CIRCLE Entertainment has been a prolific publisher on DSiWare, bringing to the fore its own titles and also helping small developers share their work with the DSi/3DS audience. With so many titles against its name there are some that are excellent, as well as others that we'd sooner forget. Witch & Hero arrives on the 3DS eShop and falls firmly into the latter category, and feels dreadfully misplaced on the platform.
The basic concept of Witch and Hero is that you progress through a number of one-screen stages both protecting and utilising the Witch — who has been turned to stone — under your care. From a top down perspective, you try to prevent creatures from attacking the fair lady and, after a few stages, have the opportunity to collect blood that revives her for a short period — during which she does her best to assist you. It's a form of action tower-defence in that sense, and the levels end once you defeat boss monsters — typically just blown-up pixels of standard enemies — after a couple of minutes of battling.
If first impressions count as much as some say, then this one gets off to a very bad start. Despite being named a hero, your character doesn't actually use his sword and shield in any meaningful way, but rather bumps into enemies to kill them. You don't use any buttons to attack, but just run with the Circle Pad or D-pad and bash into enemies, and if you have time you can bash them in their weak-spot for a quicker kill — typically from behind. There's some strategy to picking what enemies to push first, but in later levels you're just fudging the Circle Pad against enemies, hoping they die before you do.
Because that's the thing about our hero; not only is he so incompetent that he doesn't swing the sword, but his health goes down every time he bumps into an enemy, so he's guaranteed to faint. You are tasked with reviving him by wiggling the Circle Pad around, bringing to mind the greatest stick-busting sins of Mario Party and athletics games on the Nintendo 64.
So there's a bit of strategy to dying, too. In addition to aimlessly shoving enemies with your shield — there's no animation when you hit an enemy, so we assume that's what he's doing — you collect as much money and blood as possible from fallen foes. As already mentioned, if you give the blood to the witch she comes alive briefly and uses one of two magic abilities to help in the battle; the storm ability is wide-ranging but fairly weak, whereas the fireball is more powerful and the aim can be moved with the shoulder buttons. In later levels she is absolutely invaluable, though the screen becomes so congested with enemies that your hero simply bounces around like a pinball when you try and get back to revive her.
But getting to those later stages is painful. The most egregious sin of this game is its balancing; you don't have the tools to be particularly skillful, and so you're left to grind and level up. Experience that you collect levels up your character's health, while money is spent in a shop to strengthen five key powers: the sword (which boosts attacks despite the fact it isn't visibly used), the shield, the hero's speed, and finally the witch's two special powers. You level these up, and unlock a "Holy Sword" power up that can be activated in battle, but in order to do this you grind, and you grind, and then you grind some more.
Grinding is an acceptable part of some games, but not when the gameplay is this redundant. In some stages the odds are simply stacked against you with masses of powerful enemies. You can try everything but the witch will be destroyed and you have to start again. You still retain half of your experience and money in a failed mission, so you repeat until you've bought enough upgrades and boosted your character sufficiently to overcome the odds. Despite our best efforts we had to repeat some stages around a dozen times, all the while improving our abilities, before progressing. When all you're doing is running around a screen bouncing off enemies or treasure chests — in some cases flying to the opposite end of the screen, for reasons we're not entirely sure of — there's little motivation to push on and unlock the Trial and Infinity modes at the end of the campaign.
Witch & Hero is a bad game, and in some senses reminds us of the worst of DSiWare's legacy. Even if a title tries to sell over-simplicity and crudity by adopting an 8-bit aesthetic, that doesn't excuse lazy, unimaginative design and execution. This lacks strategy and skill, and is as mindless as they come; playing Witch & Hero feels like a chore, and it would be served better as a free PC flash game than a paid-for 3DS eShop release.