Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Being imprisoned in a poisonous swamp all your life is likely to leave you bitter and twisted, so it's no surprise that Swamp Witch Metallia is thoroughly fed up with her lot. The evil mage finally decides that enough is enough, resolving to turn the entire world into a swamp with the help of a demonic ally from the realms beyond. Through the darkest of magicks, she summons the legendary Hundred Knight, the most powerful demon in all existence.
Who turns out to be an adorable diminutive creature with a cheerful smile, gangly arms and cuddly round body who frankly cries out for a great big hug. Can this loveable blob of demon-stuff really become Metallia's weapon of retribution?
The stage is set for great things. Hailing from the developers behind the Disgaea series, The Witch And The Hundred Knight promised to merge the hectic hack & slash combat of an action RPG with the deep layered systems of a more strategic title, tied together with the quirky off-the-wall hijinks we expect from the boutique studio. What could possibly... no, scratch that.
I was tempted to play the tired old "what could possibly go wrong?" card here, but you're savvy enough to see where this is going. Sadly, despite getting a lot right, The Witch And The Hundred Knight is held back by Nippon Ichi' relative genre inexperience and the shocking depravity of its leading lady.
Our cuddly demonic 'hero' is thrown into a selection of isometric maps to explore, filled with enemies to brutalise and randomly-assigned treasures to collect. In each stage, your goal is usually to locate a Pillar guarded by a major boss, which eventually transforms the area into swampland when destroyed. Genre fans will soon get into the swing of things, mashing Square to attack, blocking and dashing as they do so, while the combo system adds some welcome depth. Each weapon you find can be set into a custom five-step chain combo, boasting different attack ranges, damage and type advantages that can be used to inflict greatly amplified pain onto specific enemies.
Early impressions are fairly disappointing, in all honesty. The first few stages feature a tiny variety of recycled enemies, most of which are drably or conservatively designed, while the maps are simplistic and bland. These issues persist throughout the game in some fashion, but thankfully NIS have developed a textbook slow-burner.
As the enemies get tougher, more numerous and more interesting to fight, The Witch And The Hundred Knight starts to make more sense, and the Hundred Knight adds more strings to his bow. You can summon 'Tochkas,' magical followers who fulfil various combat roles from time bombs to fire support. Blocking and evasion becomes infinitely more important, as does ruthlessly exploiting enemy weaknesses. New classes, skills, weapons and myriad overlapping gameplay systems eventually blossom into powerful new combat options. The difficulty spikes upwards upon entering each new area, putting the focus on grind more often than not, but its Roguelike structure allows you to optionally retreat via teleporters, power up and return ready to take on new challenges.
There's a lot of moving parts and a huge amount to keep in mind (not helped by a very fussy and cluttered interface), but in the main, the core combat is challenging, fun and satisfying if very repetitive. As always, a fantastic and playful musical score keeps the mood light and the action frothy over more than thirty hours of play time. That should have been enough.
Unfortunately, even when The Witch And The Hundred Knight finally hits its stride, it still doesn't hang together as well as it should... because NIS sometimes forgot that they weren't developing a turn-based RPG.
Beyond annoyances like overlong status effects, huge amounts of jargon and poorly-implemented morality/enemy 'behaviour' mechanics (that make no difference in the grand scheme of things), the GigaCal system is a major sticking point. Every action, from movement and attacks to blocking and regenerating health, depletes a constantly dwindling supply of calories, which results in massive debuffs and death when completely emptied. Consuming weakened enemies and items can supply a small fraction of our reserves, but otherwise, it can only be topped off by returning to Metallia's demesne.
Roguelike fans will be no stranger to hunger systems like this, since it would feel natural in a tactical turn-based SRPG, but the need to replenish GigaCals often feels restrictive in a hack & slasher. At best it forces us to balance offence and exploration, whereas it usually just forces us to drop whatever we're doing, run to a teleporter, look at some loading screens and then eventually return back to exactly where we were left off. If I was a cynic, I'd suggest that NIS was just trying to pad out the play time.
The storytelling also feels somewhat out of place in a fast-paced action game. Though The Witch And The Hundred Knight tries to spin a more mature and darker yarn than the Disgaea series, it does so through overlong graphic novel-style conversations that can take upwards of twenty minutes to resolve - and worse constantly interrupts the action with prosaic chatter. Every few minutes the combat gives way to shonky in-engine cutscenes and aggravating dialogue, stopping us dead in our tracks. Again, this would have worked perfectly well in an SRPG, but here it stops us from hitting a groove.
We need a strong story to pull us through the maps and stop repetition from setting in. Whoops. Powerful themes of suffering, abandonment and cruelty are wasted on some one-note characters and inconsistent scripting/translation, with the sole exception of brilliantly sardonic butler Arlecchino. The Hundred Knight itself is mute and unable to get involved in the storyline until the very end, making the player character a total non-entity as far as the plot goes.
So everything hinges on Metallia herself, then, to hold The Witch And The Hundred Knight's gameplay and story together. She's the most verbose and important character in the game... and for many players, will also be its greatest weakness.
Metallia is evil. Not just misunderstood or mischievous, but avaricious, vain, foul-mouthed, twisted and cruel; taking bitter delight in the humiliation and suffering of others. NIS should be congratulated for having the bravery to make their main character truly wicked as opposed to just a bit cheeky (see also: Overlord), but on the flip-side, it's obvious why so many developers steer well clear of this angle. Put simply: she is hateful, impossible to sympathise with on any level, and therefore makes it difficult to care about fulfilling her orders or pushing her story forward.
To illustrate this, an early scene almost made me quit the game and never return. Metallia decides that killing a rival isn't much fun, so instead decides to humiliate her by transforming her into a mouse. So far so fairytale, but then she summons "three horny boy mice" to chase her down and sire loads of offspring against her will. No, really, Metallia instigates bestial gang rape after less than three hours of playtime. Also, it turns out that the rival in question is quite possibly Metallia's mum.
Erm... uhh... wha... SERIOUSLY?! The act itself is mercifully interrupted, yet regardless of whether you find the intent offensive, immature or merely disappointing, it underlines just how little we can invest in whether Metallia lives, dies, succeeds or fails even after we learn more about her in the mid-game. A strong story and memorable characters could have elevated The Witch And The Hundred Knight, but they ultimately drag it down like a millstone and are memorable for all the wrong reasons.
- Challenging dungeon crawling combat continually reveals hidden depths
- Another quirky, chirpy NIS soundtrack
- Lengthy, plenty of optional and game-complete content
- Vaguely interesting storyline deals with complex themes...
- ... but it's poorly told and wasted on atrocious characters
- Awkward storytelling and overly fussy systems break gameplay flow
- Lacks enemy variety and interesting map design, often feels padded and repetitive
- Metallia is too hateful to care about, even after mid-game plot development
The Short Version: The Witch And The Hundred Knight should have been a fun if slightly fussy ARPG, but its nuanced combat is dragged down by flow-breaking gameplay foibles, weak storytelling, appalling characters and a leading lady who's impossible to like or even care about in any meaningful way.
You'll get a lot of game for your money, much of which is undeniably capable, but ploughing through it often feels like a thankless day job with a detestable boss.