Coming up to the Halloween season, one might be looking for something appropriately eerie on the Switch eShop, and the word 'witch' on its own might immediately get the spook sensors reacting. Unless you have a severe phobia of cute anime characters and turn-based battling, it seems unlikely that Brave Dungeon + Dark Witch Story:COMBAT will serve up any frights, but its RPG elements do fill a missing niche on the increasingly crowded digital marketplace. With two games for the price of one, is it a scarily good deal?
The Legend of Dark Witch series is best known for its platforming action and Mega Man-inspired boss battles, but goes off-script in this case with a duo of titles boasting entirely different kinds of gameplay. Brave Dungeon originally released on 3DS, and a remastered version is packaged here with an entirely new card-based adventure titled Dark Witch Story:COMBAT. We'll be taking a look at both, as they're completely different experiences mechanically-speaking, but they do share some assets and are set within the same world. Previous Dark Witch knowledge definitely isn't necessary either as they're totally standalone, provided you don't mind missing out on some references.
Upon starting, the title menu recommends that players jump into Brave Dungeon first, and we suspect this is primarily because it's by far the more fleshed out of the two games. That can be something of a subjective term of course, and in this instance even the meatier of the two experiences is still pretty straightforward. Playing as a band of treasure hunters, you set off to clear out dungeons in search of magical loot, returning to town in order to resupply and upgrade your stats between adventures. It's a remarkably light and silly experience despite its emphasis on grinding and old-school RPG combat, with little in the way of plot or serious threat to distract from the cycle of battling and upgrading.
Rather than demanding concentration and dumping chunks of exposition over long play sessions, Brave Dungeon shaves the genre down to its bare essence, with bite-sized dungeon floors to conquer, simplistic party management and rapid progression onto the next challenge. You can approach the list of five dungeons available in any order, though there's a very clear difficulty curve in place to act as a kind of guide. Each dungeon is comprised of different floors which increase in difficulty incrementally, and the jump from even floor one to floor two can be substantial. The best way to progress is to feel out which floors seem most manageable based off the varying difficulty of enemy encounters, and it's easy to experiment as there's absolutely no penalty for dying. Each trip into a dungeon will reward you with knowledge and experience, regardless of whether you succeed or not.
This makes things extremely relaxed, as you don't need to worry about losing progress or even any purchased items; they recharge once you return to town. We found it was best to enter each dungeon in turn and clear out the first floor, before looping back into the initial dungeon and repeating this strategy through the second floor and beyond. There are no random encounters, as you'll always see enemies on the map and choose when to engage, so there's an element of speedrunning in choosing the most efficient route.
When it comes to battling it's a traditional turn-based affair with a party of three different characters. While the main hero Al is pretty much a permanent fixture, you can choose your two allies and - for the most part - they're all available to you right from the start. This means you can form all of your strategies from the get go with a mix of healers, technical fighters and all out brawlers. The range of attacks are typical enough, with some inflicting status effects, and a special revenge move available upon taking enough damange. Levelling up allows you to manually choose which skills to upgrade by spending Tres, this game's form of currency, and at a certain point you can also select which path you'd like each character to specialise in. A healer can learn a stronger heal spell for example, or you can always buff their attack instead and make them more of an all-rounder.
Whatever you choose, the battles never get too complicated and this is well represented by the general lighthearted mood and the cutesy sprites that bring a slew of humorous monsters to life. You'll mostly breeze through without paying much attention to strategy, and by simply brute forcing your way through encounters you'll eventually succeed. Enemies will always drop items, which can be used to craft accessories or fulfill request missions back in the town, earning yet more ways in which to level up and become stronger. The game rewards grinding because grinding is pretty much all there is. It's an RPG without any of the story, any of the character development, and gameplay at its most pure. You're handed all of your allies at the start - rather unceremoniously - all of the dungeons play out extremely similarly, and though there's plenty to do it's all basically the same gameplay cycle on repeat. There's a certain appeal to the simplicity of that, especially on a handheld system, but if you're looking for variety then there isn't much to be found here.
All in all, Brave Dungeon allows players to get as involved as they would like. Yes, it's possible to unlock secrets and delve into the more demanding and flexible New Game+ mode, crafting unique accessories and clearing the game 100%, but it's equally as possible to complete the main quest in a few hours by using basic strategies and just idly enjoying the game for what it is. There's something there for players to enjoy as long as they don't mind cutting the story out of the RPG experience entirely. The same unfortunately can't really be said for the second game in this collection.
Dark Witch Story:COMBAT would like to think of itself as a card battling game, and while you literally will use cards to do battle, we're still not sure it does enough to earn the title. Using monster sprites from Brave Dungeon, you collect cards and form of a team of three to do battle against an opponent, one pair at a time, and whoever wins the best of these three battles is the overall champ. Each monster card comes with its own set of basic stats and items can be equipped to boost them further before a match. There's a kind of weak framing for the plot based around climbing your way through the ranks of a battle arena, but your time will only ever be spent moving from one opponent to the next, earning more cards and swapping them in or out of your lineup of three as you see fit.
Repeatedly using the same card in battle will allow you to level up its stats, and the combined Syega rating (magic, essentially) of each card in your team will determine what items you can purchase before the fight. This would be a decent system in theory, however the player has zero input in battles once the initial setup is complete, and so you're left to rely on sheer luck as you sit back and hope that the numbers roll in your favour. Even aspects such as the rock/paper/scissors element that's attributed to each card is sorely underutilised, when taking advantage of a monster's weakpoint - using a scissor monster against paper for example - only earns you the chance to inflict a critical hit at a random moment. It isn't even possible to choose when to play each monster, as it's all entirely randomised. Sometimes you attack twice in one turn, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you'll win, sometimes you won't. It's frustratingly out of your control, and the game seems to rely on you just trying over and over again until things go in your favour.
Unfortunately, this just isn't a workable system. It's very possible to put the effort into card selection, choosing your items carefully, and then losing anyway just because you didn't cross your fingers hard enough. Defeating your opponents in single player never feels like a real victory, it just feels like you got lucky. Just in case you want even more of an element of chance, there's also a versus mode where you can set up a match against the CPU or a second player, where the cards are chosen at complete random using a capsule machine. There's no real benefit to this against a CPU, as you certainly can't train to become better at the game, but against a friend there's some merit to trying it once or twice, though we doubt anyone's interest will last much longer than that.
There's little else to be said about COMBAT, other than it's certainly the weaker of the two games on offer, so we'd advise against getting this package for it alone. Brave Dungeon has a lot more going on and is leagues more involving by comparison. If there is one thing that both games have going for them, it's how quickly you can jump from one to the other, zipping around menus with ease and mostly without any loading screens at all. The simple interface and retro graphics are appealing, and the character art is generally quite good, if a little one-note. Sound and music across both titles is solid, though given the repetitious nature of the games we often tuned out while playing and focused on something else in the background. In that kind of situation it's a great extra way to unwind and just dive in for some quick battles without any risk, but it definitely doesn't hold up as a big-screen experience unless you're particularly into the nitty gritty of its mechanics.
Brave Dungeon + Dark Witch Story:COMBAT is an uneven package. Stripped bare of any superfluous elements, one game presents a decent dungeon crawl while the other relies far too much on luck to make it feel worthwhile. For anyone who enjoys the grind of turn-based combat, un-tethered to any arbitrary plot, then there's certainly enough here to justify the budget price, and the additional card game can be viewed as a bonus distraction or mini-game. If the basic mechanics hook you in then there's hours of snappy gameplay to enjoy, but the sheer repetition will potentially turn away anyone still on the fence.