Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is the dream game I never knew I wanted until it happened. Published by Namco Bandai, the game is developed by Level-5, who have made their name in the Japanese RPG market with games such as Dark Cloud, Dragon Quest VIII & IX and the wildly successful Professor Layton series. Meanwhile, the art, sound and story are based on the designs of Studio Ghibli, one of Japan’s premiere animation studios with masterpieces like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away to their credit. This combination of efforts has led to a stunning game that is a must-play for any JRPG fan.
The game centers around Oliver, a young boy from Motortown, dealing with the tragic loss of his mother at the beginning of the game. Right off the bat, Ni no Kuni delivers an incredible amount of emotion through Oliver’s depression. With this being a Ghibli story, Oliver soon discovers that he can possibly save his mother by traveling to Another World (which is the English translation of “Ni no Kuni”) and defeating Shadar, the Dark Djinn, an evil force that is conquering the world by stealing people’s emotions. The story that follows is one of triumph, not just over evil, but of Oliver overcoming his depression, growing as a person and ultimately gaining confidence in himself. It’s not just a story of good over evil; it’s a story of a young boy overcoming tragedy.
The characters are all fantastic, starting with Drippy, Oliver’s stuffed animal who turns out to be the Lord High Lord of Fairies in the other world. Drippy not only serves as Oliver’s guide, but a cheerleader and even therapist, constantly reassuring Oliver that despite his young age and lack of experience, he really can do this. The characters Oliver meets during his journey are a varied bunch, each with their own motivations for helping Oliver and their own hurdles to overcome. No character is there to just take up space or move the plot forward; even the most minor characters are fully-developed in their own right. The game’s villains are given strong motivation for their actions and become relatable in their own ways. It’s easy to see how someone with good intentions can fall prey to dark emotions and serves as a powerful counterpoint to Oliver’s own journey.
Ni no Kuni’s combat is simple on the surface, but incredibly satisfying at all levels of the game. For most of the game, your party will consist of three human characters, each with their own array of abilities and each capable of controlling three familiars, small creatures which you can tame and train and have their own unique qualities. When you consider that the game has hundreds of familiars, the combinations are nearly endless. Putting together the right team is complex, yet still a ton of fun and any fan of the Pokemon games will be in heaven. That said, even with the best familiars and a perfect team composition, the game still has to be played strategically. You’ll be switching between characters and familiars on the fly, making sure to use the right skills at the right time, managing cooldowns and keeping everyone alive and healthy.
The AI will control whichever two characters you’re not currently using, and that can sometimes be problematic. Sure, they’re pretty good about exploiting an enemy’s weaknesses, but they have no self control. Even when using the in-game tactics menu to issue standing orders, your options are basically “Blow all your MP as quickly as possible!” or “Stand there and do nothing but auto-attack.” There’s no middle ground, and that can often be frustrating. Additionally, expect Esther, your first companion, to be dead during 90% of boss battles for the first few hours. Until later in the game, you have no way of telling your AI teammates to defend from powerful attacks, and there’s not enough time to cycle through everyone and do it manually, making boss fights far tougher than they should be.
The game has tons of sidequests available, increasing the amount of fun to be had and rarely coming off as filler content. Most of the best involve exploring the world, finding new things and hunting powerful enemies, but there are many involving simple tasks that can still be fun. Unfortunately, Ni no Kuni never stops holding your hand. For example, at one point well into the game, I had a sidequest to help a lady who was upset her plant wasn’t growing. Simply enough, Oliver has a spell that helps plants grow, so I opened my magic menu, selected “Quicken Growth” and nothing happened. Instead, I had to interact with the plant and go through a dialog sequence where Drippy tells Oliver to think hard and try to remember a spell that helps plants grow. Only then could I cast Quicken Growth and complete the quest. Many of the smaller tasks throughout the game are just like that, and it’s unfortunate that I rarely got to experience the satisfaction of figuring something out for myself.
There are a couple other things that annoyed me about Ni no Kuni. Level-5 has always been known for adding fun optional systems to their games. In Ni no Kuni, much like Dragon Quest VIII, they added in an alchemy system and a casino. Unfortunately, neither one of them is very fun. Alchemy is a great idea in theory; spend some time collecting resources and discovering formulas to create stronger gear. Unfortunately, by the time you are able to collect many of the materials or learn some of the recipes, the items you can make are, at best, very slight improvements over items you can buy from shops or obtain from sidequests and they’re almost never worth the time and effort involved. The casino is just a mess. There are four games to play: Double Cross, a difficult game of skill that was rewarding at the one point in the game it’s required, but not something I would want to play repeatedly; Platoon, a unique game that takes a while to master and is incredibly time consuming to play; slot machines that don’t pay out enough to be worth the time and you’ll be lucky to break even; and a Blackjack table that seemingly makes up the rules as it goes. How do you screw up Blackjack? Instead of following traditional casino rules, the dealer is actively trying to beat you. It’s very hard to formulate a winning strategy when the dealer hits on 18. Making matters worse, you have to wait through the trash talk every time you lose, making the whole experience even more frustrating.
However, despite my complaints with some of the smaller points of the game, Ni no Kuni’s core gameplay is still incredibly fun, even after dozens of hours of gameplay.
Simply brilliant. Ghibli’s signature art style is on full display here, making Ni no Kuni one of the best games ever in the graphics department. Seriously. You don’t need ten million polygons and photo-realistic textures to make a beautiful game. Ni no Kuni succeeds with solid design, vibrant colors and smooth animations.
Every character in the game, even one as simple as a shopkeeper or city guard, has a distinct style. Ghibli fantasy craziness is in full effect at many points, such as King Tom the giant house cat, the fairy island or every enemy and familiar in the game. The design and animation is so solid, it’s virtually indistinguishable from actual hand-drawn animation at many points. The cities feel real and alive and are as important a part of the game as the characters themselves. Dungeon designs are wonderfully brilliant, and even traditional designs like volcano and ice cave succeed here because of the incredible scope Level-5 gives them.
One thing that I keep coming back to when talking about Ni no Kuni is the world map. It’s such a simple part of the game, but Level-5 manages to make it completely breathtaking. Paying the demo, the minute I stepped onto the world map for the first time, No no Kuni had my $60. It has such an incredible amount of detail, with cliffs, hills and foliage actually designed for visual impact instead of just being placed haphazardly. The colors and contrast make everything pop and the horizon extends seemingly forever. For such a simple feature that many games take for granted, Ni no Kuni’s world map does something those other games don’t. It actually builds a world.
Everything I said about the graphics goes for the sound design, as well. I would have expected nothing less from Ghibli. Coming from a motion picture background, they understand just how much music can lend to a scene, instead of just being background noise like in so many other games. The music is composed by Joe Hisaishi, the man responsible for many of Ghibli’s movie scores, and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Ni no Kuni easily has one of the best game soundtracks in recent memory.
I can’t comment much on the English voice acting. After the first half hour or so, I switched to the Japanese language track. Nothing against the English track, I just wanted to test both out and found myself enjoying the Japanese track more. Of course, I have to credit Namco Bandai for including the Japanese track to begin with. For whatever reason, many publishers choose not to include this option, despite a PS3’s Blu-ray disk offering more than enough storage, an understandable limitation in previous generations. Honestly, this is something Sony should encourage Japanese publishers to do more often, as it’s something many fans want and would set their version apart from other console games.
There is a whole lot of game in this game. It took me well over fifty hours to reach the end of the story, taking my time to do any sidequests along the way, but with no additional grinding in between. To make it even better, completing the story unlocks a wealth of new things to do in the game; content that actually adds to the characters and story instead of just extending the playtime. As of the time of writing this review, I’m at around sixty hours played, the mythical “$1/hour” mark, and there’s still more to do. More importantly, there’s still more that I WANT to do. With my main characters and the majority of my familiars leveled well into the 70s, the game is still presenting new challenges to overcome. If you’re the type of person who likes to “catch ’em all” and find, tame and raise every familiar, you can easily add an extra digit to that playtime.
Ni no Kuni is a game that proves traditional Japanese RPGs can still be a successful genre in an industry that’s increasingly trending towards games like Fallout or Mass Effect. A game can still be completely linear in it’s storytelling and still be compelling, as long as the story is well-written and presented. If a developer offers a strong mix of story, gameplay and just enough freedom in between, the rails the game follows offer a smooth and satisfying ride.