Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch PS3 Review
There is a unique, characteristic art style with a Studio Ghibli animated film that shows it was produced by Hayao Miyazaki and his legendary motion picture studio. What is even more impressive is that this art style embraces and overpowers the viewer with beautiful and creative fantasy worlds that pull you into a wonderful adventure. Studio Ghibli is not known for jumping into the videogame world, due to Miyazaki’s grudge against the industry after a poor adaption of Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind. Even so, it seems that Level-5, the creators of Professor Layton, Inazuma Eleven and Dragon Quest VIII, managed to convince the studio to lend their talents to create the art and animation for Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, which brings the distinctive Studio Ghibli art to the classic Japanese RPG genre.
The hero of the adventure is little thirteen-year-old Oliver, an innocent-hearted kid who lives in Motorville with his mother. After a freak accident involving a kit car and a river, Oliver’s world is turned upside down. During his moments of sadness, his tears awaken a fairy called Drippy, who is the Lord High Lord of the Fairies and was trapped as a stuffed toy until Oliver set him free. Drippy explains that he is from another world and that he needs Oliver – given the name “the pure-hearted one” and has the makings of becoming a wizard – to come with Drippy and help him save this alternate world from the evil Shadar and his heart-breaking powers.
Ni No Kuni’s story feels like an adaptation of a quality animated film for families, and like any good film, you soon begin to feel for the world and adore the game’s main characters as the plot and its heroes tap into your heart. I do not know if getting older is making me more acceptable to emotions (I am only 28), but playing through this game made me feel moved by Oliver’s challenging journey. It has to be stated that Drippy is the real star of the show, with his Welsh accent and the use of “tidy,” “proper” and “mun” giving him a unique personality and dialogue that is not often used for a main character in video games. Oliver is the serious one, while Drippy acts as the positive and witty comedian sidekick that brings joy to the story at every moment possible, even during the more depressing moments.
There are some problems with the pacing of the story – mainly in the beginning of the game, because Ni No Kuni is rather slow to get going with its mechanics. It takes around five to six hours before you get your first teammate, then another five or six to finally get the other one and have a full party for battles. I know RPGs often have a slow start, especially if the game is full of complex ideas that take time and experience to absorb, but nearly clocking up twelve hours is a little on the unnecessary side to get the flow of the game going.
When you are finally on your way, then the game becomes an amazing throwback to the Japanese RPGs of old. I have nothing wrong with some of the directions RPGs are going nowadays (Persona 4 is one of my favourites in the genre), but sometimes it is nice to experience what RPGs used to be like. I miss exploring the world as you slowly progress from one town and dungeon to the next, discovering what new areas the designers were going to throw at you. I miss acquiring a boat for sea travel and/or an airship (a dragon in the case of this game) that would let me finally fly wherever I wanted to visit. Lost Odyssey was trying to evoke something along those lines, but Ni No Kuni does it so much better and is certainly for people who loved that aspect back in the golden age of the genre.
The battle system in Ni No Kuni is a mixture between Namco Bandai’s own Tales of games and Nintendo’s Pokémon. Encounters can be seen on the screen, allowing you to sneak up on them to get a pre-emptive attack or completely avoid them, but be careful, as enemies can also do the same to you if they manage to touch you from behind. In battle, you can control Oliver or use one of three equipped familiars. Familiars are the Pokémon aspect of the game and these critters can be summoned from your heart and used to fight. They share the life and magic of Oliver, so you must be careful to not let them die. No matter who you are controlling, the combat is based around moving in real-time as you wait for your attacks to recharge after a cooldown phase. This is a hectic and fast-moving combat system that requires you to keep an eye on what is happening on-screen.
In the beginning, the battle mechanics seem a little more on the side of “my first RPG,” because you are lacking team members and skills, and the game allows you to get away with just mashing Attack to win. As Oliver learns more magic and you gain party members and learn how to capture familiars – done by using Esther, a girl who has the ability to charm the enemy when they are in a near-death state – then the aspects of the battle system become much more interesting and varied, with three characters each having their own familiars at their disposal.
As the game goes on, you become more dependent on familiars. This is because familiars come with their own set of skills, strengths and weaknesses, and level-up just like the main characters. Each enemy and familiar has a sign based on sun, star or moon, that is stronger and weaker against one of the other symbols. Familiars can only fight in battle for as long as their stamina allows, meaning you need to switch between them and Oliver to keep the attacks going. It is advised to keep a mixture in your party, so you have something for every type of encounter. I learnt the hard way when I went with all the cool-looking familiars, most of them fitted with the star element, leading me to get destroyed in a boss battle. There is even more to the battles, such as timing attacks to counter an enemy, and discovering and understanding such depths on offer is when the battles become truly a pleasure to participate in.
Once familiars hit a certain level they can be evolved – or “metamorphosed” as the game calls it – to a stronger form, although they will lose their level and begin back at level one. This was slightly annoying for me, because if you happen to metamorphose at the wrong time, you are stuck with a low-level familiar in tough situations. A good thing is that any familiar equipped gains experience, so you can depend on your other two, higher-level familiars to boost your evolved familiar to levels where it is comfortable in fighting again.
Resetting familiar levels builds into some of the difficulty spikes that crop up throughout the game. Sometimes I reached a boss where it seemed extremely challenging and I would have to go back and grind a few levels, or find better familiars to help me overcome this point. It happened about three times, but either way, with the difficulty spikes and the way the familiar evolution system works, is safe to say that you will be grinding at some points in Ni No Kuni before you finish the game. At least if you die, you can sacrifice 10% of your money to spawn straight back at the last healing point, keeping all your collected items and experience intact.
On the topic of completion, you are looking at around 40+ hours to beat Ni No Kuni, and that is if you decide to just play along and do not participate in many of the side quests on offer. A lot of the quests revolve around Oliver and his magic power, his ability to take parts of people’s hearts and give those feelings to others to solve their broken-hearted state. The game makes it clear on the mini map who has hearts to give, so you are rarely stuck looking for that piece of love, courage or enthusiasm to help someone in need. Quests are conveniently located in a shop, and are numbered clearly to tell the user how many are done and how many are left to do. The developers have given incentives to make you want to do these quests, because completing them rewards Oliver with stamps, with every ten stamps giving him a complete card – think loyalty cards at Starbucks – which he can then trade in for an ability, such as faster walking, faster boat speed or easier pre-emptive strikes.
Oliver’s magic is very important to the game. He can use it to traverse back to his original world, mainly to find someone’s soul mate and solve their problem. He can also teleport to towns, make bridges, levitate himself to fly over traps and crack open locked treasure chests. You will be using Oliver’s whole arsenal of magic, so none of them feel like a “use once and forget” skill that is sometimes the case when given access to a multitude of abilities.
Finally, but certainly not the last feature of the game, we come to the Wizard’s Companion, Oliver’s magic book that builds up with pages over the course of the game. You are free to read the 300+ pages on offer to get a massive insight into the world of the game, its lore, monsters, stories and alchemy recipes. If you were lucky enough to pre-order the now-sold-out Wizard’s Edition of Ni No Kuni, then you will get yourself a real-life version of this book. When it comes to the alchemy, you can either use a recipe that you have found or randomly mix and match items. I found it disappointing that if you do happen to find a working mixture of items, by accident or using the Wizard’s Companion, the game does not save it as a recipe, so you are left to memorise it each time you want to create the same item again.
I cannot stress enough how beautiful Ni No Kuni looks. Its stunning art direction, which bursts with the wonderful art of Studio Ghibli, is splashed all over every nook and cranny. The art is something you have probably seen or heard about already, but an addition to these gorgeous graphics is the great English dub. There is an option for Japanese audio, but really, this is a game that does not need it, because the voices and translated script are top-notch. It is so good that I wish more of the text was spoken. It seems that the further you get into the game the less voiceover work appears, which is a huge shame. I am not marking it down as a negative on the game, but when the audio is this good to listen too, I cannot help but wish there was more of it.
Ni no Kuni arrived at the right time for me and most likely for fans of the JRPG genre as well. As we come to the end of this console life cycle, I can look back and say that Ni No Kuni, despite its slow start, is one of the best, if not the best, take on the old JRPG formula this generation. Having Studio Ghibli’s visuals is certainly a treat, but that is only the start because Ni No Kuni also has a family-friendly, heart-warming story, a great battle system and wonderful characters. Level-5 have done what Square Enix has been trying (and mostly failing) to do for the whole generation, leaving us fans with only excuses about their problems in the HD-era. Level-5, along with the amazing localisation work, took the experience from their background and created an adorable RPG that will be remembered for ages to come.