Published on February 14th, 2013 | by Adam Vjestica2
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Review
The Essence Of The Heart
It’s been sixteen years since I’ve felt this way about a video game. Sixteen years of wondering whether this remarkable, ever-changing industry could somehow recapture the feelings that I thought were once forever lost; feelings which I’d slowly begun to dismiss as nothing more than favourable nostalgia and the inexperience of youth. I was wrong to dismiss them — because those feelings were genuine.
The overwhelming sense of joy, the tickle of excitement; a dash of intrigue and willing dedication. A tinge of sadness, the warm sensation of love and the comforting embrace of charm. All of these untapped emotions have emerged during my time with the unforgettable and unmissable Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, the result of a dream collaboration between developer Level-5 and acclaimed animators Studio Ghibli.
Ni no Kuni is no ordinary JRPG, it’s from another world. A world that many of us had forgotten, where the connection between gamer and developer is so strong that you can almost reach out and touch it. Every element of Ni no Kuni is so delicately crafted and immaculately designed that you’ll be compelled to see everything the game has to offer — honestly, it can be hard to pull yourself away.
Level-5 have mastered the RPG formula, sharpening their blade on the whetstone of Dragon Quest and Professor Layton to deliver a razor sharp experience that excels in almost every area. Studio Ghibli’s endearing art style, beautiful storytelling – full to the brim with moral fiber and wholesome family values – is the ultimate weapon enchantment, cutting deep into even the coldest of hearts. These two companies have created the perfect storm and what lies in their wake is a glorious, glittering rainbow.
I’ve been obsessively exploring, relentlessly battling, and utterly engrossed in this wonderful, spell-binding JRPG — a genre which has been struggling to stay relevant in recent years. If your mind is already conjuring up negative connotations associated with this genre then please dismiss them immediately; Ni no Kuni deserves more than a stuffy old label and stereotypical assumptions.
A Fairytale Beginning
Ni no Kuni tells the tale of a young boy named Oliver, a remarkably well-mannered individual and resident of the peaceful town of Motorville. Oliver’s care-free life is rocked by the unexpected loss of his mother, Alicia, who dies following an unknown complication with her heart. Understandably distraught, Oliver’s left to mourn his mother alone, clutching onto his favourite doll that Alicia had made for him. (If the television screen looks blurry at this point, it’s probably because you’ll be welling up too!)
As his tears fall onto his cuddly comforter, suddenly, Oliver’s doll transforms into a living creature: a cuddly, rotund chappy called Mr. Drippy, who happens to be the High Lord of the Fairies no less! Mr. Drippy informs Oliver that his tears have actually broken a curse that was placed on him by a despicable Dark Djinn known as Shadar and tells him about Ni no Kuni, another world which is parallel to Oliver’s. Drippy hints that Oliver may be able to save his mother in this parallel universe, as an alternate, mirror image version of Alicia exists in Ni no Kuni — as do other versions of the residents of Motorville. However, if Oliver is to stand a chance of reversing his mother’s fate, he will have to become a fully-fledged wizard, with Drippy taking the unlikely role as his mentor.
Desperate to be reunited with his mother, and unable to resist Mr. Drippy’s fitting Welsh accent, Oliver bravely embarks on a quest into Ni no Kuni. With the Wizard’s Companion and the High Lord of the Fairies by his side, a wondrous story unfolds, buoyed by a colourful cast, a suitably evil antagonist, a noble mission to cure broken hearts and stunning locales. The word ‘epic’ has never been so fitting.
Thankfully, Ni no Kuni’s battle system is complementary to the fascinating story. Using a clever hybrid of successful foundations – think Pokemon crossed with a Tales game - Ni no Kuni delivers a rewarding and refreshing battle experience. As the game progresses, the player is slowly introduced to the more refined elements of the surprisingly complex battle system, which at first seems fairly simplistic.
All battles take place in real-time in an enclosed, albeit open space. You can move your characters freely around the stage – an essential tactic if you are to dodge an enemy’s attack. When it comes to fighting back, players have a number of standard options to choose from: attack, defend, magic and provisions. Once you’ve selected your move, a timer locks you into that action opening up a risk/reward system of sorts. If your character is too far away from the enemy you want to attack, simply pressing attack will lead to some miss hits. If you should have defended but instead chose to cast a spell, you could find yourself on the wrong end of a fearsome attack – so it’s vitally important to carefully strategise which moves should be performed and when.
Defending and attacking is also an art form in itself, especially when it comes to taking down bosses and more powerful foes. If you can effectively time an attack, you’ll receive a critical strike. Correctly position your team to defend, and you may just be rewarded with a powerful gold glim. Glims are dropped by enemies and come in three forms: green glims restore health points, blue glims restore magic points and gold glims grant your character a powerful special attack. Collecting glims is a key part of keeping the upper hand in a battle, but again, you have to weigh up the risk of picking up a glim or taking your eye of your opponent.
That Familiar Feeling
Adding a satisfying sizzle of further strategy and a deeper connection when battling is the unexpected inclusion of familiars. Familiars are essentially the Studio Ghibli equivalent of Pokemon, and there are 300 of them to collect, train, evolve, sorry, ‘metamorphise’ and feed. That’s right, you’re tasked with feeding your familiars to enhance their abilities with all sorts of culinary delights.
Each party member has access to three familiars at a time and like everyone’s favourite pocket monsters, each familiar has it’s own strengths, weaknesses and a particular class. Familiars are slightly generic when compared to the more flamboyant and memorable Pokemon – you won’t be learning any raps here – but the fighting system is arguably deeper, as you won’t be switching between numerous familiars to find one which is super effective.
Of course, training up your familiars is only half the fun, and it helps that you can tinker, change, capture and feed a whole host of different duellers should you feel the need. It makes the usual grind associated with JRPGs almost non-existent as there always feels like a motive for having one last battle.
A Hearty Challenge
And it’s probably a good idea if you do challenge yourself to train that little bit extra, because Ni no Kuni can get difficult fast and will ruthlessly punish those who are weak and unskilled. Don’t be fooled by the game’s sumptuous looks, a stern challenge awaits. You have been warned.
If, like me, you’re someone who has a tendency to stray from the beaten path, there’s a plenty of side quests to complete and an actual proper world map to explore. The awesome thing is, though, that instead of just completing a task for some random, meaningless stranger, every side quest is genuinely worth your time. Should you choose to undertake a stranger’s request, or complete a bounty hunt, you’ll be rewarded handsomely with items, money, experience and most importantly of all, merit stamps. Collect enough merit stamps and you can unlock in-game perks such as the ability to gain more experience during battles or even just learn how to jump. And yes, jumping is totally pointless but my God is it endearing.
The Look of Love
If it wasn’t obvious from the screenshots, Ni no Kuni is a visual masterpiece. I mean just look at it. This is a game that is flawless in the presentation department. I’ve yet to encounter any bugs or annoying niggles, slow down or sloppy glitches. And that’s so important in a game like this, as the last thing you want is to be reminded you’re playing a game and kicked back into reality, especially when it’s so easy to lose yourself in Ni no Kuni. There’s also a smattering of gorgeous Ghibli grade cutscenes, though it’s difficult not to yearn for more.
The voice over work and music is also of substantial quality. Though I opted for the Japanese voice over, the English actors do a great job of bringing cast to life, especially the charismatic Mr. Drippy. Studio Ghibli’s composer Joe Hisaishi and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra provide the perfect musical accompaniment to the on-screen magic, though the battle music is the only dud of the bunch, grating by the 1000th battle.
From the awe-inspiring visuals, to the mammoth amount of side quests and longevity on offer, it’s little wonder that I’ve been so slow in compiling this review. It’s been awhile since I’ve stayed up late into the early hours, so resolutely content that only sheer exhaustion seems like a valid excuse to walk away. It’s that damn good. (And no, I haven’t finished playing it yet!)
Summary: Ni no Kuni may just be the finest exclusive of this entire generation. It’s a game you will return to; willingly. A game which knows when to hold your hand and when to let you go. A game that will give back what you put in and comfortably stand the test of time. This isn’t graphics over gameplay, or the latter over the former, Ni no Kuni is the perfect synergy. It’s a shining light in an industry that has been sullied by too many generic shooters, an over reliance on sequels and games that lack soul. Magical, majestic, enthralling and captivating, leave this world behind and join Oliver and Drippy on a journey you’ll never forget. Tidy, mun!