With NIS America's A Witch's Tale, I expected a quirky, gothic-style RPG with comical overtones. In a way, that's what I got, but unfortunately, the actual gameplay is pretty awful and a real letdown. It's easy, boring and the random encounters drag on for far too long, making the overall exploration a pain and a chore for the duration of the game. It's got some interesting stuff going on with the style, setting and characters, but you have to trudge through so many boring encounters and mechanics to get to it, only to find that the end result just isn't worth the trouble.
The game puts in you in the role of a young headstrong witch named Liddell, who dreams of being the most powerful witch in the world, even more so than the well-loved and revered Alice, who's been around for nearly a millennium. At first, you think the game will go with the standard school setting of other magic-based NIS titles (think Mana Khemia), but it abandons that at the beginning. Liddell decides that she wants to seek out an ancient magic rune that will unlock a spell that's supposedly super powerful and will instantly put her on the map so that she doesn't need to bother with all the standard school stuff and learning. She inquires with an older, mysterious witch, who agrees to transport Liddell to the castle that holds this ancient spell. Liddell is warned that the castle is also the home of a guardian vampire, but since she's headstrong, Liddell doesn't heed the warning. From there, she finds what she's looking for, but her ineptitude unleashes an ancient evil called the Eld Witch, an entity that Alice had sealed away previously. You team up with the guardian vampire, a tomato-loving guy named Loue, and head to the various kingdoms connected to a hub world in order to right the wrongs created by the Eld Witch and bring her down for good.
The story and setting are actually fun and whimsical, pretty much everything that I expected to find in A Witch's Tale. There's a heavy "Alice in Wonderland" theme to the entire game, but the rest of the stages incorporate various fables for the settings and characters, all mixed with a pseudo-Halloween theme that is slightly reminiscent of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," especially with the idea of a hub world with doors to other themed kingdoms. I really liked the setting and story so I wanted to like the rest of it, but sadly, the game is just a chore to play.
Right off the bat, the game only uses touch-screen controls. The face and shoulder buttons do nothing, and the d-pad also has no functionality. You move Liddell around the screen by pointing ahead of her with the stylus, putting her on a set path throughout the various roads and maps you'll encounter. The top screen of the DS gives you a map of the area that opens up as you explore, but it never pinpoints Liddell's current position for you, just an idea of which area you're currently in. The maps that you explore are filled with dead ends and useless passages, and you'll run into random encounters with enemies instead of seeing them on the screen.
You'll also come across doll characters as you travel, and they have various specialties and can become part of your support party. When you go into battle, it takes on a Dragon Quest-like vibe, pitting Liddell (and however many dolls you currently have in your party) against up to three different enemies in a turn-based skirmish. The battles aren't particularly difficult, but they are ridiculously long, due to the fact that most enemies have a ton of HP, even at the beginning levels. This means that you'll need to take multiple turns for even the most simple, run-of-the-mill fights, not including the harder battles that occasionally pop up. Thankfully, the encounter rate is generally pretty low; it does spike and seems to be random when compared to other RPGs, but you can get through an area screen with only a fight or two, which is the sole saving grace of the combat system.
There's really nothing else about the gameplay in A Witch's Tale that I found to be particularly interesting. Your party is made up of dolls that you'll find stashed away in various areas. When the game starts, you only have a default doll, who provides heavier physical attacks at the cost of having no magic abilities. As a witch, Liddell comes with a number of spells and a high magic point pool to draw from, but the magic is also shared by everyone in your party. A lot of the other dolls have magic attacks, so you can't necessarily spam magic throughout the game. Enemies don't seem to have any particular elemental attributes. Occasionally, the game says that you've dealt damage to a vital area of the enemy, but it's hard to figure out what you did other than getting in a randomly generated good hit. At least the menu is easy to navigate during battle, and it's easy to find your attributes and leveling goals. There's nothing notable about items or the lack of equipment in the game either, so really, the gameplay is incredibly bland.
I can't see the audience for A Witch's Tale being particularly interested throughout the course of the 15 hours that it'll take to finish it. You'll unlock more stuff when you complete the game, but you'd then be subject to more of the bland gameplay, so I don't think it's worth seeking out. Everything else about the game — the story, characters and setting — is fabulous, but the gameplay doesn't live up to this promise and is among some of the drabbest that I've encountered in an RPG recently. If you can get over that aspect, it might be worth seeking out, but otherwise, I'd suggest avoiding A Witch's Tale entirely.
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