For a genre that has ‘visual’ in its label, visual novels can be an ugly bunch. They can also be a bit samey, keeping the anime-stylings of the first games to emerge on the scene. We had a joyful cackle, then, to find My Aunt is a Witch, which looks fantastic. Sitting somewhere between a children’s book and Studio Ghibli blockbuster, it’s never less than pretty.
As a story, it’s a family-friendly tale of a boy called Thomas, who’s abandoned by his stepmother and father and shipped off to his aunt who lives in a house that can only be found if you’re searching for it. Thomas wisely starts wondering what the Hansel & Gretel is going on here.
On arrival, his auntie Alice is welcoming but makes it pretty clear from the get-go that she’s a witch, and if Thomas wants to stay then he’s going to have to muck-in with the whole witch’s helper thing. That means tidying the house (there’s a bizarre undercurrent of death, as all of Alice’s previous helpers are dead and litter the house as skulls) and eventually making potions for her. As you showcase your skills, Alice sees an opportunity and enrols you in a magic academy, but not completely altruistically: if you’re successful, she will get her teaching accreditation back, and win a bit of witchly respect.
It all seems to be heading in a Harry Potter direction before the Hogwarts Express comes off the rails. The catalyst for it all is Alice, who is hot-tempered, neglectful and self-centred, and you’ll be following in her wake for a lot of the story. You’ll go to fantastic worlds and other dimensions, all in the name of making you a potion-maker.
There’s an imaginative cast of characters that you’ll get to know, including a resentful cat called Grimmor (again, one of Alice’s previous acquaintances who has come a cropper), a wooden artefact-thing called Fabian, a giant doll called Beatrice, and more. In general, the character design in My Aunt is a Witch is fabulous, particularly in the incidental characters that come and go. For example, prisoners in the witching world serve their sentence by wearing cursed masks that empty their wearer’s mind and reprograms them for law-enforcement. There are lovely, creepy touches like this throughout My Aunt is a Witch.
All of the ingredients are here for a lush, adventurous visual novel, then, so it was surprising to find myself so bored through the whole thing. This isn’t a visual-novel allergy thing: I’m a big fan of them, and have played shelf-fuls. My Aunt is a Witch simply didn’t manage to hold my attention, and there are a few reasons for it. Some are biggies.
My Aunt is a Witch loves to talk. So much so, in fact, that it can feel like you’re never getting anywhere. The novel will describe things that you can see perfectly well, and in lovely detail, on the screen. They’ll describe a hat, perhaps, and I begin checklisting them on my fingers: yep, I can see it’s purple, yep I can see it’s looking a bit tattered. Characters will digress into unrelated topics, just as things are getting good. And Thomas will talk about his feelings and reactions to events, rather than let you fill in the gaps. A liberal sprinkling of ‘show-don’t-tell’ would have worked wonders here.
This is a deadly combo with the poor translation. It actually starts off pretty well: sure, there are signs that My Aunt is a Witch has not been made by a team whose first language is English, but it holds together. As the game progresses, however, the spell starts wearing off. Swathes of the story make no sense, typos litter every other sentence, and there was even a point towards the end where characters were talking about wee (as in, urine), and I’m (reasonably) sure that wee had nothing to do with it. When you’re wading through thousands of words, making sense is a basic expectation. Unfortunately, in My Aunt is a Witch you don’t always get that luxury.
The pacing is weird too. My Aunt is a Witch is best when everything’s quiet and slow, and at its worst when lots is happening. It’s a weird inversion of what you’d expect. That’s because the game over-describes the action, slowing everything down to a muggle-like crawl. It rarely gives you any control or gameplay in these sections, worried that you might do something silly. But in the downtime, the game speeds up as it has less to talk about, and it feels more comfortable giving you things to do, like completing recipes or finding lost dolls. It’s here where the environments shine too, as you’re exploring them like a quasi-hidden object game.
It’s likely a subjective thing, but I found myself eye-rolling at the main character of Alice. She’s mercurial, and pretty much every plot development is triggered by her temper, neglect, self-righteousness or some other character wrinkle. Mostly I was frustrated that Thomas wasn’t the one getting the plot going, and she fell on the wrong side of annoying.
She certainly takes you to some fantastic worlds, though, and they lean heavily on the superb visual design. A world of lost toys is a highlight, and hints of horror start creeping in. This is a universe that I wanted to spend time in, and a better story would clearly do it justice. But just as the world starts to expand to incorporate the Master of Fates and a cast of baddies… it ends. Clearly, Graven Visual Novels want to write more in the series, but this stops without even a cliffhanger, and it leaves you empty rather than wanting more.
My Aunt is a Witch on Xbox One and Series X|S is a treat for the eyes; never less than beautiful. But it’s a witch’s glamour, as the story underneath is stodgy, mistranslated and boring. Give an editor a hatchet and some freedom, and the brambles might clear enough to make the path to a sequel more appealing.