Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Developer: Level-5 Studios
Available on: PS3
First off, you’ll have to excuse my lateness to the party. Ni No Kuni is an engrossing adventure and, as you’ll find in my review, requires some serious commitment from anyone who wants to see the game’s final hours of story. Apologies aside, I’ll get straight into it: Ni No Kuni is a wonderful experience that simply demands to be played by any gamer, not simply fans of the JRPG market. It’s one of those rare gems that come along a handful of times every generation, and I’ll tell you why.
Let’s begin by taking a look at all of Ni No Kuni’s moving parts. The animation is produced by the legendary anime production company Studio Ghibli, who fans will know them for such wonderful films as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. The orchestral score is produced by Joe Hisaishi, who’s no stranger to Ghibli’s work, and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The game itself plays like, and I’m really boiling things down to generalize here, the best parts of Dragon Quest, the Tales of series, and Pokémon all wrapped into one. The end result is a near-perfect storm that blends incredible narrative, memorable characters, beautiful sights and sounds, and gameplay that sucks you in and never lets go. Diving into the details, the following is a break down of each section designed to take a look at Ni No Kuni, warts (there aren’t many) and all, to give a comprehensive review of exactly what the game offers.
While I won’t be divulging any major story details or plot twists, there will be references to “errands” (side quests) and minor story elements during this review, so just to be fair I’ll say Minor Spoilers Ahead.
Ni No Kuni puts players in the role of Oliver, a young boy who, through tragic circumstances, finds himself travelling to the faraway land of Ni No Kuni on a quest to become a powerful wizard. Along the way, he encounters numerous characters that will aid him as he gains new spells and insightful life experiences all in preparation of his final showdown. Oliver’s first travel companion, and lifelong friend/confidant, is his stuffed doll Mr. Drippy. I’m sure by now you’ve seen this in every trailer for the game, but Mr. Drippy is a fairy with a lantern nose-ring type deal who springs to life to help Oliver better understand the world of Ni No Kuni. Ni No Kuni, you see, is actually another world entirely; a world filled with magic and far removed Oliver’s home town of Motorville, where people use the phrase “gee willikers” or “jeepers” because they’re still new. It’s a genuine slice of Japan’s vision for 1950’s Americana. The characters are diverse, layered and almost instantly loveable. The latter is mostly due to some impressively-written dialogue. As with most RPGs, the story is mainly told through passive cutscenes, where the only interactivity at that point becomes scrolling through sections of text. My opinion of that is a whole other story.
The telltale sign of a great story is when, after only a couple hours in, you’re so engrossed in the world that it becomes easy to spot inconsistencies; and while they’re few and far between, I’ve found a few worth mentioning. For example, Oliver has a locket that can “sense” those who are strong of heart. This means the locket will glow when near anyone with an overabundance of emotions such as courage, kindness, etc. When simply running around towns, the locket will glow when in close proximity to someone. However, sometimes the locket won’t glow until after a task has been fulfilled for no other reason than that it simply suits the progression of story. I’d be fine if the locket didn’t glow until the person came to some sort of realization, but there are a couple cases where nothing changes between the first time you meet a character and when you return after completing a quest, and that doesn’t make sense. I have a few other nitpicks that are more heavily story-related, but for the sake of preserving the feeling of wonderment for new players I won’t spoil them. Suffice to say, these gripes are mere nitpicks in the overall narrative of Ni No Kuni, as the journey is completely captivating from start to finish. If you’re like me, you simply won’t want this game to end; no matter how satisfying the conclusion. With a central story that lasts roughly 40 hours, and numerous activities to complete once you’re leveled up, Ni No Kuni will keep you invested for a long time.
The Sights and Sounds
It should come as no surprise that Ni No Kuni looks simply gorgeous. Ghibli has integrated their trademark style into every corner of both worlds. Everything from the beautiful towns and great creature designs, to the grand vistas that WILL make you stop and stare, ensure that this world is breathtaking to behold. I’d wager it’s next to impossible to play this game in its entirety without the inescapable compulsion to go off exploring, if for no other reason than to see the sights.
My only gripe here is in how the cutscenes are presented, which in a very Tales of likeminded approach is told through a variety of styles: There is the hand drawn animation featuring voice work, the fully-voiced non-interactive cutscene using the in-game visuals, the voiced cutscene with scrollable text, and the non-voiced scrollable text during dialogue. All of these styles certainly offer variety, but when mixed and matched within a single break in gameplay actually make for a very jarring, disjointed experience that honestly distracts from the narrative. I found it hard to focus on what was going on story-wise when in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “Why do the visual styles keep changing every twenty seconds?” If each break in gameplay stayed consistent with a single visual style, I would have no problem with including all these different cutscenes in the game. But to switch between them so freely is a bit overwhelming.
I will admit what almost makes the fragmented cutscenes worth it is any excuse to hear more voice work. What makes the English translation so great as opposed to other JRPGs is how much care was devoted to making sure the game was ported over with all its charm intact. It goes beyond making sure “All your base are belong to us” and ensures that every phrase comes across the way it was intended, keeping the writer’s intentions clear throughout. It’s also worth noting the little details that make the worlds on Ni No Kuni come so alive. For example, when in Motorville the majority of folks speak with an American accent, as you’d expect. But switch over to Ni No Kuni and everyone has a decidedly British accent. It really helps separate the worlds and offers a little insight into how much love was put into creating the entire game.
The music is equally as pleasing to hear. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra performs wonderfully as each new town to explore is filled with unique and fitting tunes. The music during exploration of the overworld, where all traveling between dungeons takes place, feels excited and proud, just as I did while playing. If I had to pick out a single issue, it would be that I wish there was more to listen to. There are four large “Regions” (continents) in Ni No Kuni, each representing a different season of the year. Unfortunately, since the overworld is just that, an overworld, the music never changes when traveling to a new region. If each Region had its own style of music, that would be icing on an already delicious cake. But after everything the game offers, I legitimately feel like I’m asking for too much.
This is where that blending of various other games comes into play. In traditional JRPG fashion, Ni No Kuni will feature going back and forth between previously visited towns and speaking to the locals to complete errands. These range from your usual fetch quests, some of which require condition-specific battles to obtain the items in question (i.e. blinding an enemy before taking them down), to the mixing and matching of missing pieces of people’s hearts, which harkens back to Oliver’s locket as mentioned earlier. There are also “Bounty Hunts” to go on, wherein which upon agreeing to undertake the mission a monster will appear in a specified area of the overworld and simply wait for you to come challenge it. The incentive to side questing is the collecting of “Merit Stamps” on your stamp card. After receiving enough stamps, they can be converted into passive abilities such as running faster across the overworld or having an easier time sneaking up on enemies.
Which leads me to Ni No Kuni’s combat. Much like the Tales of series, monsters found within dungeons or on the overworld can be surprised from behind, allowing Oliver and company an early advantage in the fight. Likewise, monsters that surprise Oliver put the party at a distinct disadvantage at the star of battle. Combat itself is primarily done through the use of “Familiars,” creatures that are either obtained through story progression or captured and tamed during battle. While players can choose to use human companions to battle with, which will mainly be used for certain spell casting, the majority of each fight will consist of literally throwing out a familiar into battle. Each party member can hold three familiars at a time, which can be switched out at a moment’s notice during combat. There’s a rock-paper-scissor dynamic to familiar types which consists of sun, moon and star types.
Your other party member will fight alongside you, sending out whichever familiars they choose. At any point you can switch to direct control over your other human companions, or simply adjust their “tactics” from the menu to guide their battle strategy. While they will make mistakes from time to time, overall, once tactics are adjusted to suit your playstyle the team works pretty well in unison. It is worth noting that when an ally casts a team buff, it will break your attack chain and leave you standing still while the buff takes effect; meaning you’re completely vulnerable and will probably take a beating. This is admittedly a bizarre oversight during development, but rare enough that it isn’t gamebreaking, as it affects only normal attacks and not defending or charging up special attacks.
Additionally, familiars level up alongside their human friends (masters?) and at a certain level can eventually “metamorphose”. That’s a less fun way of saying evolve. Each familiar has three evolutionary stages, each one allowing them to learn new skills. Again, much like a Tales of title, metamorphosing a familiar resets their level back to one, but gives them added stat progression and better basic stats. They can also be fed “treats” to bolster individual stats such as attack or evasion. All in all, much like the “merit stamps”, it adds up to an addictive metagame that will keep you immersed in the world for a few hours longer.
A couple final things to keep in mind about the gameplay of Ni No Kuni: While there is an easy mode to help lighten the burden, there is a lot of forced grinding in the game. This is due to the natural learning curve of battle and a sudden spike in difficulty early on in the game. This is an unfair promise to make, but I can honestly say that if you can make it through the first ten hours of Ni No Kuni, the hardest part of the journey is over. That doesn’t mean the first ten hours are a horrible experience, they just require a little patience and a period of adjustment.
Ni No Kuni is an incredible experience that should absolutely be played. Don’t be fooled by the warm and seemingly child-proof exterior, at the core of this emotional tale lies a heartwarming story filled with memorable characters and worthwhile experiences. It’s simply gorgeous to look at and listen to, and there’s enough content to keep you going for a good long while. This isn’t just a must-have for any JRPG fan; it’s a must-have, period. A trip down throwback lane, Ni No Kuni is a statement to JRPG makers everywhere that, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I’m not going to use any sort of arbitrary rating system because I think my thoughts on the game are quite clear. Just know that it’s one of the good ones. Oh and one last thing. I’m going to end my reviews with some basic tips/strategies for those in need of a little push in the right direction. Given the name of our site, I’m going to call this section, “Pro Tips.”
- Sometimes the best offense truly is a good defense. Unlike any other game you’ve ever played, you will actually have to defend if you want to survive even basic enemy encounters. Wailing away on your foes won’t be enough to keep you alive, so if you see an enemy getting ready to attack, brace yourselves.
- Not that the game ever tells you this during battle tutorials, but you can actually use L2 and R2 to cycle through battle menu options, as opposed to using the D-Pad. This will come in handy when needing to find your healing spells while simultaneously dodging enemy attacks.
- Don’t get too attached to your starting familiars. Being so reminiscent of Pokémon, it’s easy to slip into the mentality that sticking with your starting team will be enough to survive. While that might be true, the familiars you tame later in the game are leaps and bounds more effective than the ones you start off with. Food for thought.
- Always revisit towns after every major story progression. There will always be new errands to run and bounty hunts to complete. A couple side quests start in the first town you visit and carry on throughout every town from then on, so keep a lookout for familiar faces. The more involved the quest, the greater the end reward. And don’t worry, you will eventually acquire a method of fast travel.
- Do as many side quests as possible. It will help alleviate the otherwise unavoidable grindfest. Besides, the passive abilities provided by earning merit stamps will facilitate nearly every aspect of gameplay.
- Don’t be afraid to “soldier on”. Some dungeons will seem to spike in difficulty, but there’s always a save point at the beginning and end of a dungeon. Sometimes all it takes is perseverance and a little leap of faith to reach the end, and you’ll be surprised to find the boss of the dungeon is easier than the groups of creatures scattered along the path.
- If trying to avoid combat, put as much distance as possible between you and the enemy. The creatures in the game have a huge detection radius as compared to other JRPGs. It will catch you off guard the first time.
That’s all for now, Good luck!