Of all the sequels to suddenly burst onto the 3DS eShop, Witch & Hero 2 is undoubtedly one of the least-expected. Arriving three years after the underwhelming original, this has surely provided ample time and a great opportunity to improve on the limited gameplay, dull visuals and annoying repetition that so plagued the duo's first adventure. Magic! Turns out that might just have been us feeling optimistic, however, and what we're presented with instead is the exact same game as before with one or two little tweaks to justify calling it a sequel at all.
Picking up a year after the original, the Hero and Witch are challenged to a battle by an evil Demon King. Surprisingly, the supposed dream team are immediately defeated, which prompts a completely different Hero and Witch to go and rescue them. Our new Hero is also immediately killed by the very first monster he sees, forcing the Witch to use forbidden magic in order to resurrect him. She offers up half of her own life in order to do so, meaning that before they've even started, their fates are now linked forever as one...or something. The total incompetence of the entire cast thus far is kind of hilarious, though we're not entirely sure that's intentional. In the grand scheme of things the story is really just standard set dressing to move things along anyway, and that's just fine. 'There's an evil King, defeat him'.
Playing as the new Hero and Witch, things will seem very familiar to anyone who has experience with the first game. Each level takes place on a single, static screen viewed from a top-down perspective, and to advance you'll need to defeat several waves of enemies which culminate in a larger boss monster. Along the way you'll pick up gold and monster blood to upgrade your stats and unleash magic powers respectively, until you've beaten all 30 stages and unlock a couple of extra modes to test your skills further. It's been described as an RPG-lite, but its far more basic and arcade-y than that label implies.
All pretty similar stuff then, and we could count the gameplay changes on one hand with fingers to spare, but the main difference is that you'll now be controlling both characters simultaneously. The Hero is controlled using the D-Pad, and the Witch uses the A,B,X,Y buttons. This alters the tower defence dynamic of the original, as the Witch can now move around freely instead of being trapped in one spot for the entire level. We did eventually get used to controlling two separate characters at once, and must admit that it made for an interesting and unique challenge during the first half of the game, especially as they'll often need to be moved in opposite directions. You'll need to multi-task to survive! Depending on which system model you use, constantly pressing all four 3DS face buttons as well as the D-Pad does result in some annoying hand cramps, so be careful.
The Witch is slower and far more vulnerable than the Hero, meaning that enemies will still target her as a priority. With that in mind the immortal knight is nobly charged with defending her by clumsily bumping against enemies in a miniature war of attrition. He can die over and over, but if the Witch loses all her health even once, then you're forced to restart the level and try again. Most of your time will therefore be spent clearing a path to safety using the Hero, and maneuvering his ally out of harm's way.
Having said that, the Witch comes with quite a few tricks up her own sleeve, not least of which her magic abilities, which can now be charged up from the very first level by collecting monster blood. With a full meter she can unleash an attack to help clear the area, opting for a stronger fire attack or a wind attack with better range. After unlocking a Holy Sword upgrade her magic is powered up even further, and fireballs can utterly destroy massive groups of enemies while completely tanking the frame rate. On top of that she's also able to open treasure chests with one tap (the Hero takes far longer to do so), and can heal a fallen Hero much faster by standing near him. The Witch is so powerful in fact that grinding for EXP is barely necessary any more - a definite positive - but we still never felt as though we were really in control of anything. Winning or losing is a bit of a coin toss, based upon how many items you happen to come across and how many spells you manage to unleash.
When it comes to presentation, sprite work is as clean, colourful and downright twee as ever, which would almost be appealing were it not for the fact that most of it has been blatantly carried over and reused from the original. Identical enemy designs, familiar menus and bland environments mean that nothing feels fresh or new. It would have been fantastic to see at least some semblance of creativity shine through with the level design, such as causing the characters to visibly slow down in water, or leave footprints in the mud, but the Hero still won't go so far as to bother swinging his sword. Even the map screen, complete with meaningless multiple paths, bounces you around without any sense of overall cohesion or adventure. At the very least, we suppose the retro music is pretty decent.
We completed the main game in just under 2 hours, with the aforementioned bonus modes unlocking thereafter. Advanced Mode makes things more difficult, a Wave mode gives you endless enemies to take care of, and a Time Attack lets you set a high score against a time limit. Depending on your taste and patience, there may be some simple enjoyment to be found across all these modes, but after three or four levels you've seen close to everything the game has to offer, with no substantial changes to the formula as you continue on. No new obstacles are introduced, save for a few projectile-lobbing enemies, and each flat stage plays the exact same as the last. Our highlight was actually the final boss fight, which genuinely feels different and fun, but it's a frustrating case of too little, too late. It might be alright for a quick play session while waiting on a bus, but it's too unrefined and haphazard for us to feel like there's any brilliance to its simplicity. There are titles available for free out there with far more worth.
A grim example of a sequel that doesn't do enough to improve on the flaws of the original, Witch & Hero 2 mirrors far more than it should without bringing anything truly exciting to the table. Controlling two characters at once is an interesting challenge at first, but the game feels so creatively bankrupt that it becomes difficult to remain focused in anything other than small doses. If it really seems like something you'd enjoy then we could perhaps recommend it as a very simple time waster at a low price, but even in that category there are better options to be found on the eShop.