Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, the collaboration between developer Level-5 and filmmaker Studio Ghibli, tells the tale of a young boy and the journey he must endure in order to save his mother. From the outset, the bright, charming and gorgeous visuals sets the mood for an adventure full of characters you will actually care about.
The story begins with Oliver, a young boy from an American town Motorville, who finds himself in the predicament of having to travel to another world with the hopes to save his mother. Heavy, I know. The twist comes when Oliver’s stuffed toy, Mr. Drippy, springs to life after Oliver has been consumed with sorrow, and explains to the pure-hearted Oliver, that if he travels to his world and saves it from The Dark Djinn, doing so could unite him with his mother. It feels very much like it could be the premise for the next Studio Ghibli film, and much like the films, let the emotional rollercoaster begin.
Mr. Drippy doesn’t expect Oliver to take-on this journey on his own, even if he is a wizard with access to a magical tome. Ni no Kuni features action-oriented combat that mixes two fan-favorite RPGs: Pokemon and the Tales of series. Oliver can capture and train creatures to fight alongside him, called Familiars. The Familiars are able to gain levels, equip new weapons & armor, gain special abilities and even evolve into new forms. While having a great variety and plenty of different Familiars to choose from, you won’t have any trouble getting through the game with a handful of favorites. Each of the party members can carry up-to three different Familiars at any given moment, which can be swapped in battle at will, while save points allow them to be exchanged for new ones.
The combat takes place in real time, allowing you to take control of Oliver, one of the party members or Familiars and freely move them around the battlefield. Attacking however, is still controlled by choosing your action from a menu. This in itself, helps create a deeper combat system than you would find in a button masher, focussing instead on getting the best position on enemies to exploit weaknesses. Using the basic attack, the selected character will go off and auto-attack the enemy until the timer runs out. Each of the attacks has a minimum requirement for range, making it necessary to position yourself before selecting attacks. Swapping Familiars in and out, or even sending Oliver in to toss a magic spell, adds more depth to the system than I was expecting to find.
Boss battles tend to have a primary strategy, such as defending on the visual cue that a powerful attack is only moments away. Get caught in the middle of an attack, or simply missing the cue can be devastating. At times it feels like there isn’t enough time to defend against the attack, forcing you to play cautiously instead of being offensive minded.
Side quests exist in the way of errands, much like the standard fetch quests that can be found in most if not all RPG games. In Ni no Kuni, it usually doesn’t involve finding an item for the character, but instead Oliver uses his wizard power to mend broken hearts. A broken hearted character will be lacking in a specific emotion – kindness, courage, enthusiasm, etc. – and to fix it you’ll have to find a character with an over abundance of the same emotion. Cast a spell to take a little bit of the emotion and cast another spell to transfer it to the character in need. There isn’t much in the way of guessing, the game essentially tells you outright what emotion you must find, while having subtle hints could have improved the mechanic and added a bit more challenge in the process.
The other type of errands, revolves around bounty hunting a specific powerful creature, providing rewards that are well worth the leg work. While being labeled as “side quests”, I would almost call them a necessary component to the title and narrative. Completing these quests earns stamps on merit cards, which can be turned in for special rewards, such as increasing the experience earned in battle, having an easier time capturing Familiars to fight for you, and many more. By the end of the game, you will be glad you took the time to complete them, trust me.
While Level 5 has done an incredible job on the gameplay and matching the in-game visuals to the hand-drawn animated sequences, the game is simply gorgeous. The characters are charming, and the environments are unique and full of character. The excellent voice acting and the breathtaking score from Joe Hisaishi and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra adds to the presentation and boost it to a level rarely seen in modern games.
Level 5 and Studio Ghibli has created the next epic JRPG by blending storytelling and presentation into a classicical feeling game. Combat plays a major component in the title, but with so much to do in between set battles, Ni no Kuni appeals to those who don’t want to spend hours grinding and staring at stat screens. Not rushing through the game, I spent around 48 hours completing the game, with a bunch of side quests that still has to be finished and plenty of Familiars left to capture. The journey for sweet young Oliver, from scared little boy, to the so-called “savior of the parallel world” is absolutely awe-inspiring. “Youer” just going to have to believe me.
Note: The Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch review was written based on the PS3 version of the game.