The astounding success of From Software’s Dark Souls franchise has created a new subgenre in gaming: The Souls-like. While many have accepted, if not embraced, imitators such as Code Vein and Nioh, there are also indie developers working on their own Souls-like games that may not be as well known. One of these that caught my eye was Little Witch Nobeta, an Early Accesss title that is Dark Souls, but with a cute anime girl.
The game’s story is vague, and I am as of yet uncertain if this is due to deliberate mystery-building on part of the Japanese developer, or if the struggling translation is to blame. What I do know is that we play as a little girl with magical powers who has come to a mysterious castle to figure out just who she is and what lies in her destiny. All she knows is that she must seek out a throne and that a cat will guide her on her way.
Unlike the Souls games themselves, much of the story is told in dialogue sequences between Nobeta and the black cat, who turns out to be kind of a jerk. It’s fairly stiff and you’ll run into a few typos, but thus far it has managed to set up an interesting storyline and I like how Nobeta is actually a character here, and quite an expressive one at that. She is just a little girl being forced to go on this big adventure while every plot character deliberately and blatantly refuses to answer her questions or acknowledge her feelings. We’re tapping into something good here and I hope the developer can cultivate and refine the plot further in upcoming releases.
Combat is very different from what you’d expect as well, as it focuses primarily on magic. Nobeta can learn various types of (elemental) magic that she switches between through a radial menu mapped to TAB, with each spell feeling more like an FPS weapon. Arcane is this reliable straight beam that does a bunch of damage, ice is rapid-fire and steady damage, fire is for short-ranged heavy-hitting. Each spell is very versatile and can be charged up for a more powerful attack or to buff yourself.
This is further improved by a simple melee combo that recovers mana when used on enemies, forcing you to get up close and personal if you want to keep throwing your best spells around. This comes with some familiar features inspired by the Souls games, such as a reliable dodge-roll and a counter-attack if you time your own attack just as an enemy strikes. Additionally, there are consumable items and Nobeta can jump around freely.
It comes together as a dynamic combat system that is constantly fun to use. Magic feels powerful to throw around and the game generally lets you do so as much as you please. There’s no penalty for throwing powerful spells at standard enemies as mana recovers through melee attacks or over time. I will, however, say that the game errs a bit too much on the easy side of things. I had to set aside time to practice counter-attacks and dodging in melee range because it was incredibly easy to blast my way through the levels and not get any practice in for those mechanics until I hit a boss-fight and suddenly needed them.
Regular enemies don’t pose much of a challenge, but I did have some trouble navigating the game’s levels themselves. The artstyle and atmosphere of the game are great; very anime-like and Nobeta is a cute protagonist, kinda like a blend of Louise from Familiar of Zero and Recette from Recettear. The level-design is, however, very bland with not enough waypoints to make navigation fun.
Most of the times, you follow a decently linear path forward, but it branches all the time and often presents you with locked doors or puzzles you can’t yet solve, leading me to believe there’ll be some Metroidvania touches in there. At one point I found a secret area, which then led me on an enormous one-way detour that somehow still ended up getting me to the next story segment, but I had no idea how to get back to where the road first forked and had gone for an hour and a half without ever finding any of the statues where you save and exchange your “soul essence” for items and stat upgrades.
Of course, I then fell into lava and instantly died, making me even more lost as I had to backtrack several areas through puzzles I already solved.
I feel that Little Witch Nobeta is a promising game and I’d say it’s worth giving a try already if you feel like supporting the developer, but at the top of my wishlist would be streamlined level-design. I am fine with a few side-rooms and bonus puzzles, but everything past the second area was anxiety-inducing and confusing. The game would also benefit from a more polished translation, improved tutorial messages, and clearer timing for the counter-attack.
Its magic-based gameplay is a major selling point and elevates Little Witch Nobeta far beyond being a mere knock-off. Its an inspired game with challenging bosses and an interesting story, only lending a few side-mechanics from the Souls series like the dodging and a currency that is lost when you die.