Among Shoot-em-ups, there is a subset of them known as “Cute-em-ups”, that flip the usual genre conventions on their head. Instead of spaceships, robots, and giant bio-monsters, you get cute animals, candies, witches, and other such sugary sweet things. I don’t mind that sort of switch-up at all. I’m not one to be repulsed by cute things. If a game like Cotton is the cute equivalent of Gradius then Little Witch Nobeta is the cute equivalent of Dark Souls. It’s still a macabre, spooky game at its core. It’s just that now, all the bosses are cute girls instead of horrifying monsters.
It doesn’t quite reach the heights of FromSoftware’s masterworks, but if you want a whole ton of sugar with your Souls-likes, than Little Witch Nobeta has a lot to enjoy.
Little Witch Nobeta costs $49.99 and launches March 7th for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. It is available now on Steam.
Story: Help Nobeta, Protect Nobeta
Nobeta is a cute little witch girl, exploring a mysterious castle, trying to figure out the mystery of her life. All she knows is that the castle’s throne holds all the answers she seeks. But the castle is guarded by creepy dolls and shadow demons, and the mysterious Crafted Souls, dolls that have gained sentience and will stop at nothing to prevent Nobeta from completing her mission. Her only friend in this castle is a mysterious black cat, who endlessly pesters her about her need to reach the throne. And that’s all the story you get for the first two-thirds of the game.
As with the best of Souls-likes, the game’s story is hardly cut and dry. It’s vague and mysterious, and I left the game with more questions than answers. I think it would have served the game well to lean more into its characters. There are very few actual characters here, just Nobeta, the cat, and the Crafted Souls, who serve as nothing more than bosses. I think having more friendly NPCs would serve the game very well. The game’s bonfire equivalent (a goddess statue) also serves as the game’s store. I appreciate the simplicity, but having an actual merchant character would have breathed so much life into this game. The opportunity to interact more with the Crafted Souls would be good. Give people more of the cute girls.
Little Witch Nobeta might not have much of a story, but it does have loads and loads of backstory. Throughout the game, you collect a ton of miscellaneous items, such as broken weapons and miscellaneous junk. These items serve as nothing more than lore entries, explaining the rich backstory of this world. It would have been nice to actually get to learn about this stuff organically than have it be buried in a mountain of textboxes associated with hidden items nobody will ever find. One common thread throughout the lore entries is that there are demi-humans in this world and they are discriminated against. You could have one of the bosses be demi-human plotting revenge for their mistreatment. I know a vague story with massive events in the distant past is how Dark Souls does things, but I’m not sure that story structure suits a game like this.
Gameplay: I Cast a Spell on You
When I first saw Little Witch Nobeta, I was not expecting a Souls-like. And it doesn’t stick entirely to that structure, there’s a much bigger emphasis on ranged combat for instance. But you get the usual hallmarks of the genre. A stamina meter, the need to bank experience points at checkpoints that respawn all the monsters when you use them, a dark crushing atmosphere, a world that’s had many traumatic events in its past, and it’s hard as balls.
As weird of a mixup as Little Witch Nobeta is, I think it works well. As a witch, you fight more with spells instead of brawn, and the enemies are changed up to match. By the latter half of the game, the enemies get a lot more aggressive, and the game leans more into bullet hell. Early on, most of the enemies just slowly shamble toward you, but by the end, you have to dodge a lot of projectiles. I really like how the combat feels later in the game. Once Nobeta has all of her abilities and spells, you can pull off some really flashy maneuvers. And you need to because the monsters only get more and more difficult as time goes on.
Though you do most of your attacking at range, they still manage to incentivize you to make risky plays. Most of your spells don’t do very much damage by default, and the ones that do burn through your MP like crazy. But by charging up, Nobeta can unleash super-powered spells, which is where most of her damage comes in. You are very vulnerable while charging, and a strong enemy attack can stop your charge. But, by performing well-timed dodges and melee attacks, Nobeta will charge up much faster. I like this risk and reward system. It rewards aggressive play, which is a smart maneuver for a game like this.
There’s not as much enemy variety as I’d like, but at least enemies change up their tactics significantly as you move further into the game. The most basic monster in the game is a tall shadow with a big mouth that slowly moves toward you and tries to take a bite out of Nobeta. Later on, you find a red version of it that moves faster and can sink into the ground to evade attacks. And the final stage has a blue version that moves faster still and bombards you with homing thunder balls. I’m not exactly wild about pallet-swapped enemies, but at least they fight differently. They aren’t just carbon copies with bigger health and damage numbers.
Add a Dash of Metroidvania
As fun as the combat is, navigating the castle certainly isn’t. There’s no map of any kind, and there are no landmarks anywhere to help you navigate. Almost all of the game’s biomes use the same castle tileset, with nothing to distinguish rooms apart. You get a sunny castle, a fire castle, and a twilight castle, and they all look the same. The only other environment I can think of is an underground mine area. Additional location variety is something this game absolutely needed. It also doesn’t help that you don’t unlock fast travel until the room before the final boss, and when you do unlock it, you’re still locked into the endgame and can’t go back to the main castle area, something which I feel is kinda dumb.
The game is also entirely linear. All the stages do connect to one another, and there are hidden treasure chests to find. But the chests have nothing but consumables, spell upgrades, and useless lore items. I think the game would have been served better if you could explore the biomes in any order, and unlock abilities that help you throughout the rest of the castle.
Sprinkle in some RPG Elements
Outside of a more non-linear structure, the main thing I think this game needs is more RPG elements. Looking at the items, I notice that a lot of them look like stuff Nobeta could use. Weapons, clothing, and different types of consumables. I can’t help but feel that, at one point, these items were meant to serve a greater role. But whatever role these items were meant to play got cut, due to time or whatever other reason.
I think it would definitely serve the game well if you could actually have a practical use for these items. Nobeta can’t equip new weapons or armor, she’s always stuck with her default equipment. An equipment system would massively increase this game’s depth and replayability. It could also heavily boost the game’s cuteness factor. Equipping Nobeta could be like playing dress up, finding all sorts of cute clothes, and seeing what makes Nobeta look the best she can be. At the very least, they could add different abilities to the costumes that already exist in the game. That would at least be something.
Another thing I thought would have been an opportunity to add depth was the game’s laughably underbaked Curse mechanic. By default, the game does not drop your Experience Points on death, unlike most Souls-likes. But there are special, cursed items that the game warns you will revert the game to normal Souls-like rules and have you drop EXP on death. The problem is that the only items that curse you are the crappy starter healing items the game spawns for you on death. And even if you do die when cursed, the game only drops around 15% of your EXP. If there was cursed equipment or other cursed items (powerful single-use spells maybe?), it would be interesting to balance your build around this. But as is, Curse is so irrelevant as a mechanic that I nearly forgot the game had it.
Graphics and Sound: Leave You Bewitched
I’m not quite sure how to feel when it comes to the game’s presentation. I’ve already commented on the samey environments, but I wouldn’t say the game looks terrible. The models look appealing, they animate well, and all of the character designs are great. The game also ran very well, without a hint of framerate issues. There is good lighting and some solid use of environmental effects like clouds and sand blowing in the wind. I wouldn’t call the actual world geometry ugly, but it’s definitely the low point in this game’s visual presentation.
The music was generally more ambient and ominous. It suited the game’s theme well but isn’t anything I’d listen to outside of the context of its intended use. The game is fully voice-acted (though only in Japanese, and also by Hololive Vtubers for some reason), and I’d say all the actors were well-suited to this project. Nobeta’s VA gives off the sense of childlike innocence that I’d expect from a cute witch like her and having her vocalize all her spells was a nice touch.
There’s one really weird thing I noticed about the presentation though. There are a ton of doorways that have no room attached to them, and there’s just a blank wall where a door should be. It’s like they modeled the doorway intending to make a room on the other side, but they ran out of time to actually make all these rooms, so they covered all the entrances in stone. But they should have also gotten rid of the doorways if they weren’t going to have doors. It’s really distracting, and kinda gives off the vibe of the game being unfinished. Especially in the final castle area, which is full of these doorways to nowhere.
Little Witch Nobeta was reviewed for PlayStation 4 using a key provided by Reef Entertainment.