Ok. I’ll level with you. I’ve just scrapped my fifth attempt at an opening to this review. I’ve tried food analogies, tomato discussion, references to Halloween (the holiday and the movie), Tim Burton films, Okami, Phantasy Star… So, nuts to that. Settle in, kiddies. It’s story time.
Once upon a time, there was a little DS RPG called A Witch’s Tale. Her parents, Nippon-Ichi and HitMaker, were very famous in their own rights; one was a premier name in RPGs and the other was once a member of the famous Sega family. Though her pedigree shone, she was scorned from birth, partially due to the failings of her elder brother, Dragoneer’s Aria. As the young girl of the family, no one wanted to mention her in the same breath as her half-siblings Disgaea and Crazy Taxi. Realizing that she would have to seek her own fortune, she set out to prove her detractors wrong.
A Witch’s Tale didn’t have any friends to keep her company, but she did have books. Lots and lots of books. From these books, she put together a robust cast, pulling from Alice in Wonderland, Hansel and Gretel, The Wizard of Oz, Arabian Nights, and more. For the heroine, though, she chose Liddell, a spunky witch-in-training whose muddled past and thirst for power made her the optimal selection for an RPG protagonist. She opens up the Sealed Evil In A Can (or book of runes, in this case), unleashing a horrible curse on the world and waking up Loue, the bishounen vampire sleeping nearby. Loue gives the standard exposition dialogue and decides to ride shotgun on Liddell’s quest to restore peace and order to the land, meet with Queen Alice, and seal the Eld Witch once again.
A Witch’s Tale was happy with how the plot was structured, but a couple things weren’t quite right. For example, the original Hansel was a boy, but that didn’t jive with the “Six Princesses” motif. (Actually, there are seven. Or eight. Depends on which playthrough you’re on.) Believing that historical accuracy means nothing in the face of setting a tone and keeping on it, blam, Hansel’s a princess now. She believed that one wouldn’t mind if she played a little fast and loose with the characters, so long as the end result is entertaining. (And I’d have to agree.)
However, being an RPG conveys certain responsibilities. A Witch’s Tale soon realized that she was running out of princesses and corresponding elemental kingdoms, which resulted in Dorothy Gale as a caustic, angsty steampunk wrecking machine. She realized that things were getting a little out of hand, but the princesses had already been placed, so she concerned herself with the battle mechanics and figured that the masses would appreciate a little juxtaposition in the characterization. (Again, I’d have to agree.)
|Expa Abyss, Level 1 Gamebreaker. If you can draw while sleepwalking, you’re set.|
The mechanics, though, would prove to be a stumbling block. To be different, she shunned the use of buttons. “I’m on the DS,” she thought, “I might as well make the most of it!” Thus, all control was directed through the touch screen, from overworld navigation to menus to minigames and everything in between. The biggest spells required tracing a shape, which would’ve been novel if not for sheer overuse. (But more on that later.) A Witch’s Tale didn’t want to fall into the same number-crunching madness that brought her siblings such fame, so she opted for a much simpler system, hearkening back to the days of yore when enemies lined up in an orderly fashion for your convenience. Rather than give Liddell living, breathing companions, however, she opted for animate dolls, two at a time, that provide backup while maintaining the “girl-vs.-the-world” motif that she worked so hard to foster. Thus, dolls were scattered throughout the kingdoms, though they went largely ignored because the dolls you got at the end of each chapter (each an effigy of the latest princess you rescued) were statistically so much better that none of the “standard” dolls could ever hope to compete.
Unfortunately, this was a side effect of a rather alarming trend: A Witch’s Tale didn’t have much of a head for numbers. She knew that she was supposed to incorporate “MP” to limit how much magic the player could use; she didn’t realize, though, that the super-huge-99MP-spell that could take down most any standard encounter in one shot would hit a point, right around the third kingdom, where it became unbalanced. Since A Witch’s Tale was a generous girl at heart, she gave the player a full charge of MP with each increase in level… without realizing that, despite using Expa Abyss (said uber-spell) every fight, it was actually near-impossible to run out of MP. Thus, what would in most RPGs be a lesson in resource-rationing becomes a wholly meaningless number as Liddell and her stuffed companions steamrolled their way through the game.
It’s worth mentioning that A Witch’s Tale was, to her credit, a very generous girl… though without boundaries, that generosity quickly became unbalanced. As if the massive MP glut wasn’t enough, scattered throughout the world were tomatoes – yes, tomatoes – which, should Liddell fall in battle, would pick her up, dust her off, mend her dolls, fully charge her MP, and smack the foe responsible for such an inconvenience for four digits of damage. It might all be a bit much, but A Witch’s Tale wanted to be loved by everyone, even if it did mean a good bit of hand-holding. However, in her quest to be comfortable and easy to enjoy, she fell into the habit of being samey and repetitive: Run all over Kingdom A, collect three items (Usually requiring two boss fights and solving a puzzle), fight big boss, save princess, unlock Kingdom B, repeat. The kingdoms look and feel interesting enough, but she spent too much time concerned with how things look and not nearly enough with how things play.
She chose her aesthetics, too, to be as accessible as possible; the time-honored anime style of her family coupled nicely with the not-quite-dark storybook fantasy, producing something that looks like Rozen Maiden meets Phantasy Star with a bit of The Nightmare Before Christmas thrown in for extra marketability. The soundtrack, fittingly, seemed very light and music-boxy, though in certain circumstances it wasn’t afraid to lay in with some heavy guitar solos.
A Witch’s Tale was happy with things so far, but she wasn’t quite done. She’d read somewhere that people who play RPGs like to collect things, so she scattered a deck of playing cards around, hoping that folks would take the time to find all 53 (she left the Joker in just for the heck of it.) Unfortunately, some of the stronger cards became sentient and ran away, hiding in dungeons and fleeing at the mere sight of intruders. To capture these cards, players hoped to encounter them during a “BURST” fight, which would yield double EXP and increase the rate of critical hits to nearly 100%; such fights were rare, occuring every 8th encounter. Worse still, BURST or no, the cards would often get the jump on the team and run away before any action could be taken. The players were frustrated, and A Witch’s Tale didn’t know what to do.
Worse yet, the story was ending soon, and she hadn’t really thought of a conclusion to her story, so she decided to go for the “shocking” route. She asked the Mad Hatter and March Hare to stall for time by setting up a long “So Here’s What’s Actually Been Going On” expository dialogue just before the final battle, then went with a punch-out ending so abrupt it’d make Space Ghost throw his powerbands up in confusion. “Aaah, but there’s a second ending!” she said with a wink. “You can play through the whole thing again – I’ve added one of those New Game + thingamajigs – but with an extra scene! Or, heck, I’ve got a deck of cards here. Blackjack, anyone?”
Now, some people would call it quits there. Heck, some would call it quits by the second kingdom, when they realize they’ve been had and American McGee’s name isn’t anywhere on this thing. But one boy actually chose to tighten his hat, duck his head, and play through the whole thing again. “This can’t be the end,” he thought. “No one is that bold or that crazy. Besides, the blackjack minigame’s not that good.”
And so, this young man plowed through the game again, now making a fine paste out of every random encounter (though they never stopped getting in his way), walking through every boss fight without breaking a sweat (even though they weren’t really that hard in the first go-round), and seeing the bonus scene and completing its sidequest (for an even more egregiously broken doll). Finally, he came to the “Good End,” only to find out that A Witch’s Tale had fallen asleep in the interim and was startled by the fact that anyone actually played the game a second time. So she rounded up the whole cast for a much happier, but still somewhat nonsensical and confusing punch-out ending. “So, erm… how about some blackjack?”
“No, thanks,” said the boy, “I’ve got other games to play. I really wish you’d have just followed through. You had an excellent premise; I mean, Dorothy as an angsty Steampunk princess? That’s awesome. But the numbers just didn’t line up, and the endings didn’t really do anything to help your case. You put together a fantastic cast, and a decent aesthetic and soundscape, but it feels like you didn’t do your homework. Just because you dress up with pumpkins and black skirts and spiderwebs doesn’t mean you’ll be popular. Being good and under-appreciated is better than doing things sloppy and attracting attention. I really hope to see you again, perhaps once you’ve done your homework.”
And with that, the boy rode off into the sunset, though if you strained to hear, you could make out his discussion with a travel agent. “Hey, you know any island getaways? Preferably those with no pumpkins whatsoever… Sera Island, you say? Sounds promising.”
This game was played to completion and reviewed using a copy provided by NISA.