Review: Trouble Witches Neo! (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Trouble Witches Neo!
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Adventure Planning Service
Publisher: SNK Playmore
Release Date: 04/27/11

There are no shortage of good shooters on the Xbox Live Arcade, of that there is no question. Games like R-Type Dimensions, King of Fighters Sky Stage, Strania and Guwange are readily available for download at reasonable prices, and that’s just talking Arcade titles; when you factor in disc releases like Raiden IV, Raiden Fighter Aces and Deathsmiles, the console can be considered something of a love letter to shooter fans out there based on sheer volume relative to quality if nothing else. Conversely, however, because there are so many good shooters available, it can be hard for new shooters to stand out, and unless one can make the distinction between “good” and “great”, it can be hard for one to really get the attention of a new audience. Trouble Witches Neo! is another game in a long list of them trying to fight for market share and attention, and with its bright and colorful presentation and the pedigree of publisher SNK behind it, it makes a solid enough argument to invest in it. Unlike many similar shooters on the service, however, this game opts to go for a “substance over style” approach, offering a ton of features and content for the price over somewhat diminished production values, and while it doesn’t quite make that transition to “Great” that so many long for, it’s a very in-depth experience that’s worth its asking price for those who are interested.

So, the story here (near as I can gather) is that, in the land of Eihemland, a witch named Amalgam has been possessed by some representation of evil and has taken over. You can choose from one of eight witches (six unlocked to start and two unlocked later) to go and kick Amalgam’s head in, by way of taking down what appear to be her five witch defenders, which allows you to collect the crystal shards they possess, in hopes of putting an end to this nightmare. Each of the characters has their own storyline for why they intend to stop Amalgam, whether it be wanting to please their teacher, wanting to become a real witch, or wanting to become a pop singer, and the game offers a full Story Mode for those who want to see those storylines play out to completion, though the normal single player mode shows off the endings all the same. The storylines are fine enough for getting the plot across, and while the stories are generally your typical anime sillyness, they’re inoffensive and amusing enough, and often make light of the situation to a level that allows them to be enjoyable. Insofar as game modes are concerned, Trouble Witches Neo! actually has a whole lot to offer for a ten dollar XBLA title. You get the original game, complete with single and local multiplayer, as well as the Arrange Mode, which is the Xbox 360 specific version of the game. Arrange Mode offers single and local multiplayer, a Story Mode for checking out the character-specific plots, online multiplayer, and a Challenge Mode that offers a timed Score Attack and a Boss Attack mode, as well as online leaderboards for comparing to your friends. In short: this game is exceptionally robust, content-wise, and that’s great.

While you could be forgiven for looking at Trouble Witches Neo! and thinking of it as a Deathsmiles knock-off, aesthetically, it’s significantly more light-hearted and has as much in common with Fantasy Zone as Deathsmiles. The game features incredibly vibrant visuals with lots of excellent color usage, as well as some very bright and pretty special effects. Further, the backgrounds are incredibly varied and look great in motion, and the anime-inspired stills of the characters that pop up are very nice looking. However, the actual character sprites are somewhat lacking in detail and not very well animated, which isn’t heartbreaking, but is a little disappointing given what we’ve seen up to this point. The audio is also mostly good, but not all good, sadly. The music is lively and fun, and while it’s not as good as comparable shooters it’s by no means bad at all. The sound effects are also mostly pretty well set up and entertaining, and the Japanese voice acting sounds pretty acceptable all in all. The English voice acting, however, is horrendous in new and exciting ways. Now, realistically, it’s unfair to expect amazing voice work for a ten dollar downloadable game, but when the voice acting in a game is openly painful to behold, that’s just sad. You can probably enjoy it on a “so bad it’s good” level, as it comes very close to being as such at various points, but it really just sounds like they rounded up people from the office and had them perform voice work rather than actually getting together people who knew what they were doing.

Trouble Witches Neo!, like most shooters, is pretty easy to pick up and start playing. Your witch of choice can be controlled with the left stick or pad, and pressing the A button unleashes a torrent of bullets against whatever enemies you’re facing. Each character you can choose from has a different stream of bullets they spray, as well as a familiar who follows them around firing bullets to assist. The game also maps various different greeting and thankful messages to the triggers, similar to how Castlevania: Harmony of Despair implemented this concept, though if you play with a mic there’s not a lot of point to this. Your general objective, throughout the course of play, is to avoid enemy bullets and shoot them down as needed, then collect the coins that fall out of them, which can be done either by going after the coins or by releasing the shoot button briefly to have them come directly to you. As such, the core mechanics can be learned in a matter of seconds, though the game does offer both an internal instruction manual and a fairly solid tutorial to tell you how to make all of this work best for you, though you likely won’t need it to pick up the basics.

Trouble Witches Neo! has two neat mechanics that work for it outside of the basics, however, and make it more than just another shooter. The first is the Magic Barrier system. Basically, at the top of the screen there’s a green meter that indicates your magic power, and by pressing the X button, your Familiar makes a large magic barrier which slowly drains that power until it hits empty or you turn it off. Said barrier functions as a bullet dampener of sorts, as most enemy bullets that hit the field are massively slowed down, allowing you to dodge them as needed. However, if you can kill the enemy who generated the bullets, you can instead use the barrier to convert the bullets into gold coins which you can use at the Pumpkin Girls Shop to buy power-ups and such. Should you fail to kill the enemy who shot at you, however, suspended bullets can turn into homing bullets that come after you, though a second use of the barrier will turn them into lesser value coins just the same. Some bullets are not affected by this, as well, so it doesn’t act as a pure protective measure, though it helps greatly. You can also use the various power-ups you get from the shop, such as spread fire, explosive fire, spears, arrows, and so on, to turn enemies and their projectiles into Star Coins when killed with the power-up, thus allowing for even more points and money, meaning a well-timed power-up can make back the investment money and more in seconds. Between these two mechanics, you can turn battlefields into banks, essentially, and you’ll need the help, as later stages and higher difficulties are literally “bullet hell”, and survival will come down to using these abilities effectively to survive.

The game can easily be completed once in about half an hour or so, but it offers three default difficulties and six playable characters by default, as well as an unlockable difficulty and two unlockable characters, so there’s plenty of reason to come back to the game after the initial playthrough. You can also play around with both the original arcade version of the game as well as the updated 360 version in both single and local multiplayer, as well as taking the arranged mode online to play with your friends there. The story mode is also pretty lengthy for each character, and the challenge mode options for Score and Boss Attack play, as well as the option of uploading leaderboard scores, make for some added replay value for fans. The game also has some fairly involved Achievements to earn, for those who find the concept of earning such things exciting. The promise of some DLC somewhere down the line might also be somewhat of a positive motivator, as is the fact that with multiple difficulty levels and infinite continues, the game is more accessible to players of all skill levels, meaning that even those who are less than gifted at shooters can have a good amount of fun with Trouble Witches Neo without feeling like they’re banging their head against the wall. With its cute presentation and anime-inspired designs, this also helps make the game easier to recommend to those who might not immediately be interested in something like an R-Type or a Graduis, as instead of spaceship battles, it’s cute witches in a fantasy environment.

That said, Trouble Witches Neo! has a few issues that hamper its overall appeal somewhat. As noted previously, the somewhat simplistic visuals and atrocious English voice acting can be somewhat disappointing. Further, however, the game isn’t as well translated as it could be either, and while the spoken dialogue doesn’t especially suffer from this, the tutorial, manuals, and Achievements are pretty full of Engrish translations that come off as sloppy and, in some respects, confusing to really decipher. Beyond that, the game isn’t especially innovative; while the Magic Barrier system is somewhat innovative, parts of that mechanic, as well as a lot of the overall style and presentation of the game, don’t come off as terribly original; the game seems to borrow a bunch of concepts from games like Deathsmiles, Espgaluda and Fantasy Zone, off the top of my head, and while this isn’t bad per say, or obvious to most casual shooter fans, it’s somewhat more obvious here than in other games that mash their concepts together from other games. Finally, the game also has this annoying element where it disables the ability to earn Achievements when you change any of the default settings, which is honestly stupid and pointless because you get infinite continues anyway. It’s obvious that, yes, using nine lives to get the “No Continues” Achievement would be cheating, but for all the rest of the Achievements you can earn, the infinite continues option is, frankly, perfectly fine for doing this, and it makes one wonder why the developers even bothered offering the option to max out your lives in the first place. You don’t lose anything for continuing, as your items and score follow you along each time you continue, so it’s literally a pointless gesture, and while it’s not the worst thing ever by any means, it’s just inane and without merit.

Presentation issues and minor irritations aside, however, Trouble Witches Neo! is one of the better shooters available on the XBLA service and is easy to recommend to diehard and casual shooter fans, as it’s instantly accessible and offers great challenge and depth for all sorts of players across the fan spectrum. The game features a cute and inoffensive storyline, plenty of play modes to work with, serviceable visuals and generally adequate audio. The gameplay is simple to get into, but thanks to the Magic Barrier system and the power-ups you can acquire, there’s a lot of strategy involved for more gifted players, and with the various on and offline play modes, difficulties, characters and more, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the game for a while. The visuals and audio do have some issues, particularly the somewhat unexciting character models and horrible English voice acting, and aside from that, the Engrish translation of the tutorials and Achievements, obvious borrowing of concepts from other games, and annoying minor issues that pop up here and there can be a bit troublesome at times. That said, however, the negatives against the game are mostly minor and don’t detract significantly from what is honestly a worthwhile acquisition for anyone who likes shooters even a little bit. Trouble Witches Neo! is easily worth its ten dollar price point, as it’s good, solid fun for all skill ranges that doesn’t take itself too seriously, offers lots of replay value and is generally pretty damn good, warts and all.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: GREAT
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: GREAT
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: GOOD

FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Trouble Witches Neo! is a surprising XBLA release, as it’s an in-depth, well designed side scrolling shooter that can be a lot of fun for both casual and serious shooter fans, and while it’s not without its issues, it more than makes up for them overall. The storyline is cute and mostly entertaining enough, there are plenty of game modes for an XBLA release, and the visuals and audio are generally solid in most respects. The game, like most shooters, is simple to pick up and play at first, but thanks to the Magic Barrier mechanics and the ability to buy and use power-ups to great profit, there’s a lot of depth underneath the surface for more experienced players. There are a good amount of game modes, difficulty levels, playable characters and options to keep the game fresh beyond its initial play time as well, so fans of all types can come back over and over to have some fun with the game. That said, the character animations are below average, the English voices are atrocious, the translation of the tutorials and Achievements are filled with broken English, the game isn’t especially original and is somewhat obvious about this, and there are some minor frustrations that pop up here and there. These issues are all mostly able to be ignored, however, as Trouble Witches Neo! is technically sound and a good amount of fun, making it a worthwhile acquisition for shooter fans of all types, as it’s technically sound and well balanced, and offers a lot of value for a low asking price.

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