Older gamers might look at Dress to Play: Cute Witches! and see echoes of the Cotton series, or Magical Chase. Cute witches (lowercase) are certainly no strangers to shoot-'em-ups, and this game aims to combine a simplified (and bullet-free) version of that side-scrolling action with a dress-up element for character customization. In concept, dressing up a character and then seeing them star in a simple action game could be perfect for younger players. Unfortunately, while the action side of the equation is flawed but still enjoyable, the dress-up fun promised beforehand falls almost completely flat.
The customization in Dress to Play: Cute Witches! is, to put it mildly, lacking. The options on offer would seem paltry in almost any context, but for a game with "Dress to Play" in the title, they're almost criminally limited. There are a total of 14 tops and 18 bottoms, and a handful of accessories; that includes colour swaps, so that a blue skirt and a pink skirt in the same style have to be unlocked separately. And yes, those totals are after unlocking everything in the game; as a novice broom-flyer, your pickings are even slimmer.
Worse is the fact that there's very little variety in the items available, and sadly nothing about any of the outfits in this game is particularly "witchlike". Sure, these pint-sized pythonesses have enough command of witchcraft to fly around on a broom, but they're not certainly dressing to prove it. The most magical accessories available are cat ears in various colours, and most items of clothing stick steadfastly to the anime schoolgirl style.
Further stymying the fun of customization is the interface, which is slow to respond and presented poorly. You'll have to scroll through items in each category one-by-one, re-tapping the left or right button each time; a list would've made the process much easier, and seems like a no-brainer with such a small number of outfits.
Once you've accessorized your sorceress, you can head out into the Adventure mode, and happily things pick up from there. The game plays like a junior version of a side-scrolling shooter, minus any shooting, and while it's extremely simple, it's actually pretty fun. You'll fly endlessly to the right, avoiding enemies and trying to stay alive as long as possible. Your witch has a gas gauge (don't ask) which depletes over time or when you hit an enemy, and is refilled by picking up stars. There's a nice variety of enemy types, and each group has their own signature movement pattern, which is helpful for young players. Octopi float from the bottom up, goldfish swim slowly from the right, large Boo-like clouds just sit patiently in your way, and so on.
Hands make the rounds of a giant analogue clock on the bottom screen in fast forward, and the background's progression from day to night and back to day again keeps pace with this timepiece. Each time the clock strikes midnight, you'll see a different "Magic Hour" - a constellation announced with a charming gong - and receive a heart power-up to restore your gas gauge. These moments are great visual rewards for lasting through another day, and add a lot to the "just a little further" feel that keeps you going.
While it's fun in spite of its faults, the execution does leave something to be desired. The controls are manageable if a bit floaty, and the collision detection is consistent but odd - your witch is a bit smaller than she seems for enemy-avoidance purposes. A larger problem is the framerate, which takes a dive with the 3D effect turned on, or when there's much of anything flying by on the screen. It's a shame, as quieter sections of sky give brief glimpses of a much faster-moving game, and the cloud-on-cloud layered backgrounds were definitely designed to be seen in 3D. Finally, while the randomly generated layout keeps things from feeling too familiar with each replay, it's not a perfect system; stars are sometimes placed directly behind unmoving enemies, and that can be a real bummer when you're minutes from midnight and need a quick pick-me-up.
Graphically, the game takes its cues from simple, Flash-based games, with puppet-esque animation of colourful 2D figures. The art style is cheery, and while much of it will come down to personal preference, the character design does lead to a hilariously poor implementation of "shoes". There's only one musical track to accompany the action, and it's an appropriately airy affair with some non-verbal vocal work that fits the flying well, while the menu music is filled with nicely soothing music-box melodies.
Flaws aside, Dress to Play: Cute Witches! does have some nice touches, especially in its achievements system. There are 50 different achievements, and completing each one will unlock a new item to customize your character with. As previously stated, the items themselves aren't much to get excited about, but at least there's a fun way to earn them. The challenge set also strikes a good balance between accidental (play the adventure mode 5 times, accumulate 15 minutes of play, etc.) and skill-based (see 3 Magical Hours in one go, pass 300,000 points, etc.) goals, so less experienced players won't be left out of the action and more accomplished witches still have something to strive for. There's also a high scores table, and, as a welcome addition for southpaw sorceresses, the face buttons can be used for movement.
Dress to Play: Cute Witches! is a game that attempts to combine two different styles into one experience, but ends up feeling half baked. The combination of character customization and side-scrolling shooter 'lite' is a solid concept for younger players, and could make a great game with better execution. As it stands, there's definitely still enjoyment to be found here, though it's only in the latter half of that combination: the simple fun of the flying sequences could be enough to carry the game for some players, but the severely limited dress-up side of the experience will leave fashion-conscious enchantresses disappointed.