Level-5 Inc., with the help of animators Studio Ghibli bring a world to life that you could pull right from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle) with Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Playing as the young boy Oliver, you travel among two worlds with the power to restore the hearts of the people that were touched by the evil grips of Shadar, the main villain and overseer of the end of the world.
If you stick your hand into a bag of games, you’re bound to pull out a Japanese RPG eventually. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen such a traditional take on the genre, but what Ni no Kuni does differently is where this game truly shines.
Early on, Oliver meets his companion who will accompany him for the remainder of the journey, “Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies.” Early on, this little guy, thick hardened accent and all, serves as your guide through both worlds. He is the mentor who helps you attain your first wand, and assists in casting your first spell to venture beyond the realm of reality into another world. His quirky sayings and hilarious mannerisms will have you in stitches, and begging for more. His way of speaking is so infectious, I’ve found myself saying “mun” and “flippin'” a bit more often than I’d care to admit. Ollie boy may be the star, but that spotlight stays on Drippy the entire time.
One of the first instances of Drippy’s assistance is the acquirement of the Wizard’s Companion. This book, all in-game, includes over 200 pages on how to be a successful wizard. In it is every spell, familiar, alchemical recipe, lore, and plenty more. The depth of detail in the entire book truly set me back at first. I couldn’t believe how much information there was included. The interface is also extremely unique, and easy to use. When opening the book, it displays a picture of the beginning of each chapter, or the cover of the book. Zooming in with the right stick will bring you right to that spot in the book, and show all available pages, where you can zoom further to get to a particular page. It’s not only a blast to sift through the pages, but it’s incredibly informative as well. As you complete certain sections of the game, portions of lore will slowly unlock pertaining to those sections, if you care to delve deeper into universe you’re adventuring through. (Read the Wizard’s Companion.)
As if your incredible sidekick weren’t enough, you’re also acquainted with a familiar. Since you are such a young boy, you lack the skills to physically fight the dangers of the world without magic, so from that you form a familiar. Each familiar is stored within Oliver, and lives off the heart of him. Your familiar’s HP is Oliver’s HP, yet they each attain their own XP and have separate level trees. During battle you will be switching off between familiars and Oliver often, as each familiar has a stamina bar which slowly depletes while fighting, and restores while back inside of Oliver. It’s an interesting mechanic that promotes a bit of variation in tactics when it comes to battle. Each familiar can equip a host of items strewn across the world, or ones that you can buy from shops, including armor, swords, and shields, among others. No aesthetic change is made to your familiar from their equipment, which may seem a bit suspect on the designer side, but according to the Wizard’s Companion, familiars ingest their tools and reap the statistical benefits from them, just as Oliver stores the familiars inside them. (Re: Read the Wizard’s Companion.) You can feed your familiar sweet treats to increase his familiarity with you, and increase specific skills according to which food you feed them. When they reach a certain level, you’re able to have your familiar go through metamorphosis, which in turn resets their level to one, but leveling up is quick, and they will be much more powerful when they reach their previous attained level.
Battles are initiated in dungeons and in the overworld by running into familiars that roam the world. The battle system is faux real-time combat, wherein it’s not exactly turn based, but more command based. There is no dice roll effect to attacks that clearly miss your familiar or Oliver; if you are out of the way of the attack, it will not affect you in any way. After you select the attack command for either your familiar or Oliver, you attack for a short period of time, and then have a short cool down until you’re able to attack again. Each spell-based attack has a short warm up, and once it is cast has a short cool down until it can be used again. There’s also a defend command which allows you to stand guard for a short period of time. Pretty standard. As far as I could tell, mashing the X button while attacking did not increase attack speed. I still did it anyway, though. Felt cool.
Once party members are introduced, fitted with their own set of familiars, battling becomes a bit complicated. A newly unlocked command titled “Tactics” opens up a small menu with each party member. Inside, you can select how you want each party member to act while not in control of them. You may want your magic based party member to focus on healing more than giving it their all, or maybe you just want them to provide backup. If you want, you can have them do nothing. Why anyone would want to do that is beyond me, but the option is there. For a large portion of the beginning, there is no ability to defend each party member quickly without one of them becoming seriously battered and bruised. This becomes very old quickly, but once a third party member is introduced, new options open up. “All-Out Attack” and “All-Out Defense” now give you the ability to quickly control the behavior of each party member on the fly, but depending on the state of what each of your party members is doing, you may not be able to coax them into defending themselves so easily, making things awfully frustrating.
One of the main problems throughout the entirety of the game is your friendly AI. Often the magic based users use their most valuable, and most MP consuming buffing effects on very simple enemies, forcing you to either give them items to restore MP, or to suffer the consequences of using it all up. This can be extremely frustrating, especially when one of your magic-focused party members has one of the best magic-based familiars, and the buffing effects are borderline useless on random battles.
Everything so far may seem extremely daunting, and at first glance, it is. There is a lot to this game, but the early stages take you through it in a fantastic manner. Oliver is just as taken aback as you are, and has to learn with baby steps, just as you do. Each mechanic is slowly introduced, and very eloquently so. Each small quest you do in the beginning never seems too much like a tutorial. You’re still making an impact on your main quest, and it’s not until about 10 hours in until you are fully on your own without the game guiding you in some manner.
A JRPG without sidequests is like a soup without broth; sure the ingredients are there, and they might be great, but what the heck is a bowl of soup doing without broth? Each main town has a bustling community, with plenty of people running around, talking amongst each other, and enjoying the beautiful world they’re in. Among these people are the brokenhearted, those whose hearts have had a portion of it taken from Shadar. One person may not have the courage to go out and hunt for food to feed their family anymore, therefore losing the “courage” portion of their heart. Luckily enough, you ran into a person who is bursting at the seams with courage. With a small cast of a spell, you’re able to “Take Heart” from those generous enough to offer, and in turn “Give Heart” to the one who needed the courage. After that, their broken heart is mended and they are able to go on about their daily tasks, thanks to you. You can also pick up bounties from the bounty board in the “Swift Solutions” shops found in each town, where they task you to find a certain familiar or beast, slay it, and return for your reward.
Each mended heart or returned bounty reaps a few rewards, including an item, Guilders (the game’s currency), and stamps. “Stamps? I won’t be mailing anything!” No, no, keep listening. From Swift Solutions you attain a stamp card. Each card has 10 empty spots for the said stamps to be placed, and each filled card adds to your total. Once you save enough up, Swift Solutions has certain unlockable features for the game, such as being able to run faster, or being able to sneak up behind enemies more efficiently. It’s a great incentive to do sidequests, as they don’t unlock just experience and money, but very useful features as well.
I’ve done my best to not spoil the story, because this is one game you will want to go into with no knowledge of plot whatsoever. All you need to know is that every plot point is as interesting as it is moving, and you will not be able to stop thinking about this game for weeks to come. It’s a very moving tale, pushing me personally on the verge of tears. The entire story, some sidequests included, would take on average 45-50 hours. That said, you’ll never want to put it down.
Every key aspect of this game is fantastic in its own right, but making this incredible game go above and beyond is the art direction from Studio Ghibli. The cell shaded style is timeless and looks absolutely stunning. Each town and portion of the overworld has varying vibrant colors that will glue your eyes to the screen. The game is just pure eye candy. Composer Joe Hisaishi, known for his orchestrations featured in many Ghibli films, is also on board, with one of the most breathtaking soundtracks for any modern game. If you’re familiar with Studio Ghibli at all, you’ll feel right at home in Ni no Kuni.
The game features three instances of storytelling; text conversations, conversational cutscenes in the games normal look that are fully voice acted, and fully animated cutscenes by Studio Ghibli. The fully animated cutscenes are just gorgeous, and you’ll be chomping at the bit waiting for more, but sadly enough, they are quite scant. That said, you will remember each one. They are simply stunning. Not to mention the localization it outstanding, with each voice actor fitting their respective character perfectly. You’d be hard pressed to find a game with better production.
In an age where games are becoming more gritty and dark, it’s rare to see a game like Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch surface. A premise that includes a young boy restoring the hearts of those who lost a part of it sounds too innocent for this generation of games. What lies on the surface of this title may turn people away, but if you give Level-5 Inc. and Studio Ghibli a chance, you’ll find one of the most endearing tales of this generation, dealing with loss, hope, and love. It’s long, and it contains a daunting amount of mechanics and contents, but if you’re a fan of JRPGs, you would be doing yourself a disservice by not playing this fantastic, gorgeous game.
[+Stunning graphics][+Beautiful soundtrack][+Localization is top notch][+Battle system is varied and exciting][+Story will keep you coming back for more][+Drippy][-Frustrating AI][-Not enough fully animated scenes]