Evasion is fundamental to human play: hide-and-seek is one of the first games every child learns, a hangover, perhaps, from our neolithic existence, before we reached the summit of the food chain and still had need to master the art of tiptoeing past predators. In Wildfire, the debut videogame from Australian outfit Sneaky Bastards, the “seekers” are medieval soldiers, not sabre-toothed tigers or roaming playmates. But the principle remains: sprint, leap, tumble and crouch your way through a series of increasingly challenging dioramas en route to the exit.
Much of your time is spent cringing in tall grass, whistling to divert guards to investigate one particular spot, thereby enabling you to sneak away via another route. Happily, a series of encounters with mystical meteor shards grant you, during the course of the game, modest mastery of the elements to aid your progress. Approach a campfire, for example, and you’re able to whisk the flame into your hand, where it flickers, painlessly, until you hurl it toward, say, a wooden gate, a thicket of dry grass or the ropes that tie one of your fellow villagers to a stake. Guards panic at the sight of fire, causing them to sprint, erratically, through the scene – a pinch of unpredictability to foil the most conscientious planner.
With the power of fire (and, later, water, which can be used to douse flames and freeze enemies, and earth, which can entrap foes in vines) you gain the tools to “solve” each of the game’s spatial puzzles in a variety of ingenious ways. The designers nudge you toward different approaches by way of optional objectives. In every stage there are bonuses available for pacifism, speed and remaining perfectly undetected, as well as tests of cleverness unique to the specific puzzle. The more of these objectives you meet, the quicker you expand your character’s set of abilities, so diligence and care are rewarded.
The game’s finest moments are found in those sections where you must shepherd one or more villagers to the exit, by directing them to follow you or remain in place with whistles. The larger the group you attempt to save, the more unwieldy the escape attempt, and it’s in those moments – when your best-laid plans fail, and you’re forced to react in the moment – that the game, as in life, is most memorable.
Simon Parkin is the Observer’s games critic