When the game opens up through the "NEW GAME" main menu option you'll be thrust immediately into a dire situation which will have you doing as a mysterious commanding voice tells you to. It is during this awakening, and dream-like escape sequence that you, "The Hundred Knight" will be learning the ropes of the in-game features, and applied JRPG mechanics. There's a lot thrown at you in the way of controls, and features initially, but you'll find that this tutorial stage will set the proper pace for the gameplay requirements, and future lessons ahead of you. If need be you can always turn to the "START" menu for a refresher's course of the controls.
As the "Hundred Knight", and protagonist of the game it is your contracted duty to fulfill Metallia's (The Great Swamp Witch's) requests. These requests basically require you to infiltrate, and turn all surrounding lands into swamps by blossoming smaller plant-like pillars, and invisible temperance pillars which are hidden throughout. By doing so Metallia's reach will extend beyond her swamplands, and into other opposing witch's/kingdom's territories ultimately enabling her to conquer the world with muck, and filth. Her goal as simple as it may sound is to infest the world with noxious swamp vapors, and ooze. She obviously has some sort of underlying vendetta going on, but the extent, and origins of that particular plot material will remain a mystery until you have completed enough of the game to uncover it for yourself.
Being the legendary "Hundred Knight", and Metallia's errand boy can make for an unusual conflict of interests. Regardless of it's downsides though being in your position does come with it's perks. For instance you'll find that you are gifted with the power of assertion. This means that you can reply to an NPC's (Non-Player Character's) comment, or question with a response of your own choosing. These "assertive" responses come in four different categories/choices within the game, and will each cause the person at the other end of the conversation to react in a variety of different manners. You can choose to either "Affirm", "Deny", "Question", or "Ignore" the interactive part of the character-to-character conversation that is being shared with you via the (Left Thumbstick). Each assertive response will in turn have it's consequences, or rewards depending on the story route you have taken, and the plot scenario that you are currently facing. This of course goes along with the lead, or be led nature of your character's plot involvement.
In the way of combat you'll find in place a complex yet somewhat simple multi-weapon, and multi-accessory menu in which you can put together combo producing weapon setups as well as item based character enhancements. In the way of weapons you'll find that you can equip up to five different weapons in any desired order. These weapons come in different types including "Blunt", "Slash", and "Magic". In general you'll find magic staffs (Magic), swords (Slash), lances (Slash), Spears (Slash), and hammers (Blunt) with the associated type of attack applied accordingly. Also with these weapons comes a die symbol featuring 1-5 yellow dots. By placing weapons in a numerically proper order (1-5) according to these dot-based symbols you will be able to improve upon the weapons' attack power percentage, and add additional combo chains to each weapon in the process. You must always keep in mind though that having a well balanced selection of equipped weapons (all weapon types) is the best way go seeing as some enemies you'll face are only weak against certain weapon types.
As far as armor, and accessories go you'll find them dropped from killed enemies as well as treasure chests in a similar manner as the weapons, and items are. You simply have to collect as many of them as you can hold (stomach), and make it back to Metallia's home base (Niblhenne) alive through one of the blossomed pillars. Like their weapon counterparts you can add defensive armor, and accessory items via the "START MENU" "EQUIP" section. The more you advance the plot, and the more corrupt the world with Metallia's swampland the better your chances will be in finding a rarer weapon, item, or accessory. As with previous NISA JRPG releases collectible items, and weapons come in different rarities ranging from "Common" to "Legendary", and even "Epic". All equipped weapons can be leveled up through continuous combat giving them attack power beyond their initial stats. The same also goes for defensive equipment, and accessories.
Facets, which come into play later on in "Chapter 1" of the playthrough are also a huge part of "The Witch and the Hundred Knight" gameplay offerings. Essentially "Facets" earned within the game are the equivalent of what a class changes would be in other RPGs. As you advance through the game's plot you will earn different character "Facets" which will give the Hundred Knight enhanced attribute based abilities which are better suited for certain stages, and situations. At any one given time you can carry with you, and switch between three different Facets. The order (Main - Sub) of these Facets have to be arranged, and setup at Metallia's home before you venture out to create more swamps, and take on more baddies though. In order to switch between them a simple press of (L1 + Circle) is all that is required.
Aside from the basic combat oriented features you'll also find that your Hundred Knight can dodge attacks (X), and dash (HOLD X). If done properly a basic dodge can become a "Mystic Dodge" causing the enemy's actions to slow down as the screen turns to black & white. This of course will present an advantage in that your Hundred Knight is not effected by the speed slow down at all. As far as attacking goes all you need to do is repeatedly mash the (SQUARE) button to produce a combo. Blocking on the other hand will require you to use the (L1) before an enemy's attack makes contact with the Hundred Knight. While all of these standard actions are necessary you will find that the game does restricts you from simply button mashing your way to victory, and instead requires you to adjust your play style so that you do not use up all of your "GigaCals", and "Stamina".
Actions on the in-game playing fields of "The Witch and the Hundred Knight" are governed by two very important meters. These meters include a time/action-based sphere known as your "GigaCals", and a character surrounding meter known as your "Stamina". The "GigaCals" which are the most important of the two meters are exactly as they sound. After being contracted by Metallia, and bound by her mystic flame during the beginning of the game the Hundred Knight's time outside of Niblhenne is limited indefinitely by a meter known as "GigaCals". Due to the nature of this magical contract you can think of it as a method of counting down calories that you've burned (hence the word Giga - "Cal"). The more you perform specific actions onscreen the more GigaCals you'll burn, and the less time you'll have to do what needs to be done. There are ways around this phenomenon though including some accessible/purchasable refill items (L2 + Left Thumbstick + X) as well as a pillar GigaCal replenish option that can be paid for at the blossomed pillars via the earned bonus points that you have accumulated. By killing off enough enemies you will rack up what's called bonus points. These bonus points will do one of several things for you. They'll allow you to upgrade your stats (HP, ATTK, DFND, AP, TP,), buy more bonus points, refill AP, and even earn up to "10 (I - X)" bonus items that will be rewarded to you upon choosing to warp back to your Niblhenne base. Replenishing your "GigaCals" is also an option that might be worth visiting if you don't feel like heading back to your home base at Niblheene early.
In regards to "Stamina" it's also as it sounds. By continuously attacking foes, dashing, or dodging you will deplete the thin stamina meter that surrounds the Hundred Knight. Once your Stamina meter is depleted your basic attack, and defense actions will be mostly unavailable, and will limit your battle activities severely. By not using your attacks, or defensive maneuvers though your Stamina meter will refill, and will allow you to continue performing the long-chained combos, and evasive maneuvers that are necessary for a victory in a battle scenario. Enemies within Metallia's world come in an odd variety, and will each require the proper weapon setup as well as the proper Stamina management in order to defeat. Often times it will take multiple weapon combos to take out current level enemies. Unless you want to go back, and do some level grinding via past levels then you'll have to adapt your play style to the progressively harder to beat enemies. Even the Bosses you'll go up against later on in your playthrough will require such well placed tactics in order to defeat. As such you'll find that winning battles in the game is not as straightforward of an ordeal as it may seem.
The boss battles in "The Witch and the Hundred Knight", being the final confrontation encounters that they are are an entirely different form of battle than the ones you'll encounter when battling against the lesser creatures you'll face within the game. As one would likely expect bosses require certain tactics to defeat. Not only are they stronger, and equipped with a much larger life bar than your own, but in "The Witch and the Hundred Knight" you will have to pay close attention to their secondary meter in order to know exactly when to strike, and when to dodge. This secondary meter will stay full as long as the boss creature/character is in a defensive mode. Once the meter begins to deplete though the bass will attack, and open up a window of opportunity for you to dodge, and get in with a combo, or two. These attack, and defense based battles may seem meticulous at first but there are ways to shorten the encounter's length. This of course goes along with the "AP" meter that is located just below your HP bar at the top of the screen.
"AP", as it were is a three bar meter that will allow you to perform advanced attacks when in a battle. By pressing the (TRIANGLE) button you'll use up only one of the meter's bars, and boost your attack in the process. In regards to a boss fight your "AP" can offer an even better advantage assuming you have three full bars. By pressing (L1 + TRIANGLE) you will unleash an all powerful boost that will help you make much quicker work of a boss. The only downside is that your GigaCals burn at a more rapid rate, and once fully depleted the Hundred Knight will KO causing you to have to start over from the last pillar point.
By now you're likely thinking that's a heck of a lot of details to keep in mind as you play, but I assure you it will become a second nature sort of thing the more you spend time with the game. The fact of the matter is that the game is mostly made up of character interactions, map clearing, and combat. Nothing more, or nothing less. The character interactions, while important to the plot are only a fraction of what you'll be spending your time on. The rest of the gameplay will be investing in producing swampland for Metallia, and enhancing your characters attributes/abilities through fights with creatures/bosses.
As far as the dungeon-based traveling goes you'll find that navigating your way through the game will simply require an understanding of the in-game mechanics, the menu systems, and the knowledge of the various features contained within. When you are out on the field doing the will of Metallia you'll come to see, and interact with a world that is setup like a huge top-down maze (Think modern semi-overhead "Legend of Zelda"). By adjusting the camera angle (Right Thumbstick) to your liking, and moving the Hundred Knight along you'll confront enemies, discover hidden treasures, and unveil the swampless lands before you. Once you've blossomed all the pillars therein with your applied weapon combos you will be able to return later on, and advance further, or even level grind in order to make your Hundred Knight more suitable for the current tasks at hand. Returning to a previously explored, and fully blossomed swamp areas will benefit you greatly in that less GigaCal will be burned as you progress. This in turn will enable you to gather needed items, and weapons as seen fit. You'll even be able to reveal all maps fully through Castlevania-like percentage completion known as "Auto-Mapping". By simply walking the lands you will wipe away the darkness on the mini-map located a the top of the screen, and ultimately explore the region to 100% completion on the Niblheene master map. How this effects anything in-game will be a discovery you have to make on your own.
A couple of things I forgot to mention ...
My reviews are a free flowing mass of wordplay, so naturally from time to time I find it rather hard to fit everything in in a logical order. In this case two of the features I left out of the main body of the review included the "Witch Domination" aspect of village raiding, and the "Stomach Stock" that reflects how many items you can collect as you play through a stage ...
The "Witch Domination" comes into play when you first learn of the villages, and the NPC characters living in them. In these mini-villages you'll find house, shops, and buildings that carry with them a listed level, and family treasure. As the Hundred Knight you can raid these buildings, and loot the treasure within if your own character level outranks that of the building owner/s. Once you have successfully raided a building the words "Witch Domination" will pop-up on the screen along with some confetti, and will announce your victory. This action can then be followed up with a visit which will reward you in a variety of different ways. Some witch dominated buildings will grant you health, and stamina refills while others will give you in-game currency (Shell). Mana is also sometimes gifted as well.
Speaking of Mana you will collect this glowing green substance from fallen foes, and apply it along with collected Anima (enemy souls) to do things on your "Bucket List" at Metallia's house. With the appropriate amount of Mana, and Anima you can revive the residents, clear a little bit of your Karma level (negative reputation gained by attacking villagers), and even loot some extra Shell. In regards to "Karma" you'll find that the game has a "Behavior" system that keeps in check the aggression level of each NPC, and creature. These color coded dots shown on the in-game mini-map will alert you to which enemies, or NPCs are more aggressive towards you. While you cannot kill off a villager NPC you can piss them off to the point they'll chase after you, and attack you.
The "Stomach Stock" is another important menu based feature I forgot to mention early on. In "The Witch and the Hundred Knight" the Hundred Knight carries with him an unusual appetite. He has the ability to consume weapons, items, and even foes (for mini-game GigCal refills). He can consume the weapons, and items as well as trap them within the limited space in his stomach. It is in this "Stomach Stock" menu system that you'll be able to see all that the Hundred Knight has collected/consumed, and how much stomach space he has left. Within the "Stomach Stock" menu you'll find a large image of the beast's stomach along with gridded off blocks that are both empty, and marked with X's. Unfortunately for you only the empty spaces can be filled with items. As you search for treasure in the game's stages though you will occasionally happen upon a large chest called a "Black Box". Usually when you open these rarer treasure chests you'll get a "Stomach Stone" which removes one of the blocked blocks within the Hundred Knight's stomach. By collecting these Stomach Stone, and removing crossed out Stomach Stock spaces you can increase the number of things that can be collected on your outings.
About the graphics and sound ...
"The Witch and the Hundred Knight", in retrospect is an odd looking mixture of Tim Burton inspired visuals, simple yet effective anime character designs, and a haunting child-like soundtrack filled with the catchiest of tunes. The graphic details while unpolished at times continue to reflect the whimsical nature of the Halloween-like world in a manner not seen before in NISA titles. Some of the character sprites look damn near 3D, or claymation oriented instead of the traditional sprites that games like the world renown Disgaea series are known for. While this may not please some of you I personally found the new art style to be inviting, and fun to watch. Even the anime characters shown during dialogue interactions took on a different appearance than they usually do making for a visually pleasing, and complimentary addition to the already interesting gameplay. Metallia for example was lanky with protruding breasts further amplifying her lewd nature. The main protagonist (The Hundred Knight) which happened to be the smallest character of all also added a certain flair not visited in previous NISA titles.
In regards to audio I found myself humming, and singing along with the ambient child-like chant that plays out every time you visit your home base at Niblheene. I still can't get that song out of my head! As far as the rest of the soundtrack goes it's just as haunting, and as beautiful as that previously mentioned chant. You'll no doubt find as I did that the soundtrack has a sound about it that takes to heart the Halloween theme that inspired the game in the first place. Collectively the game's visuals, and soundtrack come together quite nicely in a wholly complimentary manner. I cannot think of one bad thing about the game other than the occasional hazy character sprite. It's gonna be one of those rare JRPG gems that will likely be hard to find the further the date passes beyond it's release.
Now for the verdict ...
Unlike IGN I'm gonna give you the thumbs up in regards to this game. I found my playthrough to be thoroughly enjoyable. Things like Metallia's naughty, and crude actions made for some enjoyably "Mature" moments within the plot's revealing. Aside from that I absolutely loved the gameplay despite the meter based restraints. Regardless of what the IGN journalist said the GigaCal ("Timer") does little to nothing in regards of limiting your playthrough on each stage/level. There are things put in place to counteract the GigaCal countdown. As such the loss of gathered items as a result of a GigaCal KO is not a definite thing, so long as you mind what's happening onscreen. Besides, you can always go back to completed levels later on to fully explore them, and take advantage of some of that traditional NISA level grinding. In regards to the soundtrack it was one of the more impressive video game soundtracks I've heard this year. The soundtrack was truly pleasing to the ears, and as I mentioned before I found myself singing/humming along to the Niblheene song. The added optional Japanese voice-overs will also be a pleasant surprise to all those Otaku, and Japanese faithfuls out there.
Aside from the impressive audio, and visual quality I also found that certain in-game easter eggs like FF's (Final Fantasy VII's) Biggs, and Wedge being a part of the story to be an awesome nod to the RPG genre in general. Naughty moments such as when Metallia's dealt with her Mother Malia were so ridiculously funny that one could not help but laugh at what had taken place. Metallia's conversations in general were filled with such well crafted profanity that I myself could not help but laugh from time to time. Seeing this evil witch spread her filth through her deeds, and words was a hilariously devilish thing to witness. I've never in my life seen an innocent looking character who was so mentally twisted.
I do realize the release date is still a long time away (Mar. 25th), but if you act fast enough you can still pre-order the collector's edition which comes with a Nendoroid anime figure of Metallia amongst other things. I definitely think the game is worth a buy, especially for NISA faithfuls, and fans of the RPG/JRPG genre. Be sure to take advantage of the pre-order!!! If you can't afford that though be sure to at least buy the game as it is worth it.