Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a large-scale RPG-come-monster-collector co-produced by Japanese studio Level-5, of Dark Cloud and Professor Layton fame, and Studio Ghibli, the charming anime company known for Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro. Released in Japan on November 17th 2011, exclusively for the PS3, and finally brought to Europe on February 1st 2013, this game gathered furious, frothing, cult-like support before even being translated; with copies selling out in just about every shop, and even pre-orders being unable to be met. Level-5 has a history of releasing too few copies to shelves initially, but the level of desire for this title was overwhelming.
Ni No Kuni starts off as many great stories have, with a happy-go-lucky little boy just generally loving life with his friends, sneaking around behind his mother’s back and calling mentally-ill shut-ins mean names; this is all until fate deals him a rather precise kick to the nethers. If this entire thing sounds a little generic, that’s because it is, if you’ve ever seen a Studio Ghibli film you have the basic idea already. The depth of this story lies in the subtleties, the characters and their progressions, the gorgeously hand-crafted world and the light-hearted romp through fairy-tale lands that eventually darkens and takes a much deeper tone. This game poses some pretty deep philosophies on death, grief and mourning. Oliver, the main character, is easy to sympathise with if you’ve ever felt any emotion other than simmering rage, and following his story is a genuine joy with many laugh-out-loud moments. Much of the humour comes from a little Welsh fairy named Drippy. When Drippy first showed up his excellent writing and strong accent caused me to spit out my tea with laughter; incidentally, cry-baby-bunting is a term that really needs to reach mainstream success. You’ll be traveling to many different lands in this lengthy title, each with a unique and sincere feel, as well as deeper thematic overtones.
Ni No Kuni doesn’t really break any new ground with its gameplay. You’ll find yourself alternating between the world map, cities, dungeons and separate-screen sometimes real-time sometimes turn-based battles. Despite this, there are many smaller touches and additions to the simplicity that are slowly introduced throughout the 50-hour story. Each time something new is introduced, you are given a nice long play to get used to it before being thrown something else; but this can occasionally become frustrating and some of the features added mid-way through the game would be incredibly useful much earlier.
You learn spells as you go along that can be used both in-battle and in the world to solve puzzles and quests. Each spell feels imaginative and unique, with beautiful particles used to stunning effect, although the majority of puzzles are a tad on the easy side, and can be solved through trial and error instead of logical thought.
Battles take place in real-time with action pausing every so often for the more precise strategies. You can control one of the human characters directly, or any of their up-to-three “Familiars”; the cutesy little monsters that are formed of human emotion and fight for their wielder. You run around the battlefield attacking, defending, casting spells and generally indulging in a socially-acceptable form of pit-fighting; think a cross between the Tales series and the Pokémon games and you’re not far off. Unfortunately, the AI on both your enemies and partners leaves a lot to be desired and you’ll often find yourself yelling at the screen as you wait for a heal. The bad AI is slightly offset by the strength of Oliver, and sadly the fantastic support characters feel rather inconsequential in battle.
You’ll spend plenty of time getting to know your familiars as you take the journey through Ni No Kuni. There is an initially overwhelming amount of options to looking after your little beasties, that could satiate even the most die-hard statistician, and you become pretty attached to them by the end of the game. They all have a lot of character and names that dance on the line between hilarious and embarrassing; Puss-in-Boats, a pirate-cat, this is actually a thing.
Of course, all of this would mean nothing if everything was brown and grey and displayed like Dwarf Fortress (Another great game, albeit uglier than a rotting goat). Thankfully, that’s not the case.
The first thing to note is, as mentioned earlier, this game is bright, brighter a than lump of burning magnesium, and colourful, too. It has that familiar Studio Ghibli art-style and an example of some of the best cel-shading I’ve ever seen outside of CyberConnect2. With such a high level of ability obviously flailing around their graphics department, Level-5 and Studio Ghibli has created a game wherein the hand-drawn anime cut scenes do not feel like a jarring leap from the in-game action. Animations are seldom reused and even the shading is surprisingly good, which goes a long way toward making the world of Whatever-it’s-called, a living thriving place.
No grand story would be complete without an epic soundtrack. Thankfully, Ni No Kuni does not disappoint on this aspect, either. Scored by Joe Hisaishi (A Ghibli regular), and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, this game has music that could rival the most spectacular opera or, more importantly, most loved video games of the past. It’s always telling of a good OST when you find yourself humming along to themes after only a couple of listens. Each individual track goes a long way to mirror the themes and emotions on display in the visuals so as to have the two blur into a sensory satisfaction.
The voice acting and sound-effects are also well utilised and bring the fantastic combat and perfect writing to life. Within a short time, you find yourself naturally reading the un-voiced dialogue in the characters voices. It would have been nice to have EVERYTHING voiced, but it’s mostly forgivable.
Ni No Kuni is a VERY long, albeit not overly difficult game. If you speed through I could imagine it would last around 30 hours, although an average play through is likely to take much longer. The side-quests are mostly enjoyable and all give fantastic rewards that really lend a sense of accomplishment to the whole thing, and the main story has you running around the huge world-map and sprawling dungeons which aren’t frustratingly linear or irritatingly complicated. Puzzles jump in your way to slow you down, and the pacing feels spot-on in most circumstances; although can become drawn-out in others. There is a LOT to do here, and that is before the game is even finished.
This little Ghibli-gem has a lot to do outside of the main game, which carries long into post-game as new content, quests and creatures pop up. If you like collecting you’re in luck, because between good-Samaritan stickers, familiars to catch, alchemy formulas to find, spells to unlock and hearts to un-break you’ll feel more content and complete than a man who’s completed an 80-year collection of vintage undergarments.
The lengthy post-game content has the effect of actually diminishing the replayability as you’ll find there is just too much to do to ever have to restart. That said, the story and world is great enough to want to be experienced again and again; not to mention in two different languages, Japanese and English!
It’s also worth mentioning that the game comes with an in-game strategy guide in the form of the “Wizard’s Companion”. Not all information is unlocked from the start and it grows as your knowledge of the world does. Reading this entire tome from front to back alone could take hours.
This game is quite clearly a masterpiece, a modern RPG that recaptures the glory days of the genre. Despite having very few original ideas it brings everything together in a fresh way and feels far from patchwork. It’s more enjoyable than most of the trash that’s birthed forth these days, crying and kicking, and makes a very nice alternative to everything else. If you buy one game this year, buy Euro Truck Simulator 2… but then buy Ni No Kuni.
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