Friday 1 June 2018

Review: Little Witch Academia: Chamber of Time (Reviewed on PS4, also on PC)

Little Witch Academia: Chamber of Time’s demo showed me some great things that were the reason I decided to pick it up. It introduced me to the series charming characters, a side-scrolling dungeon crawler that combined JRPG elements into something of its own and a fairly interesting story premise. In its full game however, the unique, quirky JRPG I expected Chamber of Time to be felt different, with its excessively repetitive boss battles making the experience drag on longer than it needed on top of dungeons that feature great ideas and potential that are never fully realised. While it has charming characters and enjoyable story moments that have made me interested in Little Witch Academia’s anime, Chamber of Time’s repetitive design unfortunately didn’t keep me under its spell for very long.

Little Witch Academia: Chamber of Time is set in Luna Nova Magic Academy during Summer vacation. The charming protagonist of both the game and its anime Akko is introduced getting detention that is supposed to have her cleaning the school library until vacation is over, but things get interesting after Akko puts away a mysterious book in the library that opens up a secret door. Beyond the door her and her friends find a mysterious chamber with a strange clock and a link to the dungeon world and after exiting the chamber, the next day they find that the first day of summer is repeating itself. Akko and her friends together decide to explore these dungeons together and the school’s seven wonders to try and get time back to normal and make sure Akko doesn’t get expelled for accidentally messing with the flow of time.
It’s during this story that as someone with little knowledge of its anime series I got to know Little Witch Academia’s charming group of characters and they really were the main highlight of this experience. Since the game gives a background on the general story of its anime and each character at the start of Chamber of Time, for the remainder of the experience I could enjoy watching the scenes of fun banter and moments with Akko and friends throughout, with quirky characters like the sadistic mushroom-loving Sucy, the energetic Amanda and the silent, yet visually-expressive mechanic genius Constanze all adding a different kind of charm and their own amusing moments to the plot. Akko herself also makes a great protagonist and made me interested in watching more of her antics in the animated series with her expressive personality making all the magical moments in Chamber of Time much more amusing and whenever there was one of the comical animated cutscenes, Akko was usually the reason why it was so great to watch. Looking at the game as whole, the fun moments Akko and crew bring really brought this experience to life and for me were the saving grace of an imperfect gameplay experience.

Starting with the positive, as I said in my first impressions video about Chamber of Time, the 3D side-scrolling gameplay with boss battles and treasure hidden towards the back and sides of its dungeon fields make it stand out from other side-scrolling dungeon crawlers I’ve played, especially in its first dungeon. My favourite dungeons were ones like the first where it took advantage of its depth of field by putting rooms in the back and the other dungeon I really liked used platforming elements and hidden traps that kept things interesting as things I generally enjoy in dungeon crawlers. This is where the colourful magic and ideas in Chamber of Time shine best, as since they’re fairly simple with there only being three types of regular attacks that can be used without MP and MP attacks having a cooldown time, I preferred the combat when it was mixed with something else, although not all dungeons mixed it with something good.
The rest of the dungeons’ backdrops are more visually beautiful, however start to feel unnecessarily tricky and repetitive quickly due to overuse of each dungeon’s obstacle and gimmick. Each dungeon has its own trick or mystery to guess and figure out which is kind of cool in theory, but they’re repeated far too much with not much else to keep things interesting. If there’s a blizzard pushing you back on the path, expect to be waiting behind pillars for awhile until it goes away each time. If there’s fireballs raining down, you’ll probably learn how to dodge them and have the rest of the dungeon essentially be a hack and slash. And in a personally infuriating example in a mine, you can expect to be standing on a mine train waiting for a direction choice dialogue to pop for far longer than expected to be allowed to fight its boss and any wrong turns because of wrong choice or accidental magic fire sending you on a slow, round path before you could put in all your choices again, with at least a minute of inactivity in between at times. Perhaps this repetitiveness in dungeons would’ve been less noticeable if the battle system was more complicated, with elemental weaknesses rarely being an issue making its battles in between these traps not feel much better. It’s a shame as I really liked some of the ideas of the dungeons - the mine one I mentioned could have been perfectly interesting if it added something else to make it more engaging or was faster. But in its current form, I felt like was mostly dodging the same traps to coerce the game into letting me continue its story, which isn’t a feeling I’ve had with a game for a long time and the fact that it made me replay these dungeons more than once in its story campaign didn’t help me become any fonder of them.

As the cherry on top of an overall repetitive dungeon exploration, I found a similar feeling in each dungeon’s boss battle unfortunately. They suffer almost the fate same its core dungeons do: their bosses often attack in certain patterns and once you work that out, you’re merely chipping away at them until their health hits zero, and sometimes, this can be for a while. To be fair to this game, for my first run through of each dungeon, I had forgotten to change and upgrade my equipment so I wasn’t do much damage, but this says something interesting about the dungeons that I’m still not sure makes things any better. I could chip away at them with my F grade equipment and win very slowly or when I had better equipment blast through them quite quickly because I understood what to do, whether it was jumping in a circle and pressing X at the right time or hitting their target area over and over again and it was mostly just a waiting game for that weak point to appear, as once you work out how the boss attacks, keeping health isn't much of an issue. There were a couple of special attacks that were fun to use like Akko’s Shiny Arc that were good in both packing a bigger punch in battles and adding some visual satisfaction to them, but other than that most boss battles started off fun while I learned their patterns but lost their spark quickly as they repeated them.
With my strong feelings about its dungeons and boss battles and my positive feelings about the story, there is something I landed mostly in the middle about and that is Chamber of Time’s side quests. There are well over 50 quests hiding around the big Luna Nova Magic Academy and they provide more amusing moments of story partnered with little fetch quests and rewards on top of getting to know this world and its characters a little better. These bite-sized moments full of the charm I came to expect from the main group were a delight to play between story moments and with most of the ones I found being fairly short, they serve as a good way to take up time while waiting for story events to become available on the map. The only thing that’s a shame is that I felt reluctant to do many of them on my first playthrough as I noticed that even if after I did them, they still appeared on the map unless they’re a main character quest, making it hard for me to tell which ones I’d done and which ones I hadn’t. In saying that, these quests may be enjoyable enough to make me consider coming back to Chamber of Time in future despite my feelings about its dungeons. I wouldn’t necessarily want to replay the whole game to come back to them, but I would happily use one of my earlier save files to come back and see more of them if I feel liking seeing more of Akko’s amusing antics.

As a part of unlocking quests, there is also the game clock that influences when events appear on the map, including its main story ones. This can be a pro and con depending on how well the game explains how to find certain quests and this varies at different parts of the story. My first main story quest in Chamber of Time showed the bad side of this mechanic where I found myself desperately running around the school to progress the story, only to find that I was looking in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes the NPCs give hints as to where someone will be, but other times it can be a case of using the rest function or doing quests until what’s needed to be done finally shows up on the map at a different time. I did like this timer for sidequests though as at different times of day, you could find different quests and it did make a nice background while playing through the story to see different people appearing as the ever-repeating day progressed. While the time mechanic is imperfectly executed like a lot of the things in Little Witch Academia: Chamber of Time, this mechanic, its gorgeous soundtrack and the unique animation style made the school portion of Chamber of Time mostly enjoyable and while it doesn’t fully make up for its dungeon portion, it kept Chamber of Time from feeling like a bad game and more like an okay one.
In its current form, Little Witch Academia: Chamber of Time needs something to make its 25 hour main story a more engaging and comfortable experience. Whether it was the lack of explanations and challenges in dungeons or its habit of making you replay and run to the same places as you try to progress it, it’s hard to recommend it because these things weren’t as good as they could have been. The charm of Little Witch Academia’s characters saves a portion of this game and moments with them were the ones I tried to focus on as I worked my way through its story campaign, but the other stuff in between them made me wonder if it was worth it. Perhaps Chamber of Time is trying to emphasise the feeling of repetitiveness to give us a true feeling of what Akko and her friends are going through with time repeating itself, but even with the small chance this was the way the game was designed, I still feel like it was missing depth or something to make this process more fun in the middle of it. At the end of the day, the dungeons of Little Witch Academia: Chamber of Time had too many portions that felt like wasted time and I hope if anyone ever makes another Little Witch Academia game, they do a better job of expressing the fun characters and world of Little Witch Academia in a fun way it actually deserves.

Score: 5.9/10
The anime is probably better?

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Will you play Little Witch Academia: Chamber of Time? If you already have, what did you think of it?
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