Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Developer: Level 5
Release Date: 01/22/2013
Sometimes, all of the right elements come together to create something truly magical. In the case of Ni no Kuni, those elements were respected RPG developer Level 5, and Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli. This was a match made in heaven from the very beginning, and it has resulted in one of the finest Japanese RPGs in a long time, as well as one of the very best PlayStation 3 exclusives.
The story starts out in a nondescript town called Motorville. Motorville is about as idyllic as it gets, set in the fifties, where dinner was always ready when you got home from work, and kids said things like â€œneatoâ€. One of those kids is a young boy named Oliver, who has a happy life until an accident that leaves his mother dead. He isn’t given long to grieve however, as his tears transform a stuffed doll into a fairy by the name of Mr. Drippy. It turns out that Drippy comes from another world, and that each person in his world shares a soul with a person in Oliver’s world. If Oliver can visit that world and save his mother’s soul mate, he may just be able to bring his mother back to life in his world. Also, there’s an evil djinn named Shadar that is terrorizing this other world, and hold’s said soul mate as a prisoner. On top of that, Oliver just might be the child of prophecy destined to save the world.
The plot starts off fantastic, but can’t carry the momentum throughout the entire experience. It gets bogged down by a lot of typical JRPG fluff, such as a sudden halt in storytelling so that you can go find a bunch of magical stones. However, the story as a whole is quite solid thanks to the utter charm of its denizens. Oliver is one heck of a special kid. He is sincere in everything he does, and even the cringe-worthy puns the game relies on at every turn don’t come off as campy when he says them. Unlike a lot of child protagonists, he’s not some cocky little punk that’s too powerful for his own good. Oliver gets afraid, gets sad, but manages to overcome thanks to strength of character rather than randomly activating some hidden power level. He’s impossible to not like, as are his companions. Mr. Drippy is another fantastic character full of life and his own verbiage. Him screaming â€œabrakaflippindabraâ€ when he casts his spell is one of my favorite things ever.
Where some might find fault is that the story is more for children than adults. It gives lessons about believing in yourself, moving past pain, and other such cliches. There are silly things like a cat king being called â€œYour Meowjestyâ€ that could probably drive some older gamers nuts. However, I find that the plot is perfect for all ages, so luck as you haven’t completely lost that childlike sense of wonder and imagination.
When it comes to the visuals, Ni no Kuni is a stunning knock out. Ghibli’s designs combined with stellar cell shaded graphics create a living piece of art that never fails to impress. The game relies on a lot of standard video game locations, such as a village in the snow, a volcano, a desert, gilded forests, and dank caves. However, unlike most games, each location has seen tremendous care. The use of color alone deserves a freaking medal. Character designs are also strong, and I would hope that Nintendo takes note next time they’re trying to come up with new Pokemon. There are still plenty of good looking designs out there. There’s no need for the travesties we’ve gotten in recent entries.
More than just a pretty face, the technical aspects of this game are top notch as well. In particular, the animations deserve special attention. A huge part of the game’s charm is simply watching the characters move, particularly Oliver and Drippy. Drippy is an exuberant little fairy who occasionally falls flat on his face because he gets overexcited. Another fun detail is how they shimmy across narrow ledges. Oliver puts his back to the wind and takes his time. Drippy stares straight down with a look of horror on his face. It’s adorable. Then you have things like Oliver shivering in the cold until he gets warmer clothes, the enthusiasm of your first familiar, etc. Suffice it to say the game is a visual masterpiece.
Composer Joe Hisashi is practically a living legend, and has worked with Studio Ghibli on several occasions. True to form, the music for the game is written by him, and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic. In short, it’s spectacular. So many of the themes are simply beautiful to listen to, and nabbing the soundtrack would be a wise move indeed. Until then, there’s always Youtube.
Voice acting is also quite solid, with Drippy taking top honors. The rest of the cast shines as well. Though the dialogue isn’t always strong, the actors play it off with such sincerity that it works. I don’t know how they managed to avoid groaning or chuckling every time they said â€œYour Moojestyâ€, but they did. The game should also be awarded for avoiding many of the problems that come with English dubs, such as awkward timing and improper emotions. To that point, I didn’t see too many familiar faces on the cast list, which might be the reason. For those who want the original Japanese voices, they’re on the disc as well, which is always a nice bonus.
Originality is a hard thing to come by in games. In truth, there aren’t very many original ideas left to be had, at least with how games work now. Instead, fresh ideas come from combining other ideas and seeing how they work together. Ni no Kuni does this with a combat system that takes clear inspiration from Pokemon and the Tales series.
Battle takes places on a third dimensional plane, and is active time. Where you are in comparison to your opponent actually matters, as physical attacks actually need to land. This means attacks can be dodged. Also, Oliver and his fellow party members can summon familiars to fight in their stead. While they share HP and MP, familiars have their own stats and elemental affiliations, as well as a separate skills list. Each character can have up to three familiars at a time, and they can be switched out on the fly. In fact, switching them out is usually required because familiars have stamina that is drained as they battle. It you let it get too low, they’ll be unable to battle for a while. As you can probably surmise, creating a balanced familiar team is crucial to success, and is a huge part of the game. You’ll quickly get the ability to tame wild beasts and make them familiars. They level just like you, and can eventually evolve after they reach certain levels. You can also feed them treats to boost stats, and eventually make them like you more. Familiars also get to use their own equipment, adding yet another layer of depth to the system.
The familiars make the combat an absolute blast to play. The system essentially lets you have twelve party members, even if only three of them are on the field. Each of these familiars can have wildly different strengths and weaknesses. My usual setup involves a physical powerhouse for basic attacks, a warrior mage that uses cheap storm attacks, and a water mage that can’t fight worth crap but has a nifty healing ability. That’s just for Oliver, who has his own stats and list of spells to work with. There are a ton of familiars to tame, and you can store ones you aren’t using via a system that is found next to every save point in the game.
When not using said familiars, you actually have more options. Main party members have the ability to run away, use items, and mess with party tactics. The latter system allows you to set very basic commands for the AI controlled members of your party. While you can switch to them and use them manually, doing this for all of their moves would be almost impossible. This system is far from perfect, as the guidelines are too vague. I wanted one character to serve as a healer, but setting her to â€œkeep up healthyâ€ didn’t stop her from blowing all of her mana on attack spells.
There is still more to talk about regarding combat. Thanks to the active time system, your timing with attacks matters. A well timed shot can interrupt an enemy attack, or land a critical shot. In such cases, your rewarded with orbs that refill health and mana. You can also defend attacks. If timed right, you can prevent huge amounts of damage and earn many of these orbs at once. You many even earn a golden one, which allows they user to launch an ultimate attack. While defense isn’t used too often for normal battles, the mechanic is essential for boss fights. That’s when this system shines, as boss battles are some of the most engaging I’ve seen for any RPG.
Outside of battle, the game is a typical RPG in many aspects. There’s an overworld that you can traverse, enemies to encounter, and towns to visit. That’s right. Some crazy guy figured out how to have towns in a modern JRPG. Take that Final Fantasy XIII! You can take on errands and bounty hunts to earn merit points, which can be traded in for truly useful abilities. For example, you can unlock more experience per battle, make it easier to tame familiars, or simply boost the speed of your ship. Beyond the normal money rewards, these boosts make such errands something you’ll actually want to do. There’s also a battle arena and a casino to visit, should you feel the need for a change of pace.
This being a Level 5 game, you also have an alchemy system in place. Here, you can mix and match items to create new ones, and there are tons of recipes to find to take out some of the guess work. Many powerful items can only be acquired through alchemy, so finding rare ingredients becomes a key part of the experience.
There’s a lot that this game does right. Weak enemies will run away from you, meaning you don’t have to get bogged down by annoying encounters every time you revisit the first areas. NPCs that relate to side missions are shown on your map, taking out a lot of guess work. Beating the game unlocks additional errands, bounty hunts, and even unique familiars. Exploration is always rewarded, and you always feel like you’re making progress.
Perhaps the neatest thing about the game is the Wizard’s Companion. This is an in game book (although the special edition comes with a hard copy that I really really want) that contains practical information about everything in the game, and also holds a lot of information about the world in general. This comes in the form of encyclopedia entries about locations and even stories and fairy tales. The book is incredibly well done and interesting to thumb through. It fills in as you progress, and getting new pages is always a thrill.
Playing through the main story will last you about forty hours. You can add on upwards of thirty more if you want to do everything and earn the game’s platinum trophy. The game presents a pretty tough challenge on normal difficulty, so very little of that time feels wasted. There’s always tougher enemies to battle, so every bit of experience gained is crucial.
I could honestly talk about this game for a hundred pages if I wanted to. There’s just so much good in here. The combat system is engaging, challenging, and rewarding. The presentation is simply phenomenal. While the story may not be the strongest, it has more than enough charm and heart to make up for it. It’s hard to come up with flaws. I usually can’t stand JRPGs, but I fell in love with this game from the very moment I picked it up, and haven’t stopped loving it since. This is truly one of the best games to come out in a long time.
Short Attention Span Summary
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an excellent RPG that does just about everything right. It is mechanically sound, interesting, and challenging. It has the kind of charm that most games would kill for. On top of that, it has some of the best visual and audio of this generation. To think that this game almost didn’t come out in the States is terrifying. It’s only the beginning of the year, and we have one hell of a GOTY contender. If you like RPGs at all, play this game. If you own a PS3, play this game. It’s simply worth it.