Video Game Review - Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Studio Ghibli is probably the greatest animation company in the world today. And I'm only using the word "probably" to show respect to all of the other great ones. When it comes to imagination, aesthetic style, and heart, Studio Ghibli is by far the best. In lending their artistry to Level-5 for the production of a roleplaying game, something very special was created. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a technical marvel, and is one of the best looking games on the Playstation 3. This is the closest you're ever going to get to being inside a Studio Ghibli movie, and that's not something to be missed.
Stepping Through the Gateway
At the very beginning of Ni no Kuni you'll be introduced to Oliver, the thirteen-year-old protagonist of the game. He lives in a almost present-day, but not-quite-modern city: one with cars, electricity, and absolutely no magic or monsters. In other words, if you've seen the trailers, or any gameplay videos of Ni no Kuni, you're going to be left really confused by the opening. After a fairly brief exordium that takes a tear-jerking turn for the worst, though, Oliver will find himself sent through the gate to another world. Literally.
From your very first footsteps inside the game's first city, Ding Dong Dell, you'll find yourself immediately immersed in a distinctively Ghibli world. Maybe it's the bright, saturated colors. Or maybe it's the anthropomorphized cat-people walking through the streets. Whatever the cause you'll quickly begin to feel that you are caught in the rift of dimensions between Spirited Away and The Cat Returns -- and that's a wonderful feeling, to be sure. And you'll be able to take pleasure in the fact that this feeling never goes away, too, because even though Ni no Kuni is a lengthy adventure (maybe thirty-five hours for the main story, but eighty with sidequests) every new locale you discover seems as magical as the one that came before it.
The Power of Friendship
On your journey, you'll meet a lot of characters who will help you. These include not only NPC characters who contribute to the story in their own way, and the playable characters who will help you in battles directly, but the familiars that you'll be able to raise and control. Part Dragon Quest Monsters, and part Digimon World, the familiars make up the core of Ni no Kuni's combat system. While Swaine can inflict status ailments and steal items, and while Esther and Oliver can be used to heal your party, its your familiars that will be doing most of your fighting for you. On that topic here's how the fighting works:
In combat -- pseudo-random: bumping into an enemy on the field will result in a semi-randomized team of monsters being generated for you to face -- you are able to freely move about. This allows you to remain active, and dodge certain attacks. Other attacks will be area-based, and will be harder to dodge. Still others will simply damage everything in the field. To fight effectively you'll need to know when to queue your own attacks (selected via menu, now can I get a hallelujah, my brothers) and when to queue a dodge instead. Also, as your familiars become tired and lose their effectiveness, you'll need to know when to switch them out with another one, while balancing effectiveness based on their elemental weaknesses, and the elemental affinities of their attacks. Combat that isn't quite turn-based; but I'd definitely hesitate in labeling it an action RPG. In any case, it's a lot of fun.
A little more about those familiars though. You get them in two ways: firstly by evolving the ones you already have, Pokémon-style, and secondly by defeating them and using one of Esther's skills to recruit an impressed creature. Nearly every non-boss monster in the game can be tamed, though their tame rate ranges from low to appallingly low. For some of the game's best monsters -- also, for better or worst, the coolest looking ones -- expect to sink an hour or more into your hunt. This isn't so bad since the game makes enough tools available to you that grinding familiars is never necessary in order to complete the story. Players who like to get the most out of their RPGs, however, will be greatly rewarded for their efforts.
The Journey, Not the Destination
Now, here's the story of Ni no Kuni: A djinn, and later a witch, threaten the fate of the world. A young boy makes an effort to stop them, while searching for a way to rescue his mother.
That's it. Sure there are some healthy diversions and sub-plots to be found along the way, but that's the crux of it. It's certainly not a story worth writing home about. Ni no Kuni is incredibly enjoyable to play, though, and that goes a long way. Even in choosing not to be particularly innovative, Ni no Kuni does most of what it does very right. In a lot of ways it's a love letter to the classic JRPG, and I am absolutely okay with that because it's such a well-penned love letter. Moreover, there's just so many things to find and do in the game.
There's a huge number of optional side quests to do, but a bulk of them are groan-worthy fetch quests. A plot-point of the game is Oliver's ability to remove, via magic, an aspect of a person's personality. He can then deliver it to another person in the world who is in need of it. For example, Oliver can collect a piece of Courage from someone in Ding Dong Dell, and later deliver it to someone living in the desert town of Al Mamoon, in return for some bananas or gold that you don't need. This is accomplished by speaking to both characters in turn and selecting to give and take, respectively. It sounds a lot more exciting than it is, and it probably doesn't sound very exciting in the first place. I felt like the mechanic had overstayed its welcome after four of five quests. I wish that there weren't fifty more just like them to follow.
Aside from the atrocious fetch quests en masse, though, most of Ni no Kuni's content is of the general good-stuff variety. You'll be asked to hunt strong monsters for bounty hunt quests, and that's always a fun momentary excursion; I never passed up the opportunity to complete these tasks. There's a monster arena as well, where you can attempt to make it through the different ranks for various prizes. It actually becomes quite challenging, and will take a great deal of planning and effort on your part in order to complete. You may even have to do some grinding. Also -- and in typical RPG fashion -- there is a superboss. He'll be waiting for you in the expansive post-game content that is designed to keep you coming back to Ni no Kuni.
The Big and The Bad
Speaking of superbosses, the boss fights were the best part about Ni no Kuni to me. These were fights that were far harder than the typical random battle. They were never frustratingly difficult, which is good, but the bosses would have a lot of hit points, and would deal a lot more damage than the common underlings of the game. They'd also have special attacks and patterns in their repertoires that weren't found elsewhere. This allowed me, and encouraged me, to utilize strategy. While I was typically able to go entirely aggro on weaker mobs, with bosses I found myself having to strategically swap familiars, take time to heal, and even pause my barrage to block certain attacks that I knew would be devastating to me.
It's kind of a backhanded compliment to say, but I wish that more of the regular battles played out like bosses, because the boss battles were just way more interesting.
I feel like there's a lot of ways that Ni no Kuni could have been improved. The removal of all the redundant, boring fetch quests is a given. I also think that the combat could have been tightened up somewhat, so that strategy played more of a role. Overall though, I was highly impressed by Wrath of the White Witch. It was a lengthy RPG that I had a lot of fun getting lost in, and that's what I want more than anything out of an RPG. The fact that it looks and sounds so beautiful is the icing that raises it to the next level. Ni no Kuni is a must-have title for PS3 owners, and I recommend it very highly.
Final Rating: 90 out of 100
(Credit goes to GameFAQs.com for all screenshots used in this review.)