Review: A Witch’s Tale (Nintendo DS)

A Witch’s Tale
Developer: Hit Maker
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: RPG
Release Date: 10/09/09

Many people have read or seen renditions of such tales as Hansel and Gretel, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz at some point in their lives. Of course, these tales have been recreated into versions of the interactive variety, with results ranging from the sinister American McGee’s Alice to the more lighthearted Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road game that was released recently. A Witch’s Tale takes elements from several tales and arranges them into a medley joined in one universe by a single plot that falls somewhere between the aforementioned two.

So does this game pull off the combination, or just a nightmare?

A thousand years before the start of the game, there was a war between the witches and those of the surface world that wrecked havoc on the surface world. Eventually, Queen Alice managed to seal the Eld Witch, the leader of the witches, and ended to war. In the present, Liddell, a haughty and stubborn witch-in-training who wants to learn magic other than what’s being taught in school and exceed Queen Alice, inadvertently unleashes the Eld Witch in her zeal to do so. The task of rectifying her mistake by saving all the princesses and lifting the curse falls on her shoulders. The story resembles other “save the world” type plots you’ve seen before, and the story progression seems slow at first. Still, it works here and does start to pick up as you progress.

The fairytale theme gives the game a whimsical feel. The game is heavily Alice in Wonderland themed, with characters like the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat will pop up along the way leaving you with cryptic statements to attempt to decipher. There’s also references to other familiar tales littered around the game, like Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and The Wizard of Oz, as well the Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. However, it’s mostly just characters, names, and some thematics being borrowed rather than there being any strict retellings of the source tales (for instance, Hansel is a girl and a princess in this game).

The artistic style used in this game may draw many comparisons to Tim Burton movies, and with good reason considering the pronounced Halloween theme all over it. The character portraits are expressive and have plenty of personality, and the enemy and overworld sprites are colorful and detailed. The cutscenes look nice and appropriately moody, especially the ending. There’s some pictures that take up both screens that show up before you enter certain places that serve as nice introductions to the places you’re about to go into.

However, as nice as the in-game graphics and art look, they’re also rather static. Some of the enemies seem like palette swaps, and some minibosses show up in later worlds as regular enemies, sometimes also palette swapped. For instance, at one point, you trigger a switch to open a gate, and instead of animating the gate being opened, the gate is shown closed, then the screen fades to black for a few seconds while a sound effect of the gate opening plays, and the scene is shown again with no gate. The cards in blackjack look austere compared to other parts of the game – would it have been that hard to put a picture of the suit on each card? But then, you’d only see those after you beat the game, and it’s an optional minigame, so it doesn’t impact much either way.

The soundtrack has a definite Halloween theme to it as well, which also bolsters the Nightmare Before Christmas comparisons. The beginning of the main menu music initially reminded me of the one in Disgaea. The regular battle theme managed to not wear on me no matter how many times I heard it. The songs that played in each world suited the theme there and helped set the atmosphere. The ending theme was catchy and upbeat. However, a little more variety in the songs would’ve helped, as a few of the tracks have a common underlying melody, and the Burst Mode music and the boss music sound the same. Sometimes there’d be a pause in the music before a transition into a random encounter. The only bits of voice acting in the game is the one that greets you with “Welcome to A Witch’s Tale!” when you select a new game or load a save file, a “Meooooow” one character does when you encounter him, and a growl when you encounter a certain lion.

In this game, you do everything with the stylus; you hold the stylus down to move Liddell and tap of objects to interact with them. At times trying to move Liddell to the edge of the screen to go to another area felt finicky, as I’d end up bumping the stylus against the side of the touch screen while not managing to actually move her to the next area. You can interact with any objects that has sparkles around it, and you can also bust open objects to find items, though trying to hit said objects can be imprecise at times. However, items from busting things open only appear once, so if your item bag can’t take it, that item is gone forever. But that’s not a huge concern, as it’s never anything irreplaceable, and enemies will sometimes drop those items anyway. You can find tomatoes, which revive you, heal you fully, and damage the enemy if Liddell falls in battle, but you can only carry one at a time. There’s no equipment or currency to manage; rather, you find ingredients and exchange them for items. This simplifies things by giving you less to keep track of, but at times it felt too too simplified, and you had to hope you managed to find (or have enemies drop) enough of the ingredients for the item you need.

There’s also playing cards littered around, and they boost stats by the number on the card (jacks, queens, and kings give +10, and aces give +11). Spades boost attack, hearts boost defense, clubs boost magic attack, and diamonds boost magic defense. The joker give a +10 boost to all stats, but you’ll need to defeat everyone in blackjack and find the other cards first. Some cards come in the form of card enemies, and you can only encounter them on a certain spot. These can be tricky to capture as critical attacks are the only thing that would defeat them (everything else deals one HP of damage), and they flee at the earliest opportunity.

The itinerary is the same in each world: find three components of a key to the castle, find Babayaga and have her assemble them into said key, go through castle, beat boss to rescue the princess. Along the way there’s puzzles to solve, though they’re never anything brain breakingly difficult. I hope you like backtracking, because there’s a whole bounty of that in this game. You’ll have to explore every inch to find everything you need and remember (or write down somewhere if need be) key locations, like Babayaga’s tent and the castle, so that you can go back to them once you have the requisite items to enter. The map at the top of the screen only shows what section you’re currently in, but doesn’t give you your specific position, making navigating a bit more difficult, as there’s lots of dead ends for you to run into. Resultingly, the more time spent bumping into dead ends, the more random encounters you face. Thankfully, the encounter rate isn’t too onerous, but the meandering and constant battles do drag down the pace of the game.

You’ll find dolls scattered around the worlds you explore that serve as members of your party. You can only have up to two dolls in your active party at a time. The dolls on standby get some experience, but they do not level up as quickly as the ones on the fronts lines do. There’s some dolls that do not level up at all, though they tend to be more powerful. If a doll falls in battle, they can only be revived in Shadow Town at the cost of one Rainbow Yarn. Should Liddell be defeated, it’s game over unless you’re carrying a tomato. I never got a game over throughout the entire game, so that shouldn’t be too big a concern.

During battle, you can only see your enemies on the top screen and your characters’ portraits and stats on the bottom screen; your own characters have no battle sprites, a la the Dragon Quest games. Combat is the standard turn based fare you’ve seen in many RPGs since the days of yore. However, as a variant on the old highlight/point to and select an option from a menu, you drag icons to the appropriate place. For example, to attack or cast a spell, drop the attack/spell icon onto the enemy (or ally) icon corresponding to the one you want to target with the attack/spell. With spells, you select them from the revolver on the bottom right of the screen after you tap on the magic icon. The only items you can use in battle are the ones you move from your item box to on hand, and you can only have nine of each on hand. Approximately every eight battles, you’ll enter Burst Mode. In a Burst Mode battle, your chances of landing a critical hit increases greatly, and you also accrue twice the experience. As you can imagine, this is especially useful for beating card enemies since the cards only take damage from critical hits from physical attacks (everything else deals one damage).

Offensive spells come in seven elements: Frei (ice), Thun (thunder), Biota (plant), Vile (poison), Volc (fire), Supra (water), and Expa (deals neutral damage). Each type except Expa has its opposite, meaning that casting that type on an enemy of the opposing type will deal more damage (and of course, the reverse applies as well): poison and water, fire and ice, and plant and thunder. Some enemies’ types aren’t immediately obvious, so it can become a bit of a guessing game to figure out their weakness. These spells have five levels, and Liddell’s spells go up a level for every twenty levels she gains. Naturally, you also have the expected support spells that heal, cure status ailments, or affect attack or defense. Liddell and her dolls all draw from the same single MP pool to cast spells. While this might seem as though it would be a hindrance, the pool becomes large enough that this poses little problem. You attack first in the order you enter your commands, then the enemies get their shot at you. I found myself wishing there was an auto attack option, as a lot of the time I ended up using physical attacks over and over until all the enemies dropped dead.

To use the ancient magic spells, drag the icon to the center of the revolver. The drawing of runes to cast the ancient magic spells may give some flashbacks to Lost Magic (though there’s no fusing runes here) and Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. You’re given only a limited amount of time to trace the rune, though the game can get a little picky about detecting what you draw. The good news is that if you fail, you won’t use up any MP. One thing that’s worked for me is the just keep drawing and drawing in one continuous motion (making sure not to lift the stylus off the screen and to keep within the red lines) until the sparkles form a complete shape vaguely resembling the one you’re supposed to draw or until time runs out, whichever came first. It gets easier with practice, though they can still be annoying to nail sometimes, particularly the Expa rune.

There’s another ending that’s only available in a New Game+ playthrough, and the first ending you get will likely leave you with more questions than answers. There’s also dolls and an area in one of the worlds that are only available to you during a second run through the game, and if you feel the inclination to, you could also seek out any cards you missed the first time around. In addition, there’ll be a Secret Gate in the main menu wherein you can play blackjack with the princesses and other characters you encountered in the game. After a second playthrough, though, there’s not much left to go back to unless you like playing blackjack or playing through the game over and over. Some might not find the game compelling or the rewards enticing enough to revisit a second time since so much of it consists of running around all over the place and fighting.

At the beginning of the game, one level gain made the difference between frantically running towards the exit to the gate room so I could get to the inn to heal and feeling as though my party was invincible. Of course, this evened out as I got further in the game, but the game still leans towards the easier side, especially since each time a character levels up they regain all their HP and MP. Even when I opened a chest to find Death himself waiting and spoiling for a fight, the game kindly let me know that he was afraid of me. When I first saw him, I thought I’d just gotten unlucky and was about to die (and being thankful for that nearby save point), but I still managed to beat him. I was even able to challenge him again if I left the screen and came back and opened the chest. Death would also continue to try and ambush me, but he only got easier in subsequent worlds, though he had this mildly irritating habit of halving my MP. At least he drops some nice items for my trouble. Even most of the bosses could be easily taken down as long as you kept pounding them with ancient magic and any spells your dolls knew. Battles felt slow, as there was no way to skip animations, the text moved on too slowly even when I repeatedly tapped the screen, and the enemies had enough of an abundance of HP that whittling that down to nothing took time.

There were times when I managed to encounter a card enemy in Burst Mode…only to have it surprise me and run away before I could even get a turn in, or have none of my characters land a critical, providing it with a chance to run (which it always happily took). Walking off of the encounter spot, opening and closing the menu, and stepping back onto the spot ensures another encounter with the card so you can keep trying as many times as you like. But defeating these cards relies only on pure dumb luck, both in you even getting the chance to attack and one of your characters actually landing a critical. I found this a bit annoying, but I tend to be compulsive about getting everything in one shot, so I just persisted until I finally managed to defeat a card.

While you find a lot of dolls through the course of the game, some dolls seem rather ineffective, like the one with an impressive magic attack stat, yet learns no spells that take advantage of this, with its only spells being ones that heal a fixed percentage of HP and one that cures status ailments. Another doll has max HP and high physical and magic attack, but zero in defenses and comes only with an increase accuracy spell and a spell that buffs her own physical attack. On the other hand, one of the dolls you can unlock late in the game has skills that acts like a mini-tomato (and named as such) and renders your whole party impervious to any attacks for a turn. It also has insanely souped up stats compared to your regular dolls to the point where using it feels like cheating, though admittedly it can be fun to stomp on enemies when they can’t hurt you back. While having plenty of choices was nice, most of them felt superfluous and as though they were only added as something to collect, much like the playing cards.

The game felt like it dragged at times because I had to constantly run back and forth between places, fending off many enemies on the way. It was a bit of a task to remember where was what, especially in worlds that didn’t have many landmarks to go by. In short, it felt like one big fetch quest, or more accurately, a never ending sequence of fetch quests. In spite of that, I found it hard to pull myself away long enough to do this review, or at least until I beat it. Though I did try to multitask by playing until I got into a battle, entering commands, typing a bit while my characters and the monsters duked it out, entering more commands, and rinsing and repeating until they were all defeated.

It’s kind of hard to pinpoint who would like this game. This game was made by the developers behind Dragoneer’s Aria and Blade Dancer: Lineage of Light, both of which got a middling critical reception, with the latter faring slightly better. Those who remember those games might or might not look favorably upon this game depending on their impressions of those games. Those used to NIS games being insanely hard will be disappointed with this title, while RPG fans might think the gameplay feels too watered down. Anyone randomly looking at the cover in a store might assume it’s a girly game and avoid it like the unholy plague. On the other hand, some might like the numerous fairytale allusions and Halloween theme and can overlook the niggles in the gameplay.

My feelings about the game ping-ponged as I played through this game. When I heard you’d be using dolls in your party, I had though the Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure comparisons would come rolling in. As soon as I started playing, though, the only commonalities between the two games were the fact that you use dolls and the relatively easy difficulty. At first, I was actually a bit disappointed because it felt too simplistic and formulaic. But I warmed up more to it as I got further in the game and started to really enjoy it. I especially liked the atmosphere in the last area, even if it was confusing to navigate, and the ending took me for a loop.

The Scores
Story: Above Average
Graphics: Good
Sound: Good
Control and Gameplay: Above Average
Replayability: Decent
Balance: Poor
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Below Average
Miscellaneous: Decent

Short Attention Span Summary:
A Witch’s Tale is a stylistic but simplistic RPG. While the presentation and music are charming, the gameplay feels diluted compared to other games in its genre, and the stylus controls can feel imprecise at times. If you’re looking for a challenging and epic RPG, you might want to look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for something to pass the time and like anything laden in fairytale references, this would do nicely.



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