Where you'll stand on Bullet Witch probably depends on where you stand on the charms of digital ladies - digital lady Goths, to be precise. This, you see, is a game that exists solely to justify its magnificent title, a geek-enslaving clash of consonants and concepts in inimitable Japlish style. And the title exists solely to justify the heroine, Alicia. Alicia dominates the screen at all times: a waif in satin and lace, all pearl-white limbs and pitch-black hair. And cocked hips, tattered Addams Family evening wear, and leggy cartwheels. And the biggest gun you've ever seen, bigger than she is: an ornate, gold-encrusted Regency cannon straight out of some warped steampunk hybrid of Final Fantasy and Serious Sam.
In short, Bullet Witch is Japanese fetish gaming in full effect. The cutscenes are terrible, the action is ludicrous, the skirts are split all the way to the top, you can download new costumes and there's a character in it called Maxwell Cougar. End of story, end of review: it's a tasty little something on the side for the gentleman with... particular tastes. Nothing to see here for those of you who like your gaming gunslingers dressed in stubble and Kevlar. Move along.
Except that's not quite all there is to it, because Bullet Witch is on the wrong console. PS2 is the natural home for this sort of thing, but Cavia's third-person shooter is a rare 360 exclusive from Japan, where it first appeared in July of last year. As such, it's tailored to a very specific subsection of the Japanese hardcore, one which likes its action games to come with some next-gen bells and whistles and a Western flavour.
So Alicia's saucy manga stylings are contrasted with the game's down-to-earth American setting. Set in an off-the-shelf apocalyptic near-future - plague, climate change, demonic invasion, etcetera - Bullet Witch pits you against a horde of demonic zombie mutations (most of them gun-toting soldiers, conveniently) that would look more at home in a cheap'n'nasty American FPS. You'll fight through picket-fence suburbs, a close approximation of downtown Manhattan, subway tunnels, airports and Midwestern woods, some of it dreary, some of it striking and atmospheric.
Developer Cavia has also been studying recent Western game design, and imported more open level layouts, recharging health, environmental physics and destructible stuff, twin-stick controls, and room for tactical improvisation in place of the traditional flashy combos and power-ups. There are only a handful of scripted boss-fight spectacles - although one is especially memorable and gloriously stupid, setting Alicia a top a flaming 747 at 10,000 feet as she fends off a giant flying demon whale and its squadron of eyeball-tadpole-things. Elsewhere, difficulty spikes come in the form of extended gun battles with helicopter drops of the zombie soldiers, who come in various combinations of snipers, grunts and shotgun brutes.
It's all very Halo, although the AI sadly isn't, and neither is the weapon balance or feel. Your 'Gunrod' can, by spending the skill points earned at the end of each of the six lengthy stages, transform into a shotgun, a long-range cannon (which acquires sniper sights by casting a spell on its ammo) and a brutal Gatling gun.
But it's the basic machine gun form which is by far the most satisfying and useful and which the entire game seems to be designed around - Bullet Witch is all about, well, firing bullets. Lots and lots of them: an unlimited supply, in fact, which you spray everywhere in a constant, zombie-mowing barrage while their bullets zip loudly past your head. It makes a lovely din, but after a few hours the unvarying slaughter in the rather empty levels wears a little thin. Weak 'puzzle' interludes where you have to slay hovering telekinetic brains to unlock colour-coded barriers don't really help much.
But what about the 'Witch' half of that title? Alicia has magic abilities - limited at first, but unlocked, again, by spending skill points. She can summon temporary cover (brief), charge ammo with elemental powers (occasionally useful), confuse enemies with flocks of ravens (excellent), use telekinesis to batter them with vehicles and debris (highly entertaining), impale them with spears (rubbish) and summon lightning and tornados (noisy, expensive and slow). These spells use MP which, like health, recharges over time. But, to prevent you taking cover and waiting until you can cast one of her devastating weather spells, her maximum total MP drains with use and must be pushed up with, you guessed it - more shooting.
The spells are fun to mess around with for the most part, especially the telekinesis, which makes the best use of the game's slightly cardboard physics. But they're also quite fiddly and slow and poorly integrated with the action, and unpredictable in their effects. It's typical of the cracks in the polish evident everywhere in Bullet Witch: the dumb, buggy AI, the flickering shadows and jarring pop-up, the bad checkpoint placement, the rough and ready combat, the difficulty which never seems to be harsh and fair at the same time.
Bullet Witch's graphics can switch from breathtaking to tawdry in the bat of an eyelid, just as quickly as the action can veer between exhilarating sensory barrage and tedious, repetitive trawl. It's an inconsistent game and flimsy as Alicia's outfit, but it also adds some badly needed freak-chic to the 360's relentlessly serious and macho action line-up. It doesn't offer anything more substantial than a flash of thigh and a stream of bullets, but for a quick fling, well, we don't mind if we do.