For the record, I’m a big fan of what Nippon Ichi does. I’m not always a fan of their actual games, mind you, but I certainly appreciate the fact that they’re willing to bring over the quirky Japanese games that we would otherwise never see on North American shores. Their latest release, A Witch’s Tale, continues that tradition in providing a title that will probably only appeal to an extremely niche group of RPG enthusiasts. What that niche group is, however, is tough to define due to Witch’s Tale’s schizophrenic nature. It initially comes across as an incredibly basic “My First RPG”, but I don’t think it ever really hits the “a game for everyone” (as the marketing material I received with my review copy touted) mark it’s shooting for.
The overall presentation and aesthetic of A Witch’s Tale is by far it’s strongest attribute – albeit in a overly cutsey kind of way. The game tells the story of Lidell, a novice witch with aspirations of becoming the greatest witch in the world. In her pursuit of greatness, she is told of a book containing a great and mysterious power that could help her. She finds the book, but unwittingly unleashes a great evil in the process. To try and put the figurative genie back in the bottle, she teams up with a mopey vampire and travels to a 6 different themed kingdoms that take their cue from classic fantasy stories. There’s an Alice in Wonderland meets Nightmare Before Christmas vibe to the entire game, which will probably appeal to the Hot Topic crowd. Each kingdom has a very distinct feel to it, and the whimsical artwork, quirky characters, and fantastic music have an undeniable charm. Pumpkin lampposts will talk to Lidell as she walks past, gingerbread soldiers stand guard in a chocolate forest, and a Cheshire Cat will make a few appearances as well. The writing and story are decent enough, although most of the jokes fall flat and none of the characters are overly interesting. The game seems to aim for squarely for the pre-teen market, and mostly succeeds in that regard.
Each kingdom is quite large, and set up as a Zelda-style series of interconnecting maps. The size of each kingdom did lead to a bit of frustration, as you’re often required to backtrack across multiple maps in order to unlock a door or proceed to the next objective. Compounding the frustration was the fact that you would often be given very vague instructions on where to go or what to do next, and I often found myself simply wandering around these huge levels hoping I would blindly trigger something that would allow me to progress. Since the background graphics of the maps looks incredibly similar, it leads to a lot of aimless wandering. If that frustrated me as an RPG veteran, I can only imagine how an RPG novice (seeming the game’s target audience) would feel.
Most DS RPG’s have used the face buttons as the player’s main means of control, and shoehorned in some touch-screen capability as well. A Witch’s Tale goes to the opposite extreme, and uses nothing but the touchscreen for control. Lidell will follow your stylus as you drag it across the screen, all the menus and combat system is entirely touch-based, and this is the rare game in which your fingers will never touch the buttons. This system works pretty well, although the crate-breaking mechanic seemed very imprecise. Which sucks, since you’ll be breaking open some sort of crate over and over and over and over again on every level. This got very old very quickly, especially since crates respawn whenever you moved to the next screen.
Unfortunately, random battles are the order of the day for A Witch’s Tale, which – as I’m sure you can imagine – make the constant backtracking and wandering that much more annoying. Non-visible enemies also make the entire gameworld feel incredibly empty. Without being able to see the baddies, you are left walking around a huge number of empty corridors. Being able to see monsters on-screen would have gone a long way towards making the game feel more vibrant and alive.
The actual combat system is a mixed bag. All the battles are standard turn-based, with Lidell and her supporting doll character (more on these in a moment) on the bottom screen and the enemies on the top. You have the basic options of attack, magic, or item, and each one is activated by dragging the corresponding icon to the enemy’s slot. A rotating wheel in the bottom right contains all the different spells available, so choosing one and casting it on an enemy is a simple process. Each enemy will have one particular spell they are weak against, but since there is no indication of what their weakness is, it simply becomes a matter of trial and error. This game is far more magic-focused than most RPG’s, with Lidell and company having a huge pool of MP available. This pool – along with the hit point amount – renews every time you gain a level, which happens on a near constant basis. However, the enemies seem to have a huge number of hit points, which causes most battles to drag on for an incredibly long time as you trade blow after blow. While never terribly challenging, these lengthy random battles quickly become extremely tedious. You’ll also be fighting the same enemies over and over again, and I found myself bored to tears with the combat within the first couple hours. Again, it seemed strange to me that a game geared towards the younger crowd would have such an incredibly dull and lifeless battle system. While you can sleepwalk through the random battles, bosses will take a sudden and rather unexpected jump in difficulty. They will often have 10X the hit points of the standard enemies, a much higher defense, and will hit you hard and often. Most of them seemed incredibly out of place with the difficulty level of the rest of the game, and I’m a bit perplexed as to why the developers felt the need to suddenly throw up such massive roadblocks in an otherwise simple game.
As Lidell explores each level, she will come across a number of dolls that she can use as support characters in battle. These provide very specific skills (i.e. strong melee attack, healing, particular elemental spells, etc.) and different dolls can be equipped at whim for different combat situation. While the variety is certainly welcome, most players will find one or two dolls that work best and stick with them, while simply ignoring the rest.
I appreciate what NIS was trying to do with A Witch’s Tale. They were trying to create a basic RPG that would appeal to both newcomers and hardcore gamers alike. Unfortunately, I think they really missed the mark for both groups. Novice gamers will likely end up frustrated with the constant backtracking, vague objectives, and random difficulty spikes, while hardcore RPG’ers will probably find the entire experience mind-numbingly dull. There are a few good ideas here, but they’re buried under a pile of sheer tedium, which makes this title tough to recommend to gamers in either group. In the end, we can thank NIS for bringing us another game we typically wouldn’t see, but I would caution most gamers to stay away from A Witch’s Tale.