The studio that built Disgaea has stepped outside of its comfort zone to bring fans The Witch and the Hundred Knight. It's an action oriented RPG with a notably darker tone than any of NIS's previous work and there isn't a single instance of grid based movement or an explosive penguin to be seen. While I always appreciate companies making new intellectual properties and trying something different, sometimes it doesn't quite hit the same quality of their previous work; such is the case with The Witch and the Hundred Knight.
Even though Disgaea titles often cast you as the villain it's usually done in a tongue in cheek way. The Witch and the Hundred Knight, on the other hand, is a totally different story. You play as Hundred Knight, a familiar of the Swamp Witch Metallia. While you yourself have no real personality or morals to speak of, Metallia is a genuinely terrible person right from the get go. Later on you learn that she's not quite the big breasted Hitler she's made out to be in the first few moments of the game, but it's tough to overlook her turning an enemy into a mouse and then setting horny male mice on her. Even when Metallia becomes a slightly better person there's no shortage of dark themes to be had, with characters dying left and right and sad stories of hopelessly one-sided love or abandonment abound. It plays for laughs every now and then but the narrative definitely leans on the side of sobriety, which is a stark departure from most of NIS's previous work.
The presentation as a whole is slightly sketchy. The character portraits during conversations are nicely drawn, although their animations could certainly use work, but the rest of the game is presented from a somewhat isometric viewpoint that leaves many of the environments and enemies looking bland. The voice acting is also spotty, with quite a few story sequences not featuring any voice work at all. What voice acting is there is enjoyable enough, though, and none of the characters really grate.
As mentioned above this is NIS' first attempt at an action RPG that features a largely isometric viewpoint, and while a lot of what has been attempted here works very well there are some moments where that lack of experience becomes quite obvious. First, though, let's talk about what worked. The Hundred Knight can equip a variety of weapons with one of three different damage types and put them in any order to create a combo max of five. Where each weapon is in the combo determines the bonus damage it does, and paying attention to the specific qualities of your weapons allows you to increase your damage even more if you set things up precisely. The Hundred Knight can also dodge, block, and summon certain spells/helpers to aid in its quest. These spells become hugely important as they are not only used to complete simple puzzles that are necessary to progress through the game, but summoning helpers later in the game takes the heat off of your own character and allows you to more easily avoid incoming damage.
The mere fact that you have to worry about damage mitigation means that NIS did something right when making this battle system as that's often the mark of a challenging action RPG. Even non-boss monsters can kill you fairly easily if you don't pay attention, which helps to keep things interesting and consistently engaging. You also have to worry about a constantly decreasing energy bar that can be replenished by eating food items or nearly weakened enemies, but this latter option comes at a cost. You see, Hundred Knight uses its stomach to store everything useful it comes across when exploring and if you have to eat to maintain your energy you'll quickly fill up your stomach with worthless junk. Items exist to get rid of that junk, but most of the time it's best to just avoid eating your enemies for as long as possible.
Now let's turn to what went wrong. The first and most annoying issue is that the camera often seems to work against you; you will get stuck in situations where your view is obstructed by something like trees above Hundred Knight, although this is usually only a minor annoyance. One specific boss fight, however, brings this issue to a head as it pulls the camera out in order to show a section of the map. The problem with this is that while the camera is panned out it is difficult to keep track of exactly where Hundred Knight is in the midst of subsequent attacks.
There's also an issue with pacing where equipment is divided into tiers of quality based on what chapter of the story you are in. New armor and weapons can be acquired in the form of loot from your enemies, but there's no more reliable means of obtaining them. The problem with this set-up is that the monsters you face are set at a difficulty that assumes you already have said level of loot, which makes the beginning of each chapter a real slog. Dodging in an attempt to avoid damage is something I think should always be a big part of action RPGs, but if every mob early on can kill you instantly and you need to hit them 15 times in order to take them down it can become quite a chore farming up the loot you need to stand a chance further down the line.
Part of my disappointment with gameplay comes from my own expectations. When The Witch and the Hundred Knight was first announced it sounded like NIS was trying to mix in some Western RPG sensibilities with NPCs that you could decide to kill or befriend based on how you wanted to play the game. In practice, though, this decision is pretty meaningless. Using anima and mana that you collect from defeating monsters you can easily negate any karmic retribution you would have from subjugating every household you come across. You can even use these collectibles to bring back all the NPCs you've killed, so there really is no consequence to your actions. I also never found any benefit to being a nice guy while playing, and subjugating houses for your master is an easy way to get items, so I don't see why anyone would neglect to use that ability in all practicality.
Disgaea titles have some of the best value in the industry, and The Witch and the Hundred Knight certainly has a lot of content available to play through if you enjoy the core game. I managed to devote 33 hours to the game, which had me approaching the end-game, before I was forced to move on to other reviews. There are multiple endings to be accessed, as well as end game content that is hinted at by the ability to subjugate your own master's house if you get to a high enough level. It's not quite the same as being able to go to level 9999 and having hours of continued storyline after the main story is finished, but it add a reasonable amount of replayability assuming the aforementioned issues aren't a huge problem for you.
All in all, I'd have to say this experiment in action RPG design by NIS has promise, but it isn't yet up NIS's usual standards. The exploration of a darker storyline and often challenging battle system are much appreciated, but the general presentation, some major design flubs for an isometric title, and pacing problems make this a decent RPG at best. I do, however, look forward to NIS's next experiment outside of their traditional realm of SRPGs.
This review is based on a retail copy of The Witch and the Hundred Knight for the PS3, provided by the publisher.