It’s 1944 and the Third Reich are retreating. The war seems lost, but Adolf has a dirty ace up his sleeve. He sends his Okkulte-SS and its leader, Friedrich Von Darka, to the farthest reaches of Norway, to stir up some dark forces of the occult. With the help of a kidnapped witch, Friedrich performs a ritual that – among other things – creates a second, dark moon that eclipses the one we’ve grown to love, and bathes the world in darkness.
You play quadriplegic professor Alexei Krakovitz and his assistant, Akiro Kagasawa. You’re experts in the occult, and it falls to you to return the world to some kind of normality. Friedrich Von Darka has settled into a far-flung Norwegian village called Sundae, and is celebrating the end of the world with an uber-party called Eklipse Fest. Your mission is to steal the identity of German filmmaker Otto Von Celluloid and infiltrate the Okkulte-SS, therefore saving the world from mindflaying worms, zombies and German techno music.
Nine Witches: Family Disruption is a graphic adventure in the traditional Monkey Island sense, and you’ll be flicking between Alexei and Akiro regularly as you explore Sundae. The majority of time is spent as Akiro by necessity, as his able-bodiedness means he can interact with the environment, open doors and pick up objects. He’s also armed, which means he can participate in a few of Nine Witches’ very simple shooter sections. Yep, you read it right: shooter sections.
Alexei is far from sidelined, though, as he represents a lot of what makes Nine Witches original. He’s a spiritual medium, so can abandon his body at the press of a B button. In spirit form, Alexei is able to do a multitude of useful things: he can move through locked doors to see what’s on the other side; he can ‘ping’ the environment with a kind of spirit radar, highlighting interactable objects; and in latter sections he can learn to affect the environment in more of a physical sense.
Knowing when to use Alexei or Akiro is one of Nine Witches’ joys. You’ll start seeing each scene through their two different perspectives, as you scour for interactions and items with Akiro and then switch to Alexei to see the landscape in the spirit realm, perhaps ‘pinging’ to find something you missed. We did, however, lose count of the times that we neglected to make use of Alexei. That’s completely on us: there’s something commonplace about a locked door in a graphic adventure, and we kept forgetting that we could bypass them whenever we wanted. Ultimately, Alexei’s abilities as a medium produced some of Nine Witches’ stand-out moments.
The opposite was true of the shooting sections. Suddenly shifting gear from point-and-click to shoot ‘em-up never truly worked, and caused a weird genre whiplash. These sections play out in the same isometric, graphic adventure environment, and are reasonably slow-paced affairs. What this means is they devolve into moving into an enemy’s firing line, shooting, moving out of that firing line so that you don’t get hit, and then hoping the enemy stays in place when the bullet reaches them. It feels imprecise and tedious, but the first couple of battles are dirt-easy, so they never really bother. Towards the end, though, the combat spikes massively in difficulty, to the point that you’ll be reaching for the difficulty options. An imprecise shootout, at the end of four other shootouts, where you have to actively avoid shooting one enemy, was like being slapped repeatedly round the face with a leather glove. Nine Witches would have been better without them, but at least they’re uncommon.
The two make-or-breaks for a successful graphic adventure, though, are how satisfying the gameplay logic is, and the quality of the writing. Nine Witches: Family Disruption sits above the average on both, making it a game to search out for those who think that no good point-and-clicks have been made since LucasArts folded.
One reason that the logic and gameplay work well in concert is because Nine Witches feels friendly to console players. There’s no click-to-move: you control the characters with the analogue stick, and you switch between characters with RT. There’s no library of verbs to call on, as you’re working with three different actions, all mapped to face buttons. You can Look, Use (which changes depending on context) and open your inventory, which then allows you to choose an item to use on the environment. It might seem minimalist but it works really well. The controls shift a little when you’re Alexei, but they’re just as simple.
The interactions themselves rarely stretch to the point that they could be defined as ‘puzzles’, needing a logical leap or umpteen items. A great test of a point-and-click is to review it while it’s under embargo, when no online walkthroughs exist, and we managed to get to the end with only one major hiccup, at the culmination of the fifth chapter out of six (Eklipse Fest, we hate you). This is on the easier end, but not so easy that everything feels handed to you.
Nine Witches very occasionally falls into the trap that most graphic adventures fall into, where it arbitrarily stops you from doing something that you could have done in real-life. Crowbars only work when the game wants them to work, and you’ll be tasked with finding things like ‘bone fragments’ even though the whole of Sundae is strewn with skeletons and dead bodies. But generally the puzzles are logical and fantastically subversive. There’s a great reference to the Legend of Zelda ‘Lost Woods’ trope that made me completely overthink everything, when the solution was dead-easy. An in-game store was also cracking, as you accumulated gold, almost passively, as you progressed, and often a puzzle’s solution just needed you to pop in and check the new wares..
The world and the stories in it are horror-lite, in a Hellboy, end-of-Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark way, but steeped in humour. These funnies come in various flavours, some better than others. The punning and wordplay raises a smile, as you’ve probably already noticed by some of the names that litter this review, while there’s a real dark streak to Nine Witches that can completely surprise, but in a good way. I found myself cheering whenever I found socialist literature after a puzzle, for example, because I knew that I could take them to the ‘Flammenbuch’, a vending machine that accepts (and then burns) communist propaganda in exchange for coins. That’s dark. There’s a sequence with a chicken massacre that goes to a horrific, pitch-black place.
The fourth-wall is regularly broken, with the game’s developers themselves popping in a few times. What doesn’t work is the puerile stuff. For a game that can be so witty and dark, the fart jokes just stopped landing, and raised an eyebrow more than anything. The bumbling General Sauerkraut is the biggest offender, in both senses of the word. In general, though, as a blunderbuss attempt at hitting the funny bone, Nine Witches hits more than it misses.
A nod to the graphics, which – while pixelated – still manages to be atmospheric. I’d stop and admire the landscapes occasionally, and the lighting (is it still considered lighting when everything’s pixel art?) was top notch. The soundtrack, too, is jolly and doomy in equal measures, whenever the game needs them to be.
At a just-right six hours, Nine Witches: Family Disruption doesn’t out-stay its welcome. While the plot doesn’t actually progress much beyond the initial set-up, and you rarely go beyond the boundaries of Sundae, the smaller stories and characters make up for it. You’ll save the world with a smile on your face, and likely forget about it in a week or so’s time. Occasionally, that kind of fun-but-throwaway approach is a good thing.
Nine Witches: Family Disruption on Xbox doesn’t reinvent the graphic-adventure wheel, and you won’t find it on any end-of-year lists. What it does do, though, is tell a spooky, kooky story, tickle your ribs as it does it, and wrap it all in a frustration-free experience. Having saved the world with them, we’d happily follow Alexei and Akiro to other supernatural jaunts.