Made by the Japanese indie studio who crafted the clever and kooky Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale, Chantelise: A Tale of Two Sisters possesses a similar quirky vibe but lacks the unique hook that made its spiritual predecessor so interesting. Crawling through 3D dungeons to hack and slash throngs of blobs, floating eyeballs and more brutal beasties starts off on the right foot, but it devolves into a repetitive grind early on.
I'll admit that the cutesy presentation won me over at first, and there is a certain draw to the way the game pushes you to keep trying even after you fail. However, irritating camera controls and other issues weight heavily on this fragile action RPG.
Kicking off the adventure with a witch hunt, the game's chatty sister protagonists set out on a quest to track down the wicked wizardess that turned Chante, the elder of the duo, into a fairy. You control her younger sis, Elise, while Chante hovers alongside and provides spell-flinging support. By the time the heroines reach a nearby town that serves as a central hub for restocking supplies and progressing the story, the gameplay has already driven itself into a cyclical rut that sends you carving up monsters from one 3D dungeon to the next.
The simplistic sword-swinging combat would be more satisfying if inept camera controls and the spotty lock-on system didn't make the whole process of slaying foes so disorienting. The default keyboard controls map the attack, jump, magic and camera centring buttons to the Z, X, C and V keys respectively, making it painfully awkward to switch gears from battling monsters to casting spells or adjusting the view angle in the mist of battle. The camera itself is sluggish and hard to manage, too. Locking-on to random nearby enemies does little to help during chaotic encounters with larger numbers of adversaries.
Action and frustration are found in equal parts within the game's cavernous catacombs. On your first run, each dungeon forces you to slay all the monsters in a given area before the next room is unlocked. Getting killed boots you back to the town hub and forces you to restart the entire sequence of levels from the beginning. While you can jet past foes in rooms you've already beaten, it still feels like a huge setback every time you slip up midway though a stage. On the positive side, you don't lose any of the loot you've accumulated when you die.
This is where Chantelise's light RPG elements come into play. Instead of gaining experience, you'll pick up cash or treasure to sell for extra coin. Purchasing permanent health increasing elixirs and stocking up on more powerful equipment to drop into your limited number of available gear slots is the only way to power-up your character.
One area where Chantelise does break from the standard mould is with its unusual magic system. Slain monsters drop an assortment of coloured gems that correspond to different types of magic.
Collecting these baubles lets you cast spells, but the order you collect them is important, since the way you combine them determines the type of spell you can cast. Gems are consumed with each use, and you have to keep carving up foes to keep your magical well from running dry. Single stones yield basic spells, while combinations of two or more gems can produce more elaborate effects. It's a cool, if limited, system that offsets some of the repetitive nature of combat and injects a little strategy into the action.
Even without the camera and control problems, Chantelise struggles to stand out amidst other similar games. It's disappointing, because you can tell there's a lot of heart and personality poured into the game, but it's just not that enjoyable to play.
Charming presentation and a unique magic system can't compensate for a repetitive experience with awkward combat.