You ever get that otherworldly feeling when you walk into a place for the first time, the hairs rising on the back of your neck, that you’ve been there before? You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it definitely seems very familiar.
And while you’ve never been anywhere like the small village called Maepole, there’s something very recognizable about it. That’s the setting for the brand new adventure found in Briley Witch Chronicles (BWC). This jaw-dropping game was created for the Commodore 64 by the intensely prolific and talented Sarah Jane Avory. And even though it may be your first time to step into her witchy world you really will feel right at home.
Your name, of course, is Briley. You’re a 21 year-old girl ripped from the known world and placed into an alternate reality seemingly a century or two back in time. There are no airplanes, no cars, no TVs nor iPhones (gasp!). The setting is more akin to something quite commonly seen in JRPGs: country life, villages, forests and - of course - lots of magic!
You pop into this world with your friendly pet from home named Smokey. But in this new world he’s a clever black cat with whom you can now have surprisingly long and detailed conversations about the days events and quests you need to complete. A bit snarky at times and prone to complaining, Smokey soon becomes a favorite character to interact with and even control in the game. Not only is he stunningly rendered and mentally astute, his combat attacks often outshine his magic-slinging owner!
Briley’s main goal as soon as she is transported to Maepole is to find her way back home. In order to do so she must become an indentured worker for a host family. They make her a delivery girl for their baked goods, which Briley must send to customers all over town. If that premise sounds a bit like Kiki’s Delivery Service, surely it’s no coincidence. Yet one of the key differences being Briley has no magical flying broom. As a result, she has to walk all over creation to complete her deliveries.
Thanks to her new job, however, she meets virtually every member of town and learns the fast-traveling gossip of the day. Ultimately, Briley herself becomes the center of the town’s attention as her magical powers increase and plots against her unfold.
It’s your job to steer her through this somewhat linear maze to find All Of The Things and meet everyone necessary to get Briley and Smokey back to their proper realities.
If you’ve ever picked up a gamepad for NES/SNES or a Game Boy Advance, this game is going to feel stunningly familiar. A key difference here being the C64 only rocks to the beat of a single button. However, Ms. Avory employs a fantastic UX and UI to guide players through a menu-heavy game. Tap the button once for action, or press and hold the button to invoke the beautifully designed menu system.
If that’s difficult to navigate at first, you can also use the keyboard to pop open the menus or quickly collapse them. It really does boggle the mind how many C64 games could have been greatly improved had the giant keyboard on the table simply been part of the design process. Ms. Avory takes great advantage of the C64’s strengths most designers bafflingly avoided spanning decades of development.
One of my all-time favorite JRPGs on the Game Boy Advance is the Golden Sun series (2001-02). The basic idea found in BWC follows the core formula found in most adventure games like Golden Sun: A small band of characters must travel across vast distances to complete their quest, gaining experience, better equipment and spells along the way as the challenges increase in strength. Thus as your abilities and skills increase, so do the foes you encounter creating bigger and more complex battles even if the outcomes are generally the same.
As your characters get stronger so do the enemies at an equally matched pace; you win, they die, repeat until the end. Unlike an Ultima or Gold Box D&D game, there isn’t much save scumming to be found here at all. That’s not a criticism; I’m simply stating the known JPRG formula - and it is one that is very fun to play and sorely lacking on the C64, I might add. In fact, it’s quite a refreshing change to be honest.
It may come as no surprise that Ms. Avory is also an author of several YA books.
In fact, BCW is based directly off the first four of ten coming of age fantasy series of books. What’s especially exciting about this is there are 6 more books to go - so potentially one and possibly two more BCW games? It very well might be in the cards.
Preceding the title screen there is a long animated backstory that runs on each load unless a key or button is pressed to bypass it.
And while entertaining and fresh for the C64, the overall plot isn’t earth shatteringly different from many hero/adventure stories. A protagonist lives a hum-drum typical lifestyle. She is ripped from that existence into a simpler yet mysterious world lacking in modern advances seemingly 200-300 years in the past. It is a simpler time, yet is a world filled with strange creatures and magic. Witchcraft is a tolerated fact of life, albeit with a skeptical glance by some.
The protagonist’s key goal is to find her way back home. Meanwhile an evil powerful antagonist will throw numerous roadblocks in the way in order to grow its power and make right perceived past wrongs.
I actually don’t want to go much more into the story, however. One of the key differentiators between BWC for C64 and virtually all other adventures on the platform is the time devoted to it.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen this much text for a C64 game since I played an actual text adventure. And while at times it seems borderline too much, it never actually crosses the threshold of no return. It’s definitely different and surprising at first (and maybe tough for some younger players to sit through) but for me it was quite enjoyable mainly due to it being so novel. That’s really saying something for a game on a platform over 30 years old. This game and its story-based backbone is just so fresh it was impossible to put down.
There were times I hoped for a bit more action or interaction to be found when walking across the village grounds for the 100th time looking for clues or solving mini-quests (Link’s sword slashing of green bushes to expose gems comes to mind, or maybe the occasional devious chopping of a defenseless chicken). But it’s ultimately the deep, well-crafted story and characters that holds everything together in such a wonderful package.
And while the story is nice, Ms. Avory added an additional hook.
She placed static images of Foxes (think Mario coins) in various places all throughout the game for players to find, “Save” (from hunters?) and collect. There are 56 peppered throughout all the various screens. I found 50 out of 56 by the time I completed the game. It’s a tried and true tactic to encourage replay value for the most hardcore. For me, I’ll probably just wait a year or two and pick it up again with getting a perfect Fox score as a goal. I was close, but I did miss a few.
Pro-tip: If you’re replaying a section (or the game) and need to chew through lots of story screens, tapping F-7 will let you fast-forward to the end of that area’s dialogue. It’s also a great way to greatly reduce your total time, which is being recorded in the background.
To that end, I do wish when the game is completed that all your gameplay stats are somehow displayed. As it stands my final tallies aren't exactly perfect because I can only see the stats of my last save, which I did right before the final scene. So it's close, but not 100% exact. You know, something very simple like:
Story Completeness: 96%
Or something like that.
While this game sports the depth and polish worthy of a much larger game house like Nintendo or Square, the one area that Briley “falls off the tracks” is in some of the character dialogue. It’s not Rated-G. It’s more PG and at times borderline PG-13 in that Briley will curse when frustrated. I’m not trying to sound like a prude, but if this were a game published back in the day it would have raised eyebrows for being so real. And, it goes without saying Nintendo would have never published a game with this character dialogue. Square might have, but it’s hard to say. While characters look like young children, they are actually adults. And they talk like it.
In addition there are some scenes where young men make advances and insinuations towards Briley that, while extremely common in real life, become a bit uncomfortable - intentionally so. It’s these minor deviations from the norms that make Briley in a class of her own from her adventure game contemporaries.
The graphics in Briley Witch Chronicles are nothing short of amazing. I never knew the C64 could have graphics with this much detail in an adventure game, and it certainly raises the bar in the genre to a whole new level.
In the past, my experience with C64 adventure games generally involved very crude, blocky graphics where the entire hook was the story, the quests and the advancement of role-playing characters by slowly exploring painfully large maps. And some of those games are - to me - total classics that can’t be beaten mainly as they are so deeply hooked into my childhood and gaming life. But I’d never hold them up as apogees of graphical excellence.
For BCW, we finally can.
There have been C64 games in the past twenty years, and many in the past 5, that have really opened the eyes to many how powerful the C64 can be when the right tools and talent are at the helm. But they’ve usually been platformers and side-scrollers.
For the first time, we have a game that looks like it could have been created by Nintendo. On her blog, Ms. Avory explains how she goes about creating this coding witchcraft.
She actually created her own custom tools, from writing assembly to designing the highly detailed graphics.
Sarah Jane Avory:
I sometimes wish I was Neo in the Matrix and could just plug in this part of Ms. Avory’s brain into my own. What a talent!So when I started getting back to some C64 programming, the first thing I needed was a 6502 assembler. Since I love to code stuff, and knowing I was quite likely to want to add custom assembler directives, I coded my own.
When I started making my C64 games, I used existing tools, namely CharPad and SpritePad. Pretty early on I knew I wanted to code my own character/map editor, so I did that.
Her custom made sprite editor is called SprEd, which “can use up to 4 hires overlay sprites, and can even edit more than one at a time.” It’s these graphics that simply were not the norm in Games we all grew up with. And it’s these graphics that truly make BCW a marvel to see, and to play.
Just a short note on this topic, which is fair since most adventure games are graded on it at some level. Most items found in shops are never needed at all.
This is particularly true for the blacksmith shops. There's virtually no reason at all to purchase expensive weapons and armor since Briley can't use most of it - only her occasional companion(s) can. By the end of the game you'll have hundreds of coins you'll have never spent. Most everything of real value can be found along the way, or gained via experience as new spells are added to your repertoire.
One of the other big differences BCW demonstrates is the soundtrack. I lost count of how many unique tunes it has, but believe me when I say Briley might have some of the most catchy, and varied, SID tracks for a C64 game. The music is so good I often found myself humming some of the tunes when doing random chores around the house.
I used an original bread bin 6581 SID pumped through an ancient 1702 monitor’s speaker. And trust me when I say on more than one occasion I would turn up the volume and put my head close to the monitor to better hear some of the exceptional compositions pumping through the hardware. The battle scenes in particular are a personal favorite.
And while many of the tunes sound somewhat simple, several of them - if you sit back and listen long enough - will seemingly loop yet hit totally different octaves, thus producing a whole new experience.
If the SIDs were released as a CD-album (or as part of a larger downloadable package), I’d buy it.
The key stunning achievement in BWC that I glossed over in the Story section above is that our protagonist is a smart, bright, quick-witted young woman. Something that sounds so simple and almost expected in 2021 is actually quite ground-breaking to be included amongst our beloved C64’s deep game library.
The fact that Briley is such a notable title for such a basic reason speaks volumes to the platform’s developers and designers being predominantly male. To be fair the Commodore 64 isn’t unique in that regard, especially for computer and game systems born in the 1980s and 1990s. But it’s still worth applauding today when someone breaks from the norm. More of this, please.
I do believe if Briley had been published on a 512KB cart back in the day (they did exist) it would have been a massive success and potentially become a part of gaming pop culture along the lines of Mario, Link and Sonic. I can imagine folks today cosplaying Briley, tattoos of Smokey, plush dolls, keychains, and all the merchandising you can think of being born from this game. It could have become a franchise with a multitude of additional games being created, potentially finding themselves even today on contemporary consoles with 3D graphics on 4K screens.
I was completely addicted to this game the day I downloaded it. I finished it over the course of a week in about 19 total hours. (Note: I think the clock was still ticking even when I accessed menu systems, which I employed often as a means to Pause the game.)
As of this writing, Ms. Avory has sold well over 700 copies of the game and is already planning a 2nd installment. While that might pale in comparison to a hit back in the day, in 2021 that is a bonfide C64 blockbuster. There have also been hints of a physical release in the future as well, although it’s likely most of those would be sold to pre-existing customers looking for a memento to sit on a shelf.
BCW2 will be aimed at an even larger cartridge size - 768K - and will be a continuation of the story line.
As a comparison, Robocop 3 reportedly shipped on a 1MB cartridge back in the day - an expensive choice. In 2021+, however, we have more space than we know what to do with, - especially for downloadable content.
Sarah Jane Avory:
So perhaps we can look forward to that in 2022 or 2023. However long it takes, it’ll be well worth it!The first game was originally designed to fit on a 512K cartridge, but by switching to EasyFlash, I can use up to at least 768K, so will be making full use of that, with more bitmaps etc.
Although the game is based on the same Maepole village as the first game, I'm upgrading the visuals as much as possible, using extra charsets to add more detail.
$9.99 Digital Download
Customers can pay above the asking price if they wish. I’ve always thought this model to be a little odd - asking someone to pay more before actually playing a game. If there was a 10-minute downloadable demo, I think it would make a lot more sense and potentially earn creators more revenue by impressed customers.
512KB CRT File (could be burned to an Eprom for a dedicated cartridge)
Hardware and Misc. Notes
I played this game on a Commodore 64 Reloaded Mk1 using an NTSC VIC and bread bin SID.
1541Ultimate Cartridge, Drive ID 8: Used to run the game*.
1541-II, Drive ID 9: Used for my Game Saves, of which 4 slots are provided.
This computer also sports a Mechboard64 mechanical keyboard.
Controls were directed via an NES-styled 2-button gamepad, which felt right at home with this game. One button is programmed to “go up” for “jump-ing” on some janky C64 games, but could also be used to go up in menus. Created by Retrogameboyz, with a custom cord length of 3' rather than the typical 6'.
* When I first started the game I played exclusively off my 1541Ultimate cart, loading and saving the game directly off my SD micro card. I got about two hours into the game, saved my progress and turned off the computer.
I soon returned to the game and went to load my saved game file. Except, the computer showed the 4 slots all being completely empty! I popped out the SD card and inspected it on my Mac: nothing to be found. I reported the nasty bug and in the meantime fired up an original 1541-ii and set it to ID 9 for future disk-based saves. I formatted a new disk and was on my way.
Thankfully I was able to bypass the lengthy story at the beginning of the game by tapping F7 several times. Within about 10 minutes or so I was back to where I’d left off.
That bug was resolved within a day by Ms. Avory as she pushed out version 1.01, but I didn’t stop using a floppy for my saves. And I’m glad I didn’t, as a few more bugs were discovered along the way. The game now sits at version 1.05, but I never lost any progress since my saved games were separated from the CRT file. Had I moved back over to only using the cartridge to load and save my games, I would have had to potentially restart four times. As it stands, I only had to once.
Anyone who plays the game today, or on a future official cartridge should one be published, shouldn’t have to play the game this way. Although to be honest I didn’t mind - I rather enjoyed saving and loading to disk! I love that drive so much. It actually made the entire experience better by transporting me back to my C64 past while also warping me well into the current technologically futuristic present. Would Briley have preferred the cold dependability of tech over the warm mysteries of an earlier magical time? At this point it's really hard to say.
— AL —