Finding a good JRPG with a classic feel seems to be getting harder as of late, but every so often, one rises to the occasion, showing that an old-school vibe can still hold up in today’s world. Ni No Kuni – Wrath of the White Witch has accomplished this feat exceptionally well, and it is not something to be missed. Level-5 and Studio Ghibli have created a wondrous, epic tale about an average boy who turns out to hold incredible power, and how he must save a fantasy world filled with magic and wonder.
Imagine you’re living your regular life, doing everyday things, and just trying to have fun. Then, your mother passes away and leaves you completely alone. With all hope lost and in a world of despair, your doll comes to life and tells you a fanciful tale about another world – one where you can save your mother. Renewed with hope and determination, you set out on an epic quest of fantasy and adventure to save the one you care for. This is the opening of Ni No Kuni, and it paints a dire picture of what Oliver is going through. You instantly feel for this poor boy who will stop at nothing to get his mother back.
The world is covered in shadow by the evil sorcerer Shadar, who can take a piece of a person’s heart, leaving them emotionally wronged. Someone who loses their courage becomes afraid of everything, someone who loses their kindness begins to hate everyone, etc. It’s easy to see how this can pose a huge problem when it happens to a King or to a large group of individuals. The only one that can stop such a tragedy is Oliver: the Pure-Hearted One.
As a protagonist, Oliver is extremely likable for the realistic feel he has. He isn’t some big, tough protagonist, or some extremely gifted child. Instead, he’s a normal, kind, gentle boy that proves true power isn’t always what you expect it would be, and because of this, you’ll find yourself attached to him pretty quickly. The same goes for the other characters. Each one is extremely engaging in their own way, which includes Mr. Drippy, who you may think would try your patience after a while. The dialog is well done; whether the line is emotionally deep or just everyday banter, Ni No Kuni has succeeded on this front as well, providing a well-rounded cast of characters.
The story is good enough on its own, but the amazing presentation only adds to the incredible game. As everyone knows at this point, the animation is done by the famous Studio Ghibli, and it does not disappoint in the slightest. On top of the anime cut-scenes, the real-time graphics are also astounding. The cel-shaded, cartoony graphics are a welcome change of pace from the mainstream gaming industry. They are everything you want in a game: bright, vibrant, and colorful. Everything is incredible to witness, from the sunlight that streams through a lush forest to the grassy plains that the wind blows in beautiful waves. Every location is vastly different from one another, and with each new discovery, your eyes will happily soak up all the masterful detail. A lot of time and care was put into this game, and it clearly shows.
To match the artistic presentation is the equally amazing soundtrack. It’s beautifully done by Joe Hisaishi, who composed music for many of the Studio Ghibli films. The music is absolutely riveting from the very first time you set foot on the world map. The incredible orchestra deepens the majestic feeling of Ni No Kuni with fleeting flutes, booming brass, and everything in-between. It is absolutely astounding and completely memorable. Every location comes to life in this game from the vivid colors and the alluring music. You keep thinking the effect will wear off, but it never truly does. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself standing still as you enjoy the feeling of this game, letting it overwhelm your senses with all its beauty.
A game can’t survive on presentation alone, but don’t worry: Ni No Kuni’s gameplay is extremely addicting. In a fight, you control one character at a time, which leaves the other two characters to be controlled by the computer. You can switch between characters and Familiars fluently, which allows you to use twelve different fighters at any point in a battle; however, only three can be on the field at a time. It isn’t turn-based, but it isn’t completely in real-time either. Once you touch a monster, you enter into the battle mode, but you have full control of the characters at this point. Now you run around and choose attacks in real-time, which makes the fighting incredibly fast-paced.
Admittedly, Ni No Kuni is like Pokémon. It’s rather hard to deny that fact when you do go around and catch Familiars, raise them, and fight with them. To some, that has already sold this game for you; for others, don’t let it discourage you. It’s much, much deeper than simply calling it Pokémon. You do level up each Familiar, choose equipment for them, and can even feed them food to boost their stats. The main difference is that once battle starts, you have control over the character you are using, and you have to make real-time decisions.
This real-time factor is what makes Ni No Kuni‘s gameplay so addicting. You feel like you’re a part of the fight, not just commanding it. You have to switch between characters and Familiars constantly to keep up with the ongoing battle. Maybe coming out with a strong physical fighter works at first, but you keep taking too much damage. So you pull back and shoot a couple spells at the monster. Suddenly, the monster falls into a critical state, so you quickly launch your strongest fighter and order your allies to go for an all-out attack to try and take out as much health as you can in its weakened state. The real-time fighting allows for multiple strategies in each battle, and everyone may play the game differently, since they might have their own team of Familiars to use. Leaving this up to the individual player is brilliant since it gives Ni No Kuni great personalization so everyone can play the game how they want.
It’s understandable to assume this game will be easy, especially with how the graphics are, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This game can be frustratingly difficult. The flow of battle can change in a second. One moment you may be dishing out heavy damage, when suddenly the enemy unleashes a powerful move and both your allies die. Now you’re running around in circles, desperately trying to stay out of the range of the beast that’s chasing you while scrambling to heal yourself. One slip up and it’s game over. You cannot think about going into this game with the strategy of just trading blows back and forth; you’ll never make it past the first boss. You need to constantly defend, flank the enemies, get distance to heal, organize attack patterns, and, most importantly, get a strategically sound team of Familiars to work with. Overcoming strength and weakness is part of what makes this game so much fun.
As expected in a RPG, there are tons of extras in Ni No Kuni to discover in-between the main story. There are two main types of side missions: bounty-hunts and errands. Bounty-hunts are exactly what you expect: you take out some powerful monster for a reward. Errands – as the name suggests – have you help a person in need, ranging from restoring someone’s broken heart to finding some guy’s lost journal. Both side-missions reward you with money and items, but they also give merit stamps. Ten merit stamps fills a merit card, and you can trade in the cards to receive bonuses in the game. Some bonuses are useless abilities, like Oliver being able to jump, while others are far more useful, like gaining more experience in battle. It is well worth your time trying to collect these stamps, since later in the game, the rewards are extremely helpful.
As great as this game is, it isn’t perfect. There are a couple of flaws that will undoubtedly anger a few people. There are some pretty steep difficulty spikes when it comes to bosses, so you might have to grind every now and then. However, since it is a real-time battle, as long as you are skilled enough, you can be under-leveled and still manage to beat some vastly superior enemies. The real problem is your allies’ intelligence: calling them dumb is an understatement. Even though you can set their tactics, they still do some strange things. They will happily waste their magic without a second thought, and other times, they will fight personally instead of using a vastly more powerful Familiar. There are battles where you feel like you’re babysitting your friends more than anything. As strange as it sounds, there are even a couple times when the battle becomes easier after letting your friends die, just so you don’t have to worry about them anymore, and that should never be the case in a game.
Ni No Kuni – Wrath of the White Witch has entertaining and challenging gameplay. The Familiar raising is addicting, and there are tons of side-quests to partake in. It’s one of those games where you set off to do just one side-quest, but then, three hours later, you’re still side-questing. A casual playthrough will run you about 35+ hours, and there is so much more to do besides the main story. Ni No Kuni has one of the most creative worlds seen in a long while. Every creature, village, and magic spell holds dreamlike intrigue that everyone will adore. The characters are lovable and the story memorable. The dialog is witty and will often cause you to laugh, even if the joke is a dumb pun. (A Cat King is referred to as Meowjesty…you know it’s funny).
Ni No Kuni is one of those games that comes around once in a long while. With incredible presentation crafted from the animation and whimsical musical score, this game will draw you in to the fantasy world it has created and never let go. It’s an adventurous tale of wonder and awe that every child will love and adults can reminisce over. If you don’t fight it and allow yourself the pleasure of returning to childhood – even if just for a moment – Ni No Kuni will strike you deep inside.
This review is based off a retail copy of the Playstation 3 version of Ni No Kuni – Wrath of the White Witch developed by Level-5 and Studio Ghibli and distributed by Namco Bandai Games