• Nate Hermanson

REVIEW: Witch Strandings is a one-of-a-kind healing adventure

Strange Scaffold's latest feels just like their last — in that it feels like nothing we've played before. It left us in awe of their vision, slightly physically exhausted, and emotionally fulfilled.


Welcome to Witch Strandings.

An in-game screenshot of Witch Strandings depicts a tile-based landscape, with items littered about that both are there to help heal the forest's inhabitants and nullify the forest's dangerous tiles. On the top of the screen a message reads: "The Forest's Heart discovers your presence."

Just the Facts

Developer: Strange Scaffold

Publisher: Modern Wolf

Platform(s): PC

Price: $14.99

Release Date: July 8, 2022

Review key provided by NEONHIVE.

It takes just one glimpse into their library to understand the kinds of minds at work at Strange Scaffold. Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. Cellular Harvest. CAN ANDROIDS SURVIVE. These devs are built different, and they need to be to make the one-of-a-kind games they create.


Witch Strandings, their latest, is a strand game. Yes. Like Death Stranding. What does that mean? No one really knows. Not even the developers, as you can see in this thread where Strange Scaffold's Xalavier Nelson Jr. had the realization that the game that would eventually become Witch Strandings was in fact a strand game.


But the world's second-ever strand game is here and it's arguably just as compelling as Kojima's genre-launching attempt.


If Space Warlord taught us to love the grime, Witch Strandings taught us to never forget the power of love.

In Witch Strandings, you inhabit a strand of light flitting through a tile-based, ethereal fairytale forest. You come into being at a crucial time for the forest. It has fallen into decay because of THE WITCH, a dangerous and enigmatic presence whose influence reaches far. She's left dangerous obstacles across the landscape — hexes, thorns, whirlpools, quicksand — and the heart of the forest is weaker than ever as a result.


You're tasked with caring for the forest and its inhabitants, because as the game says at the outset, "it has no one else."


In this forest, somewhere between life and death, you seek to reintroduce love and care into this hardened and decaying landscape. By wandering through the land and finding the other lost souls that have found a home here and helping them with their needs, you can bring stability back to the area.


You fulfill needs by finding items across the land that help with one of the following: hunger, thirst, sickness, injury, and general disturbance. These beings, who've turned into animals in this new space, are painfully incapable of helping themselves in their emotional state, and by offering your help, you slowly heal the heart of the forest and these broken souls.

An in-game screenshot of Witch Strandings, depicting its tile-based landscape. The player is in a place called the Berry Patch, which is hidden just behind a patch of water. Berry items are littered about. The player is reading a note that says: "Yellow and red leaves stab through the underbrush. And in this, their role is unclear. Is their job to ward off hungry souls passing by, or to attract a rare, friendly notice, in this time between the Witch and the end? Regardless, the berries look delicious."

Most of this story is delivered in brief messages that pop up when meeting folks, in short notes found in the world, and even littered about the landscape. The writing is poetic and familiar, telling brief stories of these broken souls, the reasons for their hurt, and the ways they've ended up here. Spurned lovers. Folks trying to do good and finding themselves hurt. A young soul who finds themselves unable to live life the way they expected. When you offer a hand, even the changes to their one-line mood description can touch your heart.


It's minimal, much like everything else in this 1 to 2 hour experience, but impactful. The narrative set-up is reminiscent of some of our favorite pieces of media: Over the Garden Wall, Coraline, and anything by Studio Ghibli. All about wandering through some eerie place, helping one another, healing nature, and maybe setting up for some sort of peace in the afterlife.


If Space Warlord taught us to love the grime, Witch Strandings taught us to never forget the power of love.


But enough of the mushy stuff. This is a video game right? How do you gamify empathy and the power of love?


It starts with Witch Strandings' immersive control scheme, which runs almost completely through your mouse. With a top-down perspective, the best way to describe how it feels to move through the world is to imagine you're pulling the strand of light you inhabit by a string attached to the bottom of your mouse. Each flick of the mouse pulls your light fluidly through the tile-based landscape and dynamically changes when you run into the forest's varied biomes.


Hit a patch of rocky land? You've got to tug on your mouse a bit more to push through. Hit a pool of water? Your strand of light might float through a little more wildly, drifting out of your control. Hit one of the game's various dangerous obstacles, like those aforementioned hexes and such? You'll be sucked in and your health will start to drain. You'll have to desperately pull as hard as you can to make it out before you die.


It all makes for a very immersive experience, as you're expected to stay just as engaged physically as you are mentally, dodging past obstacles with deft movements and being prepared to push through tougher environments when you encounter them. But it's not necessarily one that's totally accessible, as even me and my pained wrists eventually had to take a break from the effort I was putting in. Thankfully, you can turn the "pull sensitivity" up or down to help make it easier, or even try mapping the control system to a controller through Steam's comprehensive input settings.


In the end though, Witch Strandings' physicality might not be for everyone.

An in-game screenshot for Witch Strandings depicts one of the game's items. The beam of light is floating above what looks to be a ribcage and a pop-up identifies it as "Whistling Bones". Its description reads: Nullifies POISON THORN tiles. The player is in a location called Killing Fields and a fox character can be seen standing in a tile nearby.

As you're pulling your strand of light through the environment, most of what you'll be doing in the game, as hinted earlier, is fulfilling needs. Wandering through this fairly hostile landscape, you'll run into items that your little light can pick up and carry. Some of them help you traverse through the more dangerous tiles, nullifying their negative effects, and others can be used to help folks with their needs.


There's some exploring to be done, some ruined buildings you can fix (which give you fast-travel points to make it across the land easier), and some lore to unearth. But most of what you'll be doing is playing deliverer, ferrying items from their spawn locations to the forest dwellers who need them. A day-night cycle keeps the world evolving, shuffling the location of the forest's inhabitants and replenishing the stock of items, but it ultimately becomes an experience of memorizing the forest's twists and turns, creating routes through the dangerous patches, and remembering where your friends might be waiting.


With the ability to ignore the needs of these friends and even the ability to kill them permanently, Witch Strandings introduces an intriguing morality system as well. But with such a short runtime and a batch of characters who seem to only be suffering, I saw no reason to consider evil, other than just to experience all the game has on offer.


In the end, Strange Scaffold has once again made a game where the key gameplay experience is about roaming through an abstract game space, looking for the right items to push your way through. Witch Strandings is fascinating in that, while the work I was doing was fairly repetitive and in some respects boring, its short run time kept me from even realizing it. I was too busy floating through the forest to realize I was just delivering packages to a bunch of peo- OH THAT'S HOW IT'S LIKE DEATH STRANDING.


Either way, you'll know right away if this is the game for you and... yet again... it's kinda exactly the game for me. Damn it, Strange Scaffold.

An in-game screenshot of Witch Strandings depicts one of the game's ruined buildings. It is identified at the top of the screen as the Flooded Hut. The player has placed items down to nullify the water blocks surrounding the building. A note in the ground tiles just outside reads: "A mysterious structure..."

Visually, the complex tile-based pixel art can be a bit much to look at for extended times, especially in the late-game where you'll find yourself zooming through the land. They do a lot of things to keep the forest feeling alive, with a shimmering border of dark branches around the screen and certain tiles wriggling with constant motion as you slide past them. And it might sound weird when considering the visual chaos of some other games out there these days, but it can be overwhelming.


With the ability to save quickly and take breaks and the game's overall short run time, it can be excused, but it should be noted. I'm not one to usually get queasy visually, but it even got to be a bit much for me at times.


The abstract nature of this tile-based world is fascinating though. The ways it manages to represent pools of water, ancient ruined buildings, and even the forest inhabitants themselves through simple sprite work is powerful. The ways it trains your brain to comprehend these groupings of tiles as something more brought me back to some of my first gaming experiences, where artists stretched to make pixels mean something grander than it really was. This wasn't just a batch of squares, these were the horrifying stretches of a macabre forest.


RJ Lake returns for another Strange Scaffold collaboration and his work is just as dreamy as ever. While it may not have had the same impact on me as his last, Witch Strandings' soundtrack is still a stunner, with twinkling notes and lo-fi beats sending you into a tranquil state as you wander through the forest.


When you set out to make something truly unique, you may find that what you make simply isn't for everyone. Even with the short couple of hours it takes to reach one of the game's endings, I find it hard to completely recommend this to everyone. It's weird, it's abstract, and it asks more of you than you'd expect.


But for the weirdos who are seeking something brand new, willing to overlook some moments of stagnancy, and are open to embracing the love of helping your fellow neighbor, Witch Strandings is worth experiencing.


And if you aren't a weirdo, why'd you just read 1500 words about a "strand game?"


video games are good and Witch Strandings is . . . GOOD. (7.5/10)


+ an enjoyably ethereal landscape, anchored by some abstract visuals, poetic writing, and a whimsical soundtrack, with a breezy meditative "strand" experience unlike anything you'll play this year


- the core gameplay loop is a bit repetitive, accessibility both physically and visually is strained, and generally might be too abstract for most

The key art for Witch Strandings depicts a person sitting at a computer with the game playing on their monitor. They are seemingly unaware of the forest-y landscape that has sprouted up around them and of the shadow-y hand reaching for them from the darkness.

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