If you are a fan of fun, generally unserious and occasionally bizarre stories about witches, magical, shapeshifting fae, tiny mice, wild monsters, and an overarching celestial war, you will probably enjoy Stardander School for Witches.
Fancy Fish Games’ Stardander School for Witches is a visual novel with some strategic elements following a group of young humans as they leave their homes and families behind on a quest to become witches. They all have their own reasons for doing so, some don’t have much of a choice at all, and it’s so charming, getting to see them, finally feel as though they belong.
There are currently four acts to play through, though repeated mentions of school being seven years long have led me to think there will be at least three more in the future. Each act covers one school year and follows a different student each time, looking at their own unique troubles and backgrounds. There is one common thread between the acts. A war is ongoing caused by an evil and all-powerful celestial being called Apexsens. While this is mostly background which spurs the actions and fears of others in the story, in act four it becomes central to the plot. As it stands, Stardander School for Witches in Early Access ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. If you want to be able to play through the story and have a satisfying and complete ending, it may be worth waiting for a future update.
I really enjoyed getting to see each of the students and their histories are really well thought out. My personal favorite involves a girl who, after a magical accident in her youth, is able to speak to ghosts which causes a whole world of trouble in act three. I thought the character storylines and backgrounds were very creative and they really showed the different lives that each of the students lived, making them feel more well-rounded and fleshed out as people. In a visual novel, that is a really important trait to have in my opinion.
It is not just the personalities and backgrounds of the students that works well, but the way that this feeds into the story at hand. More often than not, the story wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for something special about that character and the decisions they make. And yet, at the same time, Stardander School for Witches doesn’t feel like it is forcing characters into situations just for the sake of making the story fit. It all felt very natural, or at least as natural as a magical school with a celestial being as a headteacher can feel.
One thing that Stardander School for Witches doesn’t do so well is continuity within its own storylines. At one point one of the characters, Penelope, is told by her parents to go home due to the danger of the school and repeatedly mentions having been sent home in later acts. Despite this, she is still physically at the school during this period taking tests and appearing in events such as the full festival. While this wasn’t the end of the world, it did take away some of the immersion that I had within the world and it made subsequent threats to send students home feel less real. It felt almost as though there were no true consequences for what happens in the acts.
As a visual novel, Stardander School for Witches is effective. The artwork is lovely, though I do have a personal vendetta against Callie’s dress, the writing is fun and tells the story well, and the characters are all flawed humans who are trying to make themselves and the world around them better. There are some options which can decide how the story might twist and turn, however there are not too many times where you actively make a choice that changes the story.
Outside of the visual novel aspect, which is the vast majority of gameplay, there are a few strategic elements which come into play. The first of these is the character’s schooling and what they do in their free time. Each year there are two periods of final exams, in which players must pick three or four subjects to take tests in (there is no additional gameplay for this outside of selecting the options and finding out the results) and passing the exam will award both house points and additional goodies like spells.
At the end of each month you are able to choose which topic to study, which is essentially choosing which spells you want to work towards learning, as well as how you want to spend the two time intervals you are allotted. You can choose to study more academic topics like divination and history of magic, which will help boost investigations as well as giving you more examination options. Other ways to spend time intervals include investigating rooms in the school, taking flying lessons, or clearing out wild fae from the forest, instigating battles. This end-of-month time period also allows you to chat with the other students, gain allies and strengthen those relationships, manage which classes your allies are studying for, grow and harvest plants in the greenhouse which you can eventually use to brew potions and enchant items, and check on how the elemental cup points are doing.
There is an element of combat, though it is not as central to Stardander School for Witches as you may think when first picking it up. In act one there are combat tutorials and discussion of battling wild fae before you even get to the school, and yet once there it is essentially optional for the first two years. It would have been nice to have more opportunity to interact with the combat elements, and I am hopeful that in future acts it will play a more prominent role. If you want to actually battle in the early years, you have to make the conscious decision to spend one of the limited time intervals you are given to venture into the forest. This means that you may not unlock a necessary spell, or may fail a future investigation if you didn’t study. You do get some rewards from battling the wild fae, however you have a lot less control over what they are.
The fights themselves are simple and use fairly basic turn-based combat mechanics. Each character has a list of spells which can grow as the acts progress and they pass exams. Some of these spells do damage, some will pact the fae to you so that they will fight alongside you in future battles, others will make the enemy fae change targets or help camouflage or heal teammates. In short, there are a lot of different spells that do a lot of different things. There is a mana system which controls how many spells you can cast in a turn, and the end goal is to pact or defeat the enemy. The combat in Stardander School for Witches does become a bit more prominent in acts three and four, however it can be almost entirely avoided in acts one and two with a few small exceptions. I really like that there are levels to how difficult you want to combat to be. This ranges from a very easy level where players have 1000 health and have to really really mess up to die, to a one-hit kill difficulty.
Overall, I did find myself really invested in Stardander School for Witches, particularly once I had gotten to know the characters. I was initially a bit disappointed to find that the story-rich strategy RPG that I was expecting was actually a visual novel with a sprinkling of decision-making thrown in for good measure, however it did win me over.
If you are a fan of visual novels, particularly fun, witchy ones, Stardander School for Witches is a great one to go for, particularly if you are looking for something to entertain you throughout the fall and Halloween season.
Megan played Stardander School for Witches in Early Access on PC with a review key.