[10 November 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
As a genre, the JRPG has always been able to juggle complex content. Gorgeous visuals and interesting stories even if intended for younger audiences are easily managed in any game design that is inherently familiar to the player. The problem is that when it comes to video games, strong content does not make up for a dull design. You’ve got to have a strong foundation for the rest of it to work. Hit Maker’s A Witch’s Tale is a game with style and a few interesting ideas that never pan out because after about an hour the whole design just falls apart. The basic necessities of a JRPG like tactics and difficult enemies gives way to just mindlessly clicking attack over and over.
Gameplay revolves around Liddell, a young witch, who decides to skip out on school and find some strong magic in an ancient castle. She has six elements of magic to attack with (fire, ice, water, poison, etc.) along with a smattering of non-elemental ones. All enemies have a weakness to a certain element. There are no weapons, armor, or even a money system in the game. You collect items that can be exchanged for the usual health potions and stat boosts. Party members are dolls that you find hidden around the areas. Some of them can level up while others do not, each one having unique magic and stats. You are dropped off at a nexus world that leads to six different zones that you must visit in sequence to save the world from the Eld Witch.
The main problem with the game is that none of these elements have been balanced properly. After about an hour of playing, you will level up enough to always have sufficient MP to blast everything to pieces. The main challenge of the game is just figuring out enemy weaknesses. Sometimes this will be obvious like when you’re fighting an ice monster. Other times you have to just systematically go through the six elements until one does a lot more damage than the others. The doll idea, while interesting at first, rapidly falls apart once you start receiving super dolls for liberating a princess. Although these don’t level up, they’re overpowered. and you always get an upgraded one at the end of each world. At first, I refused to use the things because of the assumption that leveling up my weaker dolls would pay off in the long run, but this was never the case. You’re better off just breaking the system now because there is never going to be anything else to occupy your time. There is no gear to chase after, no money to collect, or anything else to occupy your time. The gist of the game is to figure out ways to make combat go faster. While this is usually always the case with a JRPG, they’re also balanced properly so that it doesn’t happen until 2/3 through the game. Once it does happen, there’s usually some weapon or spell that does more damage than anyone could ever possibly need that is guarded by a powerhouse monster to keep you interested. None of that is present here.
None of this is helped by the game’s incoherent story. Each area is a giant hub map. You can wander all over a fairly large environment but gaining access to the various dungeons (which contain the items that you need to open the big dungeon) means that doors are unlocked in a linear manner. You basically spend time finding all the locked doors before stumbling on the correct order that the designers want you to go in. There’s always an NPC standing around randomly who will dump a long backstory on you about the area if you ask. A few other random characters will offer quests or clues to get you moving along. Your sidekick, a vampire named Loue, will occasionally bark advice or chide you but never has much that is personal to add during most of these exchanges. No one ever has anything to say except “go here” or “do this,” and as a consequence, there isn’t any character development to speak of. Everyone in the game is the epitome of a JRPG stereotype because they never do anything to distinguish themselves from it.
The interface itself is also needlessly awkward. Controlling everything with the stylus works fine in terms of movement, but as soon as combat gets going, you find yourself dealing with a needlessly clicky coin interface. To have Liddell cast a spell or use an item, you have to rotate a big circular wheel. Picking which monster to hit is done by dragging a coin icon over to a slot. It all works fine until you start engaging with the game’s only real challenge: making it be over faster. Tapping through everything when you could just be going through a list, combined with the game’s insistence that you shift things from what you’re carrying to “On Hand,” mostly just drags the whole process out. The game won’t always recognize where you meant to put the coin and you’ll find yourself hitting someone that you didn’t intend to more and more. These complaints are ultimately petty, though. The real mistake is never costly because the game is never that difficult, but it’s just another problem to throw on a list of many.
There are references to Alice in Wonderland and other stories, but nothing much ever comes of it. The Mad Hatter will appear for a few minutes, jabber some random things at you, then vanish. The Cheshire Cat drops by to say something eccentric and ask a few rhetorical questions. Each world is stylish, like the Candy Land or Japanese Sakura World, but it’s nothing that’s really seized on since most of your time in these places will be spent grinding through dull combat and flipping through the dialogue of an awkward story. When the chief challenge of a game is figuring out ways for it to be over faster, you might want to just avoid it entirely.