"An interesting premise and cute graphics simply aren't enough to save The Witch and The Warrior from its mediocre status."
The Witch and The Warrior came my way to review at a perfect time. During early October there were two games that I spent my time playing: the first was Dark Souls (the sequel to Demon's Souls) and the second was The Witch and The Warrior. Its colourful world of cute characters, brightly sparkling magic, and adorable felines was a nice little escape from the decaying depths of Blighttown... or, so I thought. In reality these two games share virtually nothing in common, but they do have one coupling factor: the level of difficulty. Care to guess which one I found more difficult? I'll give you a hint: the one with the longer title.
The Witch and The Warrior tells the story of a spunky young witch named Ember, who lives on a small backwater island called Vester. The world she lives in is recovering from a recent war between those who can wield magic and those who believe it evil. The Queen of the land, Clarise, made monumental efforts to pursue a course of peace over the following years. She decreed that a town called Marenthia be built where children, both magical and not, could be trained in specialist areas such as martial arts, elemental magic, and more to encourage coexistence in the next generation. While all this forward thinking is going on in the east, Ember lived her whole life beneath the prejudice, backward-thinking people of Vester. When the opportunity arises to leave the little village where she's constantly taunted, she eagerly sneaks away from home and joins the witching college in Marenthia. Of course, things are never that easy and sinister events begin to occur. Students go missing, accidents abound, the elite students act suspiciously and, just when things couldn't get worse, the Queen is kidnapped. Ember and friends set out to find out what's going on and put a stop to it.
It's easy to draw comparisons between The Witch and The Warrior and the Harry Potter series. There are witches and wizards, a magical school, strange events that start occurring and so on. Luckily, these are loose links at best and this RPG title does not attempt to emulate the famous wizard in anyway. Unfortunately, the story doesn't attempt to do anything much at all. While you can probably imagine all the exciting political intrigue that is doubtless going on somewhere, Ember and friends have no part of it. Instead they're off completing magic training, visiting family members, searching for unicorn horn medicines, and tracking down ghost agents; none of which have a particularly exciting plot attached. For most of the game (excluding the beginning) you're off around the various islands of the game following extraordinarily cryptic and poorly explained clues and performing menial tasks. In some ways this makes sense, as the characters are school students and not hardened adventures. The problem is that it makes for a rather dull experience. Things look up towards the end of the game when a plot twist appears, but even this ultimately falls flat with a bizarre ending 'boss.'
Luckily, the characters are a saving grace. There are seven main characters, including Ember, who join your party. There's Anda, the kind but tough warrior; Brynn, the martial artist; and Quinn the quirky mage, along with three others you'll meet later. None of the characters really develop across the story, but they're a highly likeable and charming bunch. Their dialogue is well written, often humorous, and they're the kind of people you'd love to be friends with. When Ember starts her lessons at the college, one lesson involves picking an animal to become her familiar who also acts as an eighth party member. Not only are they useful in battle, but they can perform special tasks in the field too. You can choose between a cat that searches trees, a bat that scouts out caves, a rat that can go digging through cracks, or a frog that enjoys time in the water. You'll be able to acquire different items by having your familiar search areas across the world. Being limited to only one per game provides great incentive to play through again. After you beat the game you'll be plopped back in Marenthia and are free to finish off whatever you like. There's new dialogue for many characters too and this was a terrific little bonus.
That game mechanic aside, The Witch and The Warrior follows a very traditional RPG format. Most of the game you'll be exploring different areas that include deserts, snow fields, forests, towns and more. Enemies are shown on the field, rather than being random encounters, so it's generally simple enough to choose to fight one or simply avoid them; which I'm eternally grateful for. The single greatest problem that The Witch and The Warrior has is its insanely erratic level of difficulty. It's fairly balanced early on, but what starts off as a cute, fun affair quickly descends into nightmarish torture. Most enemies past the early sections of the game have very high levels of health and deal monstrous damage to all members of your party. You'll need to pull out your best attacks for every battle and therefore need to carry mountains of mana potions. In the second half of the game two enemies using special attacks in one turn is sure to almost, if not entirely, wipe out your party.
There's only a small variety of equippable weapons and armour available, but you'll need the very best at all times if you're hoping to survive. Grinding is an option, but many enemies do not respawn and the amount of experience given per battle is incredibly low. You could be at it for an hour and only level up a handful of times. Even that is not going to be enough against some bosses as most become a matter of luck. You keep trying and trying again until they finally decide not to use their massively damaging special attack. To be fair, there are ways of hindering bosses with status ailments such as burns or confusion. Unfortunately, sometimes even these aren't always enough. Depending on your party setup you may not even have access to those skills.
The difficulty problem is made worse by the ability to save anywhere. At first, this seems like a blessing. Who doesn't want to be able to save anywhere at anytime? Unfortunately, this means that if you end up in an area where you're on low health and get blocked by enemies (this happens a lot), and then decide to save your game, you can end up stuck out in the wilderness without a way to escape. Early on in the game I almost did this. I saved on the way back from a cave and had my exit blocked by a surprise boss. It took me eight attempts to beat him, but if I'd had even one less health potion than I did, I'd have been forced to restart my file. Needless to say I was far more careful from that point on and saved in different slots.
Apart from the difficulty, the turn based battles are manageable, but they don't have anything interesting or exciting about them. Party members have a fairly decent variety of special attacks, though many don't have high enough maximum mana to make them useful for long. From time to time I ended up in battles that came down to a slog-fest where, after I ran out of mana, I was forced to use the regular attack command and only deal extremely minimal damage. Needless to say these were long, drawn out battles that often resulted in my party dying. What was particularly odd was the inability to escape. All through the game there is an 'escape' option shown in battle, presumably a way for you to run away. However, it's greyed out for the entire game and was never actually usable; a frustrating tease.
It's a pity the game turns out that way, because the first five or so hours are actually a lot of fun. During this time you'll mostly be exploring Marenthia and all the colleges that have been established. There are tons of secrets and side-quests to find in every little nook and cranny. Many side-quests are quite lengthy and involve many different objectives. Delivering letters is quite fun, as is locating missing chests scattered throughout the world or finding the secret student hideout in each college. There are dozens across the course of the game and they add a significant number of hours to your total game time. It's just a little disappointing that the poorly designed quests outshine those that are cleverer. Some of the quests are very vague or can't be finished when you reach a certain point in the story. There's never any warning of this, nor are they removed from your quest log, so by the end it's hard to say which quests are still achievable and which are not. A few are rather illogical too, such as a quest to help a witch who lost her hat. Apparently (as I found out later) the hat had been taken into custody by a rare dragonfly you only encounter once in the game. That wouldn't be too bad, but there's never any clues given about where the hat is and who would have ever thought a dragonfly would have it? Even when you do complete side quests the rewards are rarely useful.
Many of the story-related quests are equally vague. It took me around fifteen hours to beat the game, but a significant proportion of that was spent wandering around trying to make sense of vague information and scratching my head. At one stage you're told you need to wake up a ghost, for example, but you're not told how to do it or what you need. Instead you're forced to wander the islands for a while until you figure it out. At another time you're sent out to find the missing piece of a gold disc; again, no information about where to go, who to speak to or what to do. I was forced to look up the official forums on a number of occasions for help. A special mention, however, must be made to the pumpkins. All across the world are a couple of hundred pumpkins for you to find. By trading these to a special witch shop late in the game you can acquire a number of unique spells and weapons. It's a great addition to the game and motivates you to explore every area carefully.
Graphically, the game is cute, but nothing special. Forests are quite lovely and the creepy atmosphere of Barb Island is done beautifully. The snow-covered Amak Island, complete with snowmen and brightly-coloured lights, is another lovely location that really draws you into the game. Area maps have been pieced together with care and each island of the game really does feel like a different place. Late in the game you'll have access to the world map where you can fly from island to island on your broom. The map is another charming piece of art and suits the feel of the game perfectly. The most attractive graphics in the game come of the way of introductory CGs each time you're joined by a new party member. These stunning images are beautifully drawn and give you a full-size look at the character along with their name. The sprite-work is generally quite nice, though a few originally pieces, such as the unicorns, suffer from subpar animation. Many stock RPGMaker sprites are used, but there are enough original graphics that it isn't a major issue.
Sadly, the environmental graphics aren't without a couple of glaring issues. The most notable is the unrealistic placement of solid objects. The vast majority of trees you cannot walk beneath because the whole thing, all the way up to the highest branches, is completely solid. Instead of being able to walk under the leaves you're forced to meander all the way around. This is the case with bushes and a number of other environmental objects too. Likewise, some areas were obviously not tested carefully enough. In a few locations (see the screenshot to the right) I was actually able to climb cliffs or walk up walls which had not been blocked properly. Chama Village, a hot, sand-covered town, was by far the worst. Not only was it full of the issues I just listed, but almost every door in the town did not open. Only a few houses had actually been given an interior which was a huge disappointment. The interface is quite unattractive to look at too. It's entirely plain black with white text and it's not always easy to find what you're after.
The sound suffers from similar issues. The sound effects are decent, but a little rough and are frequently reused for different special attacks. The soothing piano soundtrack is quite lovely when you hear it the first few times, but too many areas reuse the same track or have music that's very much alike. The battle theme is solid and its strong, tough tone stands out amongst the other music well. It can, at times, be quite soft and difficult to hear without massively cranking up the volume and some areas are simply without music all together. After winning a good proportion of the battles I fought I had to sit and wait for the music loop to end before the battle would actually finish. This was often close to ten seconds.
The Witch and the Warrior is a cute and charming adventure, but only early on. I thoroughly enjoyed my first few hours with it and was bitterly disappointed as the story became less and less interesting and the battles become more and more frustrating. The vague quest objectives and irritating save system just worsen the existing problems. An interesting premise and cute graphics simply aren't enough to save The Witch and The Warrior from its mediocre status. I truly wanted to like it, but at $19.99, The Witch and The Warrior is simply not worth your time.