Review: Witch on the Holy Night / Mahoutsukai no Yoru / Mahoyo

Witch on the Holy Night (more colloquially known as Mahoyo, a shortening of its Japanese title Mahoutsukai no Yoru [“Magician’s Night”], and not to be confused with those Genshin folks) is a visual novel by the Japanese game company Notes, better known as Type-Moon. It originally released on PC in 2012 exclusively in Japan (as Type-Moon’s first all-ages VN), and released worldwide for PS4 and Switch in late 2022 with new voice-over and an English translation, marking the first time a mainline Type-Moon visual novel has been officially translated.

Taking place in the rapidly modernizing Japanese suburb of Misaki in the late 1980s, Mahoyo centers around Aoko Aozaki, a high school girl in training to be a mage. She lives in the mysterious mansion on the hill with Alice Kuonji, her magic teacher and frenemy. While tracking a rival mage who seeks to claim their territory, the girls are accidentally discovered by Soujuuro Shizuki, the most country of bumpkins.

Mage law mandates mystic matters must maintain mystery, meaning it’s Aoko’s responsibility to take Soujuuro’s life, but she is won over by his straightforward earnestness. Against Alice’s wishes, Aoko permits him to live with them at the mansion until the invading mage is dealt with, at which point they can erase his memories at their leisure. Anime antics and action ensue.

Alice fights with nursery rhymes transformed into magical familiars. It’s funny every time.

The plot is somewhere in between “passable” and “good”. The original, unpublished blueprint of Mahoyo was written in 1996, inspired by the airing of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and it really shows. Soft-spoken boy cohabitates with feisty girl and chilly girl? It’s well-trodden territory for any anime watcher, but thankfully never quite dives into the worse indulgences one might expect, only dipping its toes.

Type-Moon works are primarily known for their action scenes – mostly due to their more accessible animated adaptations – but the bulk of Mahoyo simply explores the daily lives of these characters over a few weeks’ time as they learn more about each other. Some of my favorite scenes were side chapters unrelated to the “main” plot, such as the closed circle murder mystery involving the entire cast that’s only unlocked after the main story.

The battles can be counted on one hand, and they’re comparatively hefty and “produced” as major narrative moments. Mahoyo pulls out all the stops with elaborate, anime-like setpieces impressively cobbled together from static assets. There’s no character animation on the scale of what something like Live2D allows, but I don’t think I’d want that kind of look, either. The limited character sprites and smattering of bespoke event images are what I think of as the original form of visual novels.

The game doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it left me with a bit of that “well, that’s it, huh?” feeling. I clocked in at around 15 hours (though I read quickly and often didn’t let voice clips finish), and VN databases estimate its word count to be somewhere in the 200k-250k range; a respectable, hefty length for a non-visual novel.

Witch on the Holy Night is a solid, if somewhat slight anime-style visual novel with some cool worldbuilding and polished production values. But, frankly, most people who play it – including myself – aren’t doing so because of its own merits. We’re playing it because it’s a Type-Moon product.

I think that Witch on the Holy Night is potentially the best starting place for the hypothetical someone who’s interested in experiencing the works of Type-Moon’s Kinoko Nasu. It has a reasonable scope, lays out some basics of the setting’s magic, and isn’t bogged down by assuming familiarity with previous works. It stands alone as a self-contained story.

Except that last one isn’t quite true, is it? When I look at Mahoyo, I can’t see it as simply an anime visual novel. I see it as a story starring the important franchise character Aoko Aozaki, detailing how she came to accept her birthright as the wielder of the 5th True Magic, one of the great mysteries around the margins of the setting. I see the locales of Misaki Town and know that one day, Tohno Shiki will meet a particular magician who teaches him the value of life, allowing him to meet, kill, and love a vampire in that very same city.

To my knowledge, Mahoyo takes place the earliest in the shared universe/timeline of Type-Moon works, which has two major metaseries:

  • Tsukihime (“Moon Princess”), a 2000 adult visual novel about vampires hunting each other in a modern setting, which received a JP-only reboot/remake in 2021. It spawned a 2003 anime as well as a series of fighting games titled Melty Blood, the latest of which – Melty Blood: Type Lumina – released worldwide in 2021.
  • Fate/stay night, a 2004 adult visual novel about hidden mages in the modern day fighting a proxy war utilizing the spirits of ancient heroes. It spawned an anime media empire which I have previously written about at length elsewhere, including the immensely popular mobile game Fate/Grand Order.

Much has already been said about the rise of shared universes in modern media and ever-rising RPM of the content mill, and I need not repeat capitalism’s crimes here, but I can’t separate myself from this information. I don’t know what someone would think about the game without it, because it’s why I was interested in the first place. I wanted that sweet, sweet lore.

This character chart from the late 00s feels comically outdated now.

Type-Moon stuff never gets quite as bad as say, Marvel movies in the ways in which it references past works: it’s usually stuff around the edges, one or two shared characters. You get the dopamine hit of saying “oh shit, it’s them!” without the shackles of having to read everything, except chasing those aha!-moments means you end up reading everything anyway. It probably has a stupid name on TVTropes that I refuse to look up, but you know that phenomenon where you get really into a thing and consume every morsel that’s available, then suddenly there’s nothing left? Man, was I feeling that. I was practically frothing at the mouth for more lore crumbs.

When Mahoyo originally released in 2012 in Japan, I was probably around the peak of my investment in the Type-Moon sphere. There was fandom drama over who should or shouldn’t fan translate it, whether people were using the right or wrong codified English fan terms for the various Proper Nouns, et cetera. The fan translation never quite materialized, and so Mahoyo became a persistent meme in my brain for the past decade, always drifting only just out of reach.

I’d read summaries, paraphrasing. I had a pretty good idea of the plot and characters and how they fit into everything. But as time passed and Fate/Grand Order ritually sacrificed my attachment to the franchise on the sacred altar known as a roulette table, I made my peace with the fact that it was a niche product, simply something I’d never personally experience. There’s tons of untranslated material out there for any number of franchises, after all. I don’t need to know everything.

And then… hey, it’s here. It’s basically just what I’d heard it was. No grand revelations, no deep catharsis. The end.

What a weird feeling.

In 2012, it was an important new installment in a series that I loved, rich with possibility. In the context of 2023’s media landscape, Witch on the Holy Night feels… vestigial? It isn’t a spinoff about a fan-favorite character like The Case Files of Lord El-Melloi II and the plot isn’t relevant to the franchise’s gacha cash cow. Even with Tsukihime enjoying renewed interest due to the remake, Aoko herself was only ever a minor character there. There don’t appear to be any new works on the horizon deeply informed by this story. It seems an odd choice to finally localize it ten years later.

But, having finally played it for myself, I can tell these are the reasons why it’s good. Mahoyo‘s original form predates all that shit. It’s just a novel Kinoko Nasu hammered out because he was inspired to create something. It doesn’t need to justify its existence by being connected to other things. Even if it did, Type-Moon wouldn’t exist in the same way without it, with all the wild ripple effects on the anime industry that implies. It invisibly supports all the rest, the bottom tip of the iceberg.

Even if it doesn’t always feel like it, Witch on the Holy Night is an important work. I’m glad it’s out there.

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