The Button Witch review
RPG Maker seems to have a bit of a bad reputation amongst some gaming circles – perhaps unfairly so. As well has having inbuilt mechanics designed for retro-pixel, combat-driven, turn-based RPGs, the engine is easy to pick up and comes with a lot of art assets, meaning it often attracts inexperienced developers putting out samey-looking, grindy experiences with near-identical gameplay. However, for those willing – and knowledgeable enough – to put in the time and effort, some surprising gems can be produced with it. DDreams Games’ The Button Witch is one such gem, albeit a slightly buggy one; with original art, oodles of puzzles and no combat at all, you can leave any preconceptions you may have had about RPG Maker at the door.
Our hero is witch-in-training Ellen, a Pearl Academy pupil who needs to complete 250 hours of an internship before taking her Witch SAT (Superior Arcane Training) exam. Luckily, Sir Thimble has a position free right now at his sprawling manor so that you can start learning on the job about wonderful magical topics such as prestidigitation (sleight of hand) and metamorphosis. Ellen eagerly turns up at the manor before dawn as requested, so early that darkness still surrounds her, but the manor is locked up tight. Even once you’ve managed to puzzle your way inside, there’s no sign of Sir Thimble. Eventually you’ll bump into him, but something’s strange – he doesn’t seem to know his way around his own mansion.… A glimpse of a spectre hints at spooky things afoot, so it’s time to explore, unlock doors and venture deeper into the house to find out what on earth’s going on.
You soon encounter some assistance in the form of a talking blue squirrel that lives in a teacup and seems to be formed from water. If you can find a treat for him, the knowledgeable critter will join you on your journey, helping you to unravel the mystery of the manor by providing hints. The squirrel adorns your hat like some sort of incredibly adorable fascinator, and he has his own jazzy theme tune when you first meet him to boot. The nameless rodent isn’t the only odd inhabitant you’ll meet on your quest as there’s a host of creative creatures around, including a cheery talking candle, a friendly bartending vampire (who rather randomly wants you to solve a murder), and a group of colourful turtles with shells like witches’ hats.
Your journey through the many rooms of the mansion is quite aesthetically pleasing, viewed from overhead. The static character portraits that pop up during dialogue (similar to a visual novel) are well executed with bold white outlines and a cartoony, very cutesy feel that might hint that the game is aimed at younger players, though given the difficulty of some of the puzzles, I’m not sure that’s the case. These portraits help bring out the personality of some of the characters: the ghost with her eyes lit with anger; a lovelorn well-dweller called Lily with her flower hat and sad slumping shoulders; the grumpy, weary-looking goblin archer you meet in an underground bar. The sprites and colourful, detailed backgrounds all in and immediately around the manor are simple but designed beautifully and manage to evoke the feeling of classic games gone by without using pixelated graphics.
The world of The Button Witch feels very much alive: flowers wobble, blades of grass wiggle, magical plants sparkle and even the paintings move around (very Harry Potter-esque). Ellen, if left for a few moments, will start shifting on the spot, as if she’s ready and raring to go. It’s rather basic animation, but it serves its purpose. Occasionally a story-driven scene will present some additional movement, like Ellen lobbing a potion that explodes into tendrils of fire, or drinking an elixir that then surrounds her with bubbles. These make for a pleasant change from the mainly two- or three-frame animation loops in the background.
There are a few graphical glitches, unfortunately, such as Ellen’s head phasing through the occasional lantern on the manor grounds, being able to walk right through a bookcase, and at one point walking up a wall. The latter bug actually broke the game for me, as suddenly I could just glide around the screens unhindered; restarting didn’t fix it, so annoyingly I was forced to return to an even earlier save, losing some progress in the process. There were also a number of occasions (in the bar and dining room) where the game froze and I had to force quit, again imposing some repetition – a little frustrating.
Thankfully the music kept me from getting too het up about it. The lo-fi ambient soundtrack acts as a great backdrop to all the exploration and puzzle solving you’ll be doing; the chilled tunes evoked memories in me of old-school JRPGs (minus the combat music!). There’s a decent amount of variation too, with the synth-based mood music sometimes breaking into peppy, catchy melodies at certain points, notably in the achievements room that you can visit, accessible from the main menu and filled with 46 unlockable trophies so that you can bask in your glories. The incredibly funky tune that plays there provides a joyous backdrop, so much so that just walking around inspecting the star-topped plinths is a pleasure. Ignis the fire spirit’s hut is another area where the music ups the tempo, switching into a smooth but memorable guitar-driven soft rock ditty.
Alongside the score are various sound effects when you perform actions: lights that turn on and off with a whoosh, locks that clunk as they open, blocks that move with a swish as you push them. However, there’s a lack of ambient FX; you can’t hear trees rustling in the wind as you explore the manor grounds, and your footsteps are oddly silent as you explore. There’s also a lack of voice-over for the most part; dialogue appears typewriter-style, accompanied by clacking monotone text sounds in lieu of acting. Sometimes there are a few options to choose from when conversing with someone, but there aren’t any long conversations or complicated dialogue trees. There are a handful of voice clips outside of dialogue, including some speech on a record you play, and a disembodied voice saying slightly creepy things as you enter certain rooms (“Marco… you’re supposed to say polo… don’t you wanna play?”).
The interface is fairly simple. Moving around is done with the arrow keys and actions are performed using enter or space so long as you’re next to something in order to interact with it. You can also left-click with the mouse to walk or interact with things, moving automatically to the hotspot you click on, but it feels a little clunky, both in pathfinding and in the fact that if you click to move somewhere, a square around that point lights up, which is rather distracting. Navigating with the arrow keys provides a smoother experience. The game doesn’t seem to fully support controllers, nor can you use WASD to move Ellen by default, though there is the option to reconfigure the keyboard controls to whatever scheme you prefer. To speed up exploration, you can use shift to run (or alternatively switch on ‘always run’ in the options menu).
There are a number of keyboard shortcuts including one for magic that will take you to the list of spells Ellen has so far learned. Performing a spell is as easy as selecting it from this menu and then clicking on the item or person you want to cast it on. Learning new spells (which you do as you progress through the game) and getting familiar with them is critical as they’re the key to solving some of the puzzles in The Button Witch, whether it’s turning on lanterns with the Light spell or picking up hard-to-reach items with the Magnet incantation.
Clicking on Ellen’s bag in the bottom-right of the screen brings up a number of different options: inventory, hints, magical spells, and the diary (which isn’t actually a journal but rather used for exiting, accessing the options screen, and loading or saving your game; several save slots are provided for this purpose). It should be noted that the inventory looks a little different to what veteran adventure players may be used to; selecting it will bring up a list (split into two columns) of things that you’ve gathered, with the name of the item in text and a small icon depicting the item on the left of each row. Selecting an object will give you a fuller description of what it is, and in some cases a close-up view of it, or an option to combine it with something else you’ve acquired. The only way to actually use something is to interact with your environment first. If you click on an area in the background that an item can be used with, an ‘inventory’ prompt will pop up on the right-hand side of the screen – at that point, you can click it and then select what you want to use there.
Overall, the control scheme is definitely more classic RPG than point-and-click adventure, and the required combination of mouse and keyboard use feels unusually awkward. It could be played mainly using a mouse but not entirely: right-click backs out of most menus but only escape seems to work to back out of using magic; left-click can select in most menus but not the main title screen for some reason. Interacting with items just works more smoothly and consistently using the keyboard. For example, inspecting a clock can be done with the mouse, but you need to click a little in front of it rather than directly on it. With the keyboard, you just walk up to the clock and press enter. I switched to primarily using the keyboard but the mouse is inevitably required to select a target for magic use (or at least, I couldn’t figure out a way of achieving this using keys). This is almost certainly due to engine limitations, but whatever the reason, I couldn’t settle on a combination that felt comfortable.
Though the game lacks finesse in its controls, this is more than made up for by the quality of the puzzles on offer. The Button Witch is packed full of them; within just a couple of minutes of gameplay you’ll encounter the first, which is finding a way into Thimble Manor using a coded message on a scrap of paper you find. It’s a simple enough (but still cleverly done) way to start, but the conundrums get a lot more challenging, fast. The very next problem – finding a lost doorknocker for the talking gargoyles that live on the main door of the mansion (a clear nod to Labyrinth) – involves another code of a different sort. But first, you’ll need to assist some of the other quirky characters you meet on the grounds, including the aforementioned flower-topped Lily, and Ignis, the rose-loving fire spirit gardener in a nearby hut.
Thorough exploration and a keen eye is critical in order to spot small details, such as a tool stuck on top of a tree, a shiny object near the water or a useful item on a high shelf. Some of these can be easy to miss, but most of the problems provide a much more fulfilling challenge. Quite a few of the puzzles are numerical in nature, requiring you to recognise a pattern in a sequence of numbers, solve equations, or in one case, deducing the correct time for a clock based on the times of other clocks in the room.
These tasks are interspersed with spellcasting, block pushing, and more standard inventory-based puzzling; it’s fair to say that there’s a lot of variety here keeping the gameplay fresh. Most of the doors in the manor are locked at first, so there’s a real ‘escape the room’ feel about the experience (except you’re usually trying to get in rather than out), without the stress of time constraints. Such doors require riddles to be solved or codes to be cracked as you progress through the house. A lot of the problems require some decent brainpower to solve, so figuring them out feels pretty satisfying.
Some of these puzzles are optional and not required to finish the game, but completing them does affect the ending you get. I’d recommend leaving no stone unturned: collect all the items you can, as pretty much everything has a use somewhere. Playtime will obviously vary depending on whether you decide to do the optional stuff, including unlocking all of the achievements (and also on how speedily you can solve the puzzles!), but is likely to end up somewhere between six to nine hours.
It’s possible to have multiple puzzles and objectives on the go at the same time, so if you don’t solve something at first, you can leave and come back to it. There’s no list of objectives to refer to, although the hint function (provided by the squirrel) can provide handy reminders as to what tasks you can focus on to progress. I found that some of his hints gently nudged me in the right direction, but didn’t really give any explicit clues about how to solve the puzzles themselves. If you find yourself getting really stuck, there’s always the separate DLC including an artbook and full walkthrough to guide you through the game.
All in all, The Button Witch has obviously had a ton of love poured into it, and this shines through in its charming graphics and clever puzzle design. The choice of RPG Maker as the engine may have resulted in some limitations, and addressing the stability issues and graphical glitches would help enormously. However, if you’re someone who loves the ‘eureka!’ feeling of solving problems and riddles, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.
Despite a few irritating technical issues that detract from the experience, The Button Witch is an otherwise enjoyable adventure full of fantastic puzzles, wrapped up in a cutesy package with a fitting, chilled soundtrack.