Game Time: A Witch's Tale (DS)

I can't play horror games - my nightmares do not any outside assistance, thankyouverymuch.  But around Halloween, I want to play a game that has some of that Halloweeny feel.  My view of the holiday is similar to The Nightmare Before Christmas - spooky & macabre, yet oddly cute & charming.  Since video games are increasingly aimed outside of my demographic and into the wince-inducing "manchild" field, I don't normally get that option.  It's either Silent Hill freakiness that I just can't handle, gory stuff to fill the Saw-shaped void in twisted little hearts, or nothing.

Thank God for Nippon Ichi Software.  The people who brought the world the awesomeness of the Disgaea franchise and the wholly underrated ZHP: Unlosing Ranger Versus Darkdeath Evilman occassionally put out stuff for the DS (usually ports of their older games).  Thus, we have A Witch's Tale, a game rife with spooky-cuteness that's unique to the DS and, except for the TVTropes entry, largely unknown.

A Witch's Tale tells the story of Liddell, an ambitious student witch in the city of Lenore.  In an attempt to boost her abilities, she accidentally unleashes the dreaded Eld Witch, who caused the Great War 1,000 years earlier.  With the help of the friendly vampire Loue, Liddell has to travel to the six other kingdoms under the rule of Queen Alice, rescue the princesses that reign over them, and learn to both use the forbidden rune magic and how to take responsibility for her actions.  Along the way, we learn what drove the Eld Witch to start the Great War & why she really hates Queen Alice, what drives Liddell to be so power-hungry, the purpose of the Tauth dolls that serve as your allies, and how the Great War devastated the various kingdoms.

Let me just start with this caveat - you must play through this game twice to get the full story and more rewarding ending.  If you just play through once, you'll have a downer ending with a babillion questions unanswered (not that the second one answers them all), and you'll be soured on the whole thing.  The only mistake of the second ending is that it has some of the same "it was all a dream" old sawhorse in it, but it's done in a way that implies everyone was in on the dream & will meet again in reality.  It also leaves some plot threads loose or ignored (for instance, we never learn much about the Eld Witch's daughters), which feels like an attempt at a sequel hook.  But the second ending is the one you definitely want to see, since it feels a lot more complete.

The greatest strength of this game is easily its characters.  Like all NIS games I've played, the characters are just plain fun and eminently likable.  Liddell starts out as mischevious and selfish, but she gradually grows to learn to respect her abilities and to think of others without ever losing her genuine spunk.  The princesses all have distinct personalities and quirks instead of being a mass of indistinguishable damsels in distress.  Loue is a great cross between a big brother figure and a comic foil, keeping just enough mystery about his relationship with Alice & the princesses to make things interesting.  Alice's court, who appear throughout to more or less mock Liddell, are a mix of amusing and creepy that works; my personal favorites are the March Hare & the Dormouse, who pretty much just show up to be incredibly insulting & sarcastic.  The only real "off" character is the Eld Witch, since we get to see her before and after her corruption, but we never really learn much more about her.  It makes the second ending a bit baffling in regards to her fate.

The graphics are about on par with a SNES game, which I personally don't mind.  They use still illustrations with either panning or some flashy effects, but they're not animated (which is odd, since the game includes the Mobi Video Chip).  The designs are nice - not as stylized as most NIS games I've played and closer to the more grounded style of Rhapsody.  But they don't feel generic, either.  Combat is done in the Dragon Quest style - your team appears on the touch screen, while a still portrait of your enemy appears on the upper one.  I wish the cutscenes & endings had been animated instead of stills with some effects, but other than that, I have no real problem with the graphics.  I'm sure others will wish they were more "modern" or something.

All of the controls, even accessing the menu, are done with the stylus (the game is nice enough to warn you about this before the title screen).  This is fine for the combat and most of the travel.  To walk, you just drag it in the direction you want to go and watch Liddell follow the sparkles.  In combat, drag the symbol of the action/spell/item you want to use to the slot corresponding to the target (one really nice thing about this game is that combat actions can only target enemies & healing actions only target allies, so you don't need to worry about accidentally killing your party or healing a boss).  That's fine.  Where the stylus becomes a hindrance are in moving platform puzzles, where one wrong twitch will throw you back to the beginning.  I nearly quit in both playthroughs due to a particularly finicky platform puzzle I will forever call Those Fucking Turtles, because no matter what direction you tried to move Liddell in, it was never close enough or fast enough to get on the proper turtle until you succeeded by blind luck.  Also, my inner gamer instincts didn't much like having to use the stylus to access menus or pause the game or activate items; while I have no problems using a stylus, for an RPG, I'm just very used to using the buttons, and I'm sure others will be, too.

There are two "gotta collect 'em all" items in this game: Tauth dolls and playing cards.  I will be bluntly honest with you and admit that I could not get all of the cards; I just didn't see the point.  The first playthrough unlocks the blackjack minigame, so you don't need them for that; they don't give you a big bonus once you have them all, and while the few that you fight dole out lots of experience, they're far too finicky (physical attacks only, must be critical hits, will run away first chance they get, etc.) to encourage you to keep trying unless you're hyper patient.  The dolls, however, are well worth it, since they form the rest of your combat party and offer a wide variety of skills.  Usually you'll see the troubador Dodo hanging around, reciting the odd history of the Tauth dolls, but sometimes you'll just have to explore everywhere to find them.  Each princess has a doll hidden that you can take after you rescue them, and there are some you can only earn through story events (the members of Alice's court) or in the second playthrough (Rapunzel or Loue).  Because they're actually useful and have a wide variety of charming-if-creepy designs, I would say one's energy is better spent looking for them rather than the cards. And you will not be able to function without at least finding the Jennop doll.

Finally, this game is short.  I almost feel it's too short, given the world they were building.  I finished both playthroughs in under 30 hours - fairly short, even for a handheld RPG.  A lot of the world and story (the purpose of the Tauth dolls, the Eld Witch's motivation, the lost native Winged of Florin, the fall of Al Sahra & Artis, the transformation of Rem Saccras, the tale of the Ice Queen, the identity of Liddell's mother, etc.) are only hinted at and never really shown.  Making the game a little longer would've fleshed this out admirably and left the player with less of a "But what about..." feeling.  As nice as the added fights, story, & dolls in the second playthrough were, why not open a new land?  We don't get to see what Lenore is like except for Liddell's school & the very beginning; we only get a snippet of Alice's kingdom, and we never get to see the Underground where the Eld Witch originated  or the moon kingdom of Princess Kaguya at all.  After teasing us in the second playthrough with what Florin was like before the Great War killed all of the Winged, it would have make the game so much richer to give us another subland like that, even if you don't see any combat.  That is my most major complaint - that they should've shown us more of this world in this game instead of trying to hold it for a theoretical sequel.

Anymore, it seems like video games narratives have to have a terribly cynical theme behind them.  The theme of this game?  "Take responsibility, admit your mistakes, and you will be a better person."  It's a refreshing change of pace for modern gaming.  It might not be a perfect game, but A Witch's Tale at least offers you something to put you in a fun, happy mood for Halloween.

STAR RANK (because all reviews, by law, must break down to easily-numbered items):
Gameplay: 3.5 out of 5
Graphics: 3 out of 5
Story: 4 out of 5
Characters: 4 out of 5
Overall: 4 out of 5

Recommended?: If you're looking for a Halloween-themed game that isn't all about fueling your nightmares and has a charming cast of characters, then go for it - unless you really, really hate using the stylus for controls.

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