As both a developer and a publisher, CIRCLE Entertainment has been paramount to the rising indie games scene on Nintendo handhelds. Starting on the DSiWare digital service and eventually moving forward to 3DS eShop titles, CIRCLE has managed to have its hand in around 40 releases since 2010. With that many games in its lineup, it’s not surprising that titles from the Hong Kong-based company have ranged all the way from excellent to utter disappointment. Enter The Legend of Dark Witch, CIRCLE’s latest translation project that, fortunately for everyone involved, is on par with some of its better work.

In the lore of The Legend of Dark Witch, the humans of the world receive their magic from objects called the Syega Crystals. The story doesn’t delve too deeply into what this actually entails, but it does say that the crystals were stolen, and that’s enough of a plot device to get the ball rolling for player character Zizou. After learning of the crystals’ absence, Zizou decides to travel the world, running through six stages with uniquely themed environments to take down their bosses. Each of the six stages can be completed in any order, with more of the story and a new attack ability becoming available after each victory.

Drawing some pretty obvious inspiration from Mega Man and adding elements of exploration and shoot ‘em up gameplay, The Legend of Dark Witch is a 2D side-scrolling run and gun that can at times be relentlessly difficult. Even on the easiest setting, this game provides a significant challenge for its players, especially when fighting bosses. Featuring large sprites, colourful environments and an upbeat soundtrack to help set the tone, this title blends bubblegum with brutality to create a game that looks like it’s from the modern era but plays like it was designed with the classics in mind.

Each stage is mostly linear, but quickly scrolling through any level makes it apparent that there are certain areas that are unreachable in a single playthrough. Upon defeating an enemy, a swarm of butterflies – or Tres – will emerge and immediately fly toward your character and automatically be collected; Tres are a form of currency that can be used to upgrade existing abilities or unlock new ones. As new abilities are unlocked and upgraded new areas become reachable, allowing for a more complete exploratory experience.

Though the campaign can be played through in just over an hour – mostly depending on your difficulty setting – there is a surprising amount of reason to return for both completionists and casual players. Replayability not only comes from the desire to collect both Syega Crystals hidden in each stage, but it also comes from the necessity to collect more Tres in order to upgrade your weapons and abilities. Stages must be played multiple times in order to acquire all of the resources necessary to fully upgrade your character and collect all of the crystals, but this actually turns the short length of the campaign into a blessing rather than a curse. Having to play through stages multiple times feels like less of a burden when you consider that each can be completed in just a few minutes, especially when you’re more acquainted with the landscape and comfortable speeding through.

Beyond the campaign, The Legend of Dark Witch has little to offer. Playing through once unlocks a new character and extra features including a museum and a shop to buy additional abilities for your characters, but the stages remain exactly the same. There are no new options or multiplayers modes, leaving this as a strictly solo affair. Replaying the game on a higher difficulty setting is one way to get more out of it, but there is still a lack of any real changes.

In spite of all that The Legend of Dark Witch has going for it, there are a few technical difficulties that hold it back from being truly great. Minor complaints such as translation errors and unused stereoscopic 3D leave the game playable, but there are larger issues that occasionally rear their ugly head. This biggest problem we faced is that, on a few separate occasions, our attack button would simply stop working. This issue would only last for a few seconds at a time, usually remedied by repeatedly tapping the attack button, but it did cause us to take unnecessary damage on more than one occasion. It’s not a big enough problem to call this “game breaking,” but it absolutely is annoying and something that players shouldn’t have to work around.

Conclusion

With The Legend of Dark Witch, CIRCLE Entertainment has once again published a game that is better than it has any right being. There are a few flaws and a general lack of polish, but these complaints are hardly enough to deter fans of the genre away from this surprisingly fulfilling entry. Despite its light and colourful exterior, The Legend of Dark Witch manages to be an entertaining platformer that can be difficult enough to hold the attention of even the more serious gamers out there.