The Witch and the Hundred Knight is a great idea on paper, and one that I’m not sure anyone other than developer NIS could feasibly pull off. It aims to be an action RPG layered with the obsessive, customizable minutia of the Disgaea series, an adrenaline shot of hack ‘n’ slash goodness, and, in theory, an endearing and clever story weaving its way throughout. Though there are moments where this vision becomes whole and Hundred Knight really does click, they’re frustratingly few and far between. The rest feels a bit too much like a square peg jammed through a round hole — or one hundred of them.
The plot centers around the witch Metallia (named “Metallica” in the Japanese edition–altered here for obvious reasons), who despite her cutesy good looks is actually one of the more unpleasant characters I’ve come across in quite a long while. She’s rude, profane, and outright ruthless in many cases, and though this is obviously part of her role as a “bad guy,” NIS just hasn’t done a very good job of making her even remotely likable. You may not think this is an issue, but since the entire game hinges on doing her bidding, her childish brand of evil makes it tough to get motivated.
Let’s backtrack a bit, though–what’s the deal with this Hundred Knight thing? Well, the Hundred Knight is basically a famously powerful spirit, part of a class of ghosts summoned by witches throughout history to do their bidding. You play as the Hundred Knight (who begins as an adorable bobbing head), and over time your skill increases, your power grow, and you fill the titanic shoes of legend. It sounds awesome in premise, but falls a bit short in execution.
In many ways, what The Witch and the Hundred Knight does well are the same things Disgaea does well — which ultimately makes you wonder what exactly NIS yearned for during development that couldn’t be achieved via its tried-and-true strategy series in the first place. Take equipment and weapons in the game, for example. The selection is enormously varied. I spent far more time than I expected messing with gear configurations, and the number of options available feels nearly as robust as something like Fire Emblem, or even, well, Disgaea itself.
The problem is that before long, you begin to realize there’s not a whole lot of purpose behind the options presented to you, and it’s mainly because combat gets repetitive quickly. Though the lack of turn-based structure is a good thing for this type of game, it results in skirmishes that hardly require the level of strategy implied by the gear made available to you. It’s true that lances can be great for dispersing enemy hoards, or that hammers can smash up tough foes in melee combat effectively, but even so — it’s nothing terribly involved. Other weapon types present similar strategies, and there are more than a few ways to play, but once you establish a working formula you’ll almost never feel overwhelmed or challenged.
This isn’t by default a problem, but as the the Hundred Knight unlocks more and more abilities, I became increasingly torn between actually trying to use them in creative ways, and just taking the lazy route and slashing my way past everything. Since basic strategies sans special moves will work against nearly every enemy outside of bosses, it was almost always easier to skip specials entirely. It’s too bad, because some of them actually are pretty cool in theory (the Hundred Knight can deploy minions or even rig explosives), but in the time it takes to actually use them, you could have easily disposed of your foe the easy way two times over.
I mentioned story, and if you judge the game by its art (which is easily the highlight of the experience) you might expect something whimsical, silly, and fun… and you’d only be half right. While many of those adjectives apply, you’d also need to add drawn-out, repetitive, and borderline-tedious to the list for an accurate picture. This is due largely in part to excessively long cutscenes — lasting over twenty minutes in some places — and characters that don’t quite tickle you empathy receptors the way they ought to. I’m all for nontraditional heroes that are actually villains, but Metallia becomes such a pain after a while that I found myself jamming the skip button pretty frequently.
Outside of the drawn art in the game, which I loved, Hundred Knight’s polygonal graphics aren’t much to get excited about. Still, I’d recommend the game for its art alone if you’re into that sort of thing, and if there’s one facet to the experience that makes the lengthy cutscenes bearable, the detailed 2D art is it. Aurally, I felt the soundtrack did its job just fine, but it’s not something I’ll be loading onto my iPod any time soon.
Perhaps the nail in the game’s admittedly decorative coffin is something called the GigaCal meter. Essentially, the longer you stray into the wild away from Metallia, the more this meter depletes; it’s basically a timer. When the timer expires, you must return from your exploration to “recharge.” It seemed clever at first, but as the game wore on I really began to question what its purpose was. Another ten hours and I’d concluded it lacked one. The Hundred Knight can simply teleport home and return to where he was with a full Giga-gauge in a matter of minutes, and the whole thing left me frustrated and confused. It’s not a game-breaker, but stacked on top of everything else, it started to feel like one.
By the time The Witch and the Hundred Knight’s last lengthy cutscene concluded, I found myself wondering who exactly the game is for, and frankly, I still don’t know the answer. My gut feeling is that if you like the art style and don’t mind chilling out to lots and lots of lengthy dialogue sequences, then the game may be worth your money. Otherwise, as much as I wanted to like NIS’s intriguing little experiment, the end result simply won’t be worth it for most players.
The Witch and the Hundred Knight is wrapped in a pretty package, but beyond its initial charm, there's not a whole lot of compelling material to be found. Character designs are nice and weapon variety is impressive, but boring cutscenes and repetitive gameplay prevent it from ever really reaching its potential.