slowly tackling the environment and making it hospitable once again. This being said, if you're willing to pick up and place items constantly, you can burrow into the forest without a solid path back. You can make your way to the witch but nothing but spite and the tools to possibly kill her.
It manages to tell almost all of this through its visuals. They are sparse and minimalistic yet distinct. Playing the manifestation of the heart of the forest, there's something enchanting about the game's visuals. In a sense, it captures many of those old-school adventure games. For Witch Strandings, old video games almost feel like fairy tales - an expression of culture at a very specific time. It, in turn, represents ours. Witch Strandings longs for a certain time whilst being crushed by the atmosphere of an environment hostile to us.
In a rather fitting sense, the gameplay of Witch Strandings can be downright pain-inducing. With such a focus on the mouse, you have to move it around on your desk a lot. Although it is inspired by Death Stranding, Witch Strandings seems to take a lot more from the torture device in Metal Gear Solid. Over the span of the story, I picked up and moved the mouse hundreds of times, often making me not want to go back and help out all those inhabitants.
I did though. My hand was a little sore and I was starting to tire of the whole thing yet I helped out every little creature I could. I wanted to stop but I didn't feel right ending it there. I scoped out a path and made it to the witch at its centre. Witch Strandings is a game I liked but I don't know if I really enjoyed it very much.
Witch Strandings was reviewed on PC. A copy was provided by the publisher.