Unfinished Business is NME’s weekly column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access games. This week, Rick Lane follows the candy trail of Little Witch In The Woods.
Full disclosure before I pour out your bubbling weekly measure of Early Access analysis – Little Witch In The Woods is 100 per cent not a game made for me. It features cute pixel art, cuter anime characters, and sickeningly cute anthropomorphised animals, none of which I’m especially into because I am a thirtysomething goblin man brought up on a diet of first-person shooters and world-conquering strategy games. I’m also not that much into witches or top-down adventure games/RPGs. In fact, the only way this game could be less my bag is if it had a broomstick-racing minigame.
But sometimes it’s good to step outside your comfort zone, to peer over the garden fence and see what your neighbour who listens to experimental jazz and brews his own kombucha is up to. And while I can’t profess to love Little Witch In The Woods, I am glad that I tried it (which is more than I can say for the time I tried kombucha).
The game’s over-elaborate opening puts you in the role of an apprentice witch transitioning from regular witch school to a sort-of witch finishing academy, which apparently necessitates a days-long train journey. Impulsive and impatient, our witch leaps at the first opportunity to disembark the train when it is delayed for unspecified reasons, venturing into the local woods to explore. Here, she discovers an abandoned witch’s cottage complete with underground alchemy lab, and decides to set up her own little potion-brewing business.
I’m not sure why Little Witch In The Woods opens like this, but it’s indicative of the game’s more general approach to storytelling and plot. It’s not badly written, in fact the script is rich in character and frequently witty (I particularly like the witch’s world-weary talking hat, who futilely chides the witch like an exhausted parent trying to stop their toddler from repeatedly jumping on their face). But it does feel slightly off, as if penned by someone who has an excellent, but not innate understanding of English. The issue is partly exacerbated by the sheer amount of dialogue standing between you and the proper start of the game. I’m happy to get to know these characters, but it currently takes far too long to get off that train.
Once you’re gallivanting around the forest, however, Little Witch In The Woods reveals itself as an intriguing blend of Zelda-ish exploration and light survival simulation. The mechanics revolve chiefly around brewing different types of potions, used in ways that range from healing and giving yourself special abilities, to opening up new areas of the map. Brewing potions involves collecting the right ingredients from plants and animals in the environment, then processing them in your brewery (the game calls it a workshop, which, again, feels slightly amiss as a descriptor).
What I mainly like about Little Witch In The Woods is that its crafting system involves some proper process. First, you need to manually identify plants and animals that can be used in potion-making, then harvest the raw materials from them (don’t worry, no animals are harmed in the potion-making process). Returning to your brewery, you need to extract the essence from those ingredients by pressing them in an extractor, before tossing them into your cauldron. Even at this stage, brewing potions isn’t simply a case of pressing a button. You need to ensure your cauldron is at the right temperature, and that you stir the mixture in the right direction.
The whole system is well thought through, making for an engaging crux around which to explore the world and get to know its various inhabitants. And it’s an undeniably inviting little world. The pixel art is attractive and detailed, and the warmth of the characters shines through the slightly garbled writing. One aspect I’m less keen on, however, is the control scheme. I’m not sure if Little Witch In The Woods is designed primarily with controllers in mind, but on keyboard the button layout feels entirely unnatural. For example, your primary interaction button is ‘Z’, which is the PC gaming equivalent of putting the light-switch on the ceiling.
Developer Sunny Side Up (what a great dev name) reckons Little Witch In The Woods will be in Early Access until sometime in 2023. During that period, the studio plans to add three extra chapters to the game, expanding the playtime from five to twenty hours, and adding new activities, regions, items and characters. The current Early Access version is priced at £12.39, which, if you’re into lighthearted top-down adventures with exceedingly cute characters, makes it a very reasonable prospect. Personally, I don’t think I’ll be returning to this little witch’s wood, but I also don’t regret paying it a visit.