Ni no Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch
Oliver, a young boy from the small town of Motorville, loses his mother in tragic circumstances after she saves his own life. His grief turns to amazement when one of his stuffed toys, reveals itself to be Mr Drippy, Lord High Lord of the fairies. Mr Drippy reveals that his own world is in peril from an evil wizard named Shadar and that Oliver might be the only one that can save them.
It has been a while since a true Japanese role playing game has graced the PS3 but I can think of nobody better than a Level 5 and Studio Ghibli collaboration to break the dry spell. Level 5 is known for titles such as Dark Cloud, Dragon Quest VIII, Rogue Galaxy and the Professor Layton series while Studio Ghibli is the animation film studio behind classics such as Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Monoke and Howl’s Moving Castle. With Level 5 handling the gameplay and Studhio Ghibli lending their trademark imagination and charm to the animation, Ni No Kuni is really something special.
Right from the start it is clear to see that the hand of Studio Ghibli in the visual style of the game. Oliver is guided to another world by Mr Drippy and it is one that is inhabited by humans, fantastical creatures and anthropomorphic animals. There is a town ruled by a giant cow, one with a cat ruler and an entire village of fairies that practice standup comedy in British accents. The gameworld is large but imaginative and fun to explore. Each town that you visit is truly unique and while you will find a lot of the clichéd RPG environments and characters it never feels boring or dated. Ni No Kuni is one of the few titles that can evoke fond memories of the 16-bit role playing games of the past that has sadly fallen out of fashion these days.
That is not to say that the game does not amaze when it comes to visuals. As I have said it is clear to see the Studio Ghibli influences everywhere from the character designs to the towns and environments. Everything is brought to life with bright, colorful visuals that make the game look like one of the studios many animated classics. Oliver and his party members, Esther and Swain might conform to the usual character stereotypes but this does not detract from the charm of the game. It is the familiars however that steals the show. Every monster that you encounter has the potential to be captured and used in battle and to say that they are a varied lot would be an understatement.
Each party member can have up to three familiars to use in battle and with enough experience; these critters can metamorphose into more powerful forms. You can equip your familiars with all kinds of weapons, armor and spells as well as buff their abilities by feeding them treats. Familiars have a timer that runs down during combat, forcing you to swap between them and in an interesting twist, health and mana is shared between characters and familiars. This means that you can’t just swap out familiars when their health becomes low and have to be more careful with which ones you use against different types of foes.
Apart from the whole creature capturing and evolving system, Level 5 has also included a whole “Alchemy” crafting system where you can create new weapons, items and goods using ingredients. These ingredients can be bought in shops, harvested from the game world or stolen in battle from enemies. New items can either be created from recipes that you find or are given to you but you are also free to experiment on your own to see if you can come up with something. Then there is the merit cards that are your reward for doing one of the many bounty hunts or errands that are available from certain shops. Errands rarely amount to much more than fetch quests but the merit cards can be traded in for perks making them worth the time and effort.
The combat in Ni No Kuni is a hybrid between real-time and turn based systems which work fine for the most part but can feel a bit clumsy at times. You can only control one character or familiar at a time with the rest handled by the rather inept AI. Navigating the attack, provisions and spell menus in real time while running around the arenas dodging enemy attacks is a bit clumsy but you will get used to it after a while. It can be rather frustrating with familiars wasting precious time running into each other and the less said about the party member AI the better.
The soundtrack is very good and has the type of memorable music that you would expect from a Studio Ghibli production. Even after more than seventy hours of playtime I was not tempted to turn off the audio. The voice acting is also pretty decent although Oliver’s exclamations’ of “Golly,” “Jeepers” and “Neato” can become a bit grating. The star of the show is by far Mr. Drippy with his thick Welsh accent. Unfortunately, not everything is voiced but given the amount of text in the game this is understandable.
Ni No Kuni is a long game but unfortunately a lot of things you do can feel like padding. Mending “broken” hearts for example simply involve running around getting excess emotions from certain people to give to others. The game is also rather light on puzzles, which is a pity. You can however waste some time in a casino, playing Black Jack, slot machines and other card games or try your hand at the battle arena. There is also plenty of content available after you finish the game with a boss rush mode, more bounties and errands as well as a final, final boss to tackle.
There is a lot of grinding in Ni No Kuni but the game never felt like a chore. Creatures are visible so you can choose whether or not to initiate combat. The ability to capture creatures or farm them for alchemy ingredients also removes some of the sting from the plethora of encounters. The game also enables you to save anywhere on the world map and has enough save spots in the dungeons. Losing battles will cost you some of your hard earned cash but at least it is better than seeing a Game Over screen and having to restart from your last save spot. You are able to travel around by ship and even take to the skies on a dragon later in the game so traversing the world map is never a chore and there are plenty of secrets to be found.
Despite the flaws with the combat system, Ni No Kuni is a very enjoyable game and one that I continued playing long after beating the final boss. The involvement of Studio Ghibli really sets this title apart and fans of Japanese role playing games will have the time of their life. If you are not a fan of the genre this game is still well worth the effort and hopefully this is not the last time we see a collaboration such as this.
*Review originally published 2013.