DISCLAIMER: My Aunt is a Witch was provided to us for free for the purpose of review.
How do I put this? I wanted to like My Aunt is a Witch. Developed by Graven Visual Novels and published by Sometimes You, this cute visual novel has some charming concepts, but the spell it attempts to cast over the player is far from spectacular.
Where the game shines is its art. There’s a ton of bright, colourful visuals to enjoy. There’s even an option to turn off the interface overlay at any time and take it all in, which I found myself doing on more than one occasion.
Over the course of the story, you’ll explore exciting environments ranging from a conservatory of carnivorous plants to the cobbled streets of a magic city to a forest haunted by lost toys. These richly detailed backgrounds come accompanied by a fun and bouncy score, although by the end certain tracks might start to feel a tad repetitive. The occasional sprinkling of animation helps to liven up certain scenes for dramatic effect.
The character art is also of decent quality, with fun and unique designs. And what an array of characters! I’ll admit the models of the witches (all pale, skinny young women) started to look a touch samey after a couple of hours of playing, but a variety of bizarre costumes and hairstyles helps to give a little personality to each of them.
One of my favourite features of the story is that witches in this world all wear sentient, talking hats. These hats range from elegantly designed snobs to cranky, tattered old pieces of fabric with secret hearts of gold. They further help to differentiate the witches and accentuate their unique characters, to the point that meeting a witch whose hat’s mouth had been sowed shut sent a real shiver down my spine.
Other incidental characters you’ll come across in your adventures struck me as far more interesting: a mild-mannered wolfskin rug; a creaking spider monster made of rusted mechanical parts and old clothes; a piggy bank who reigns as a slum lord in the aforementioned land of lost toys. Honestly, I wish I got to spend more time with them.
Delightful little worldbuilding ideas like the sentient hats abound in this game. There’s a guild of witches whose job is to explore and categorize the infinite multiverse of magical worlds. Criminals can have their sentences shortened by temporarily becoming puppets for the city guard, who are all hats.
A mysterious figure known as the Fate Master manipulates things from the shadows, backed by henchmen who collapse into playing cards when defeated. But as intriguing or charming as they might be on their own, none of these ideas ever quite come together. Because while there’s no denying it’s got the “visual” part down to a tee, where My Aunt Is A Witch really trips up is the “novel” aspect.
So what’s the story? Well, in My Aunt is a Witch you play as Thomas, a precocious 12-year-old who loves science and foxes. He’s suffering from a serious case of Wicked-Stepmother-Syndrome, and his father’s new wife, Sophia, wants him out the house. So, Thomas is sent to stay with his Aunt Alice, who he quickly learns is in fact a witch.
Alice is free-spirited but also chronically careless, to the point that her teaching license as a witch has been revoked. This is because her apprentices having a tendency to wind up dead. Though he lacks any innate magical talent, Thomas agrees to become Alice’s new apprentice. Ready to help him on his quest are Grimmor, an infamous bank robber and Alice’s ex-boyfriend, who she has turned into a cat; and Fabian, an ancient wooden artefact with a penchant for history. Together you’ll hunt for hidden objects, solve the occasional simple puzzle and master one or two quick-time events, as you learn to mix potions and try to pass the apprentice exam.
There’s an odd tonal dissonance to the whole thing. The art style is on the saccharine side of Ghibli, and the gameplay—limited as it may be, which isn’t so unusual for visual novels—feels intended for very young children. But there’s a current of dark humour running throughout that feels more like a particularly gruesome Roald Dahl story.
The long list of children who have died in Alice’s care is treated as a running gag—there’s even an achievement for collecting all of their skulls and learning about the strange and awful ways they each met their end. The story is pretty much linear, and narrative choices are few and far between. The couple that do come up have fairly obvious outcomes: either do the smart, boring thing and wait for the game to progress, or do the fun thing and watch Thomas die a grisly death.
It made me nostalgic for Goosebumps, or those old, absurdly lethal Choose Your Own Adventure books you used to get in the 80s and 90s. And it’s not that I didn’t find it funny, just that I thought it might be a bit much for what I took to be the game’s target audience. Either that or the gameplay is too easy for an audience of older kids.
It’s the writing that’s the real problem. I don’t just mean the rushed pacing or the slightly inconsistent characterisation. I mean the words on the screen themselves. The great tragedy of My Aunt is a Witch is that I suspect I could have found it perfectly enjoyable with a better English translation. As it is, the game is full of awkward phrasing, grammatical mistakes and typos. All of this would take me out of the story every time I was beginning to settle in.
I swear, this isn’t just me being pedantic. I kept having to reread portions of dialogue just to make an educated guess as to what was going on. Sometimes, the game would get names wrong, not only in the dialogue boxes but also in the headers that are supposed to denote who is speaking. Usually, this just resulted in a simple mix-up, like “Alice” becoming “Alison”, but even after completing the game I still couldn’t tell you if Thomas’ mother is called “Emily” or “Amy”.
At one point, I found myself skipping through several empty dialogue boxes, whole chunks of a conversation just…gone. Other times, the game veered the other way into over-explaining. I’d find myself trapped in a loop of redundant phrasing, with characters even going so far as to repeat practically verbatim things they had already said, just seconds before.
I know it sounds harsh, but the truth is by the time I reached the game’s abrupt ending, I not only didn’t feel excited about the cliff hanger; I felt relieved to be putting down my controller and walking away. For all its enchanting graphics and quirky setting, the game feels half-baked, with a story that’s awkward at best and incomprehensible at worst. I still uphold that a better translation would fix most of these issues, making for a charming little diversion with some interesting sequel hooks, but for now, My Aunt is a Witch is all smoke and mirrors with no spark. Go watch The Owl House instead.