Camp W, a charming visual novel developed and published by Psyop, is clearly operating in the same YA witchcraft and wizardry space as Harry Potter. But, the friending-sim cleverly avoids retelling the Boy Who Lived’s origin story. In the process, it wisely subverts a tale that a generation of readers know better than the Nativity.
Hogwarts for Humans
The premise is straightforward, but intriguing, from the start. Liliandra (or Lysander, if you choose to play as a boy) is a young witch in a world of witches. The game begins as the bell rings, closing out the final day of the school year. While all of her classmates will be spending their summer vacations at camp, Lil is dreading another three months of homeschooling under the tutelage of her famous enchantress mother, Mila.
After Mila pushes Lil into a disastrous pop quiz to kick-off the summer, Lil and her familiar, a ginger talking squirrel named Nugget, head out of the house for a venting session. As they walk through the woods, they stumble across an enchanted altar. Lil inadvertently opens a portal to the human world, which coexists, invisibly, with the Witching Realm. Suddenly, Lil’s summer looks a lot more exciting; the portal leads to Camp Whupiwitchi, where a colorful cast of human characters are spending their summer break. This inversion is interesting. Harry Potter was (to his knowledge) an ordinary kid suddenly invited into a world of magic. Lil, however, is a magical kid enchanted by the mundane concerns of humans.
So Many Friends…
From here, the game introduces elements that will be familiar for fans of dating sims like Dream Daddy, as the player chooses which activities the campers will engage in. Sid, an auteur and ukulele player, spearheads a theater production. Ruby, the self-described “Most Spirited Camper,”provides lessons in Whupiwitchi history. And Ezzi and Ella, a pair of mischievous twins with prodigious IQs, conduct mad science experiments.
At times, many of these characters are firmly in caricature territory (like the nature-loving stoner head counselor, Todd), but the personalities at play are strong, distinct and entertaining. The writing is playful, and the camp setting is well-realized in the hand-drawn art. As Lil wades into the lake, her feet sink into the squishy bottom, a sensation which will be familiar to anyone who’s ever made the mistake of entering a camp swimming hole through any method other than cannonball. Similarly, a pleasant, shady dinginess helps the mess hall feel like many a mess hall where I slurped down red drink in in my youth. Strong writing and art direction paired with the premise of getting to spend a summer at this enticing camp had me excited to follow the game wherever it went.
…So Little Time
But, Camp W is severely hampered by an abrupt ending that cuts the narrative short just as it feels like its getting started. Lil frequently speaks about how excited she is to spend the summer away from home; the game seems to gesture at an overarching story that will last for a few months, rather than the couple days that the game encapsulates. It feels like the developers at Psyop suddenly had to rescope a 15 to 20 hour story to fit a five hour game, and Camp W suffers from the feeling that the plates it began spinning just a few hours before have, out of nowhere, crashed to the ground.
In addition to feeling rushed, the finale feels off-putting because the soundtrack that scores the game’s climactic encounter is a familiar track we’ve listened to throughout the game. It’s music that suggests creeping intrigue, not climactic confrontation, and the ending feels all the more forced as a result.
In the end, Camp W is the rare game that left me wanting more… to its detriment. It’s an oft-repeated maxim, but most games are too long. The boom of indies that can be completed in a few sittings is a boon to the industry and an olive branch to busy gamers. Unfortunately, in this case, haste means waste. Camp W’s lovely characters and setting feel like they were abandoned, rather than dropped off for a memorable summer in the woods.
- A great concept builds a sense of mystery and intrigue.
- Strong characterization
- Beautiful, storybook-style aesthetic
- The ending is seriously rushed in a way that feels untrue to the premise and unfinished
- The soundtrack is decidedly off at key moments
Camp W does a stellar job of building its summer camp setting. I was excited to see the events of the game play out over the course of the summer, but the story abruptly and awkwardly draws to a close, leaving far too many loose ends. I love short games, but this is an instance where brevity hurts rather than helps.