A lot of games draw on fairy tales. Whether transplanting familiar characters into new settings or simply drawing on the tone and themes of those childhood folktales, it’s not unusual to see such stories reflected in video games, often to great effect. The Witch and Hundred Knight 2 is similarly fairy tale-esque in its telling, though it doesn’t work nearly as well as many such games that came before it.
The Witch and Hundred Knight 2, like its predecessor (though I must admit, I haven’t played that) is fascinated with the horror of fairy tales—the most grim sides of the Brothers Grimm. Nobody who knows what they’re talking about would argue that the Grimms’ stories are anything other than horrific, but there’s a lot more to them than that. They’re charming, even in their tragedy, and the simplicity of each story leaves the door open to plenty depth and emotional resonance. There’s a reason the Grimms’ fairy tales are as timeless as they are.
But Nippon Ichi, in crafting The Witch and Hundred Knight 2, seem to have missed all that. Here’s a game that carries the look and feel of Grimm stories at their most superficial, complete with the fantastical horror, but without any of that charm or emotion. It is, essentially, a medley of horrible people doing horrible things, but even in the span of a couple dozen hours, it struggles to capture the heart in the way that a good fairy tale can do in a few short pages.
The Witch and Hundred Knight 2 opens with a young woman, Amalie, frantically searching for her younger sister, Milm. Amalie finds Milm before too long, though the younger girl has been possessed by a dormant witch. Should the witch awaken, it’ll mean doom and destruction for everyone nearby, so Amalie and Milm find themselves exiled from their village.
They’re then taken in by a cult-like order of witch hunters called Weiss Ritter. The groups doctors claim to be able to eliminate the “Witch Disease” by surgically removing the witch’s third eye from the host’s forehead. Milm’s surgery fails, though; instead, the witch Chelka awakens and starts wreaking havoc across the hospital.
The player’s role in all this is as the Hundred Knight, a puppet brought to life and enslaved by Chelka. You have little option but to follow Chelka’s orders: kill this person, do that horrible thing, and what have you. You have limited scope to try reject your orders through a dialogue wheel, though the impact of these choices is limited; there are a few different endings, but for most of the game you’re stuck doing exactly as Chelka commands, regardless of your choices.
That’s a missed opportunity for the game to take a closer look at servitude, free will, and obedience to authority even when that authority is aggressively, plainly evil. The Witch and Hundred Knight 2 is perfectly set up to explore the sort of psychological phenomena witnessed in the likes of the Milgram experiment, but it hardly scratches the surface.
Instead, the game simply becomes a sequence of people doing awful things for awful reasons. Chelka is chaotically evil, as are the other witches you meet, but Weiss Ritter are hardly good guys. They’re an organisation of fanatics driven by a belief that what they’re doing is good, right, and even holy. They’re as corrupt as you’d expect, and will stop at nothing to eradicate the witches.
Again, such tragedy and horror isn’t unusual in the fairy tales that clearly inspire The Witch and Hundred Knight 2, but there’s little here to balance that out. It’s relentless in its unpleasantness, but it’s also thoroughly uninteresting; shitty people doing shitty things is a theme that quickly loses impact.
Furthermore, the game does nothing to forge a connection with the player. Characters get killed off left and right, and the few that don’t are do forgettable that they might as well be. The overarching plot is both dull and convoluted, making it hard to care what happens. Amalie is the one bright spark among all this—a noble knight who’ll do anything to save her little sister—but even she can’t pick up the slack.
The gameplay that strings the story together doesn’t dare much better, sadly. It’s a pretty straightforward action RPG, with a handful of different systems layered over that to add depth: you can change classes on the fly, and customise your basic attack strings by equipping different weapons in different slots. The need to maintain your “GigaCalories” gauge by eating food, weapons, and enemies adds another layer to the standard health and magic resource management.
That all works on paper, but it all falls flat because the basic combat underneath everything else is clunky and tiresome. Enemies lack variety, with most simply rushing you blindly or using very simple attack patterns. Even so, their numbers, coupled with a limited defensive options and wonky hit detection, mean that hordes of regular foes can overwhelm you quite easily. Even when they don’t, wading through them all simply feels like a chore.
Bosses are another matter, with much more variety in their encounter design, but they expose another problem. With a perfectly timed, last-second dodge, you can slow down the world around you for a few seconds—think Witch Time from Bayonetta—but the timing for this is so strict that its difficult to do reliably. That’s complicated by weird properties on bosses’ attacks, like the timing not matching up the visual attack animation.
Finally, you can’t cancel your attack recovery into a dodge roll—a common feature of action games, especially those that encourage well-timed dodges—I if you’re stuck in an attack animation, your ability to react to the boss’s attacks and evade accordingly falls away. That all creates an environment that encourages a very cautionary approach, because attacking too aggressively often leads to disaster. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but the rest of The Witch and Hundred Knight 2‘s combat is skewed towards fast, frantic hacking and slashing. Instead of facilitating that, the dodge system undermines it, at least in his fights.
It’s a shame, because there are a lot of neat ideas in the game. I’m particularly fond of the combo system: rather than simply equipping one weapon, you can choose up to five per class, and the order of those determines your basic attack strings. If you put a sword in the first slot, a hammer in the next two, and then different elemental staves in the last two, your combo string will go sword-hammer-hammer-staff-staff. The attacks don’t simply duplicate, either; each weapon type has different attacks for each of the five weapon slots, so there’s a lot of room to experiment with different setups.
Facets extend that freedom further. These function like character classes, with different skills and weapon affinities, and each with its own weapon slots. You can freely switch between them, allowing you to essentially create different weapon sets for use in different situations—maybe an all-staves set your physically tough enemies, or set of spears and hammers for wide-area attacks. There are six Facets in total (though you can only equip three at once), giving you plenty of room for experimenting with character builds.
The music and art direction are also noteworthy, as you’d expect from a Nippon Ichi game. Character portraits age bright, colourful, and delightfully offbeat, and they’re accompanied by surprisingly good English voice acting during cutscenes. The soundtrack is suitably moody, but still has the poppy, catchy undercurrent typical of JRPG scores.
Sadly, good presentation isn’t enough to make up for The Witch and Hundred Knight 2‘s shortcomings. There are some good ideas at the game’s heart, both mechanically and in the story it tries to tell, but it struggles to deliver on those, and the result is a game that’s tiresome and frustrating to sit through.
The Witch and Hundred Knight 2 is developed by Nippon Ichi Software and published by NIS Ameirca. It’s available now for PlayStation 4.
A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.