We love a side-quest. It’s the reason we’re eighty hours into The Witcher 3 and Skyrim without actually finishing either of them. For us, one part of it is the satisfaction of levelling far beyond what the game expects. The other is exhausting the game of every last thing to do. When the game map is empty of markers, we know it’s a job well done.
Little Witch in the Woods – at least in its Xbox Game Preview state – feels like a game solely constructed out of side quests. A main quest is dangled in front of your nose like a carrot, before it’s taken away. You are a trainee witch named Ellie, looking to start an apprenticeship in the town of Highlion, and you’re on a train journey to get there. Except, thanks to a sequence of errors, you never quite make it, and spend the rest of the time procrastinating about whether to bother returning.
Which means side quests. Lots and lots of side quests. Some randomly generated, some self-generated and the rest cherry-picked for you by needy villagers. And none of these quests feel main quest-worthy. We made sweets for people, cleared some weeds, sent letters and retrieved little boys from spiderwebs. It’s Sidequestville, population: lots. And you know what? In the evenings it took to complete it in its current state, we didn’t regret it.
While Little Witch in the Woods is at pains to point out that it’s a small piece of a bigger whole (more chapters are purportedly to follow), it’s a blooming large piece that takes six or seven hours to slot in. We almost question the developer’s vision in making Little Witch in the Woods much bigger than it is now. It’s rammed with stuff, and adding more to the cart could lead it to becoming overstuffed.
It bears a resemblance to Wytchwood, a slightly more polished, quirkier version of Little Witch in the Woods. You stumble across a witch’s house and claim squatter’s rights, using it as a hub for making potions. Its basement almost resembles a game of Overcooked!: different alchemical stations help you with the various stages of making a potion. And beyond the house is a world of flora and fauna that you can harvest for ingredients.
That world has a day/night cycle, with ingredients coming and going according to their waking hours. A witch’s journal offers hints towards scavenging certain materials, and there’s a lovely scribing mechanic where you can scribble down information about any new curio you find. Atelier fans will be right at home.
And while Ellie is pretty far off the main quest path, there are still villagers to help and perform quests for. Most of these quests revolve around rebuilding a village, with carpenters and smiths returning once you’ve made a cozy bed for them. And that’s it: you wile away the time chatting to your talking hat, and slowly upgrade the home you’ve stolen for yourself (at least you are giving something back).
As mentioned, Little Witch in the Woods is an Xbox Game Preview title, which gives us hope, as it has a singular problem that feels like it could be resolved with a couple of flicks of a wand.
Little Witch in the Woods wants to make you work for its side bits. To complete quests you need potions; to make potions you need ingredients; and to get ingredients you need to be in the right part of its world, at precisely the right time, potentially with specific bait. There are numerous steps in its process, and often you need to complete that process multiple times for a single benefit. Enhancements to your inventory and witch’s house are borderline essential, but you have to grind and grind some more to unlock them.
As of now, the balance just doesn’t feel right, and it will be fascinating to observe over the next few months to see if anything changes. Because the grind is a lot, and it’s exacerbated by a stamina bar. Each action you take in Little Witch in the Woods, from catching butterflies to rubbing lizard bellies, uses up that stamina. Run out and you will need to sleep or nap. But since some ingredients are purely nocturnal, you can reach nighttime with no stamina left and be forced to wait an ingame 24-hours to do it all over again. It’s a bit like being a parent: even getting to the evening is stamina sapping and will likely just mean popping to bed.
The repeatable missions, which are just about the only way to make cash, are locked to two per day. It means the grind is spread out even further. Even if you wanted to get everything over with, you have to wait days and days to do so. Making matters worse, there are two types of currency, so you have to grind for both independently. The grind can get real, and it just doesn’t feel like a snug fit for a game that is otherwise laid back and story focused.
We imagine a version of Little Witch in the Woods that is a smidge more easy-going. That’s the one we want to play, and it will be something special if it gets resolved. Because this is a vibrant, charismatic little world and it would be wasted otherwise.
With further chapters planned, there’s a chance that the filler could get carved out and replaced with more side quests. That’s what gets our cauldron stirring. And we are eager to see whether the little witch ever bothers to complete her main quest. Part of us hopes not.
You can play Little Witch in the Woods on Game Pass, downloading it from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S