Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on paper appears to be a perfect formula for J-RPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game) success. The coming together of industry leaders comprised of accomplished developer Level-5 with the celebrated, award-winning designs of Studio Ghibli and the extraordinary talent of composer Joe Hisaishi sounds like a marriage made in role-playing heaven, right? I’m happy to say the harmonious relationship here fuses together to create one of the most memorable J-RPG experiences in recent times.
Developer: Level-5, Studio Ghibli
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: PlayStation 3(Reviewed)
Release: (AU) January 22nd 2013, (EU) February 1st 2013, (JP) November 17th 2011, (NA) January 22nd 2013
Probably the single strongest selling point in Ni No Kuni is the involvement of Studio Ghibli; and depending on the degree in which you like or love their animated features (notably the anime blockbuster Spirited Away) will heavily influence your overall enjoyment of the game. Given Ghibli is a billion-dollar empire, I suspect there are many established fans that adore their trademark animation style and meticulous design work, and with that in mind Level-5 have beautifully translated their unique graphical art style to glorious detail worthy of the Studio Ghibli namesake.
The story begin with players adopting the persona of a thirteen-year old boy named Oliver who resides in the ficticious town of Motorville. Through an unfortunate event I won’t spoil here, Oliver’s mother Alicia passes away suddenly, leaving our poor protagonist in a state of grief. While crying on his doll, a gift from his recently deceased mother, the plush comes to life, revealing himself as the Lord High Lord fairy, Drippy. Drippy bestows Oliver with a book, granting him the power of magic and the ability to enter the world of “Ni no Kuni” (“The Another World”), a parellel world where the bulk of the adventure takes place.
Gameplay is an interesting and highly entertaining affair that isn’t too overly complex in design but hugely addictive and extensive given the amount of content and depth on offer. The battle system is a mixture of real-time and turn-based mechanics with a touch of Pokémon-esque elements, a recipe for success when you consider Level-5 have taken inspiration from nearly all the greatest role-playing franchises on the J-RPG scene.
Rather than capturing Pokémon, Ni no Kuni battling creatures are referred to as familiars and range in diversity, species and ability. There are up to 300 different types of familiar to collect, each with unique abilities, classes (Sun, Star, Moon, etc) and moves to learn; as well as upgrade. A substantial amount of hours (possibly days) could be spent here alone for completionist adamant on catching them all. Familiars can be fed, trained, even evolved and I found myself somewhat emotional attached to these little ‘pet’ companions. Some have called Ni no Kuni the Playstation 3 equivalent of Pokémon and that statement wouldn’t be too far of an exaggeration, yet the game delivers so much more than just simple animal wrangling and pet battles.
Familiar battles adopt the rock, paper, scissor philosophy of Pokémon where one type is advantageous over another, but weaker than certain types as well. Although easy to grasp and fun initially, the kid-friendly nature of the battles can become monotonous at times. That being said, monster designs and encounters are varied enough to separate it from your generic J-RPG fare.
On top of the familiar army fighting for Oliver are the party members that join our protagonist along the way. The characters aren’t particularly deep but do have likeable personalities to make each one different in their own individual way. As with all RPGs, there a great deal to upgrade and in the case of Ni no Kuni, it comes in the form of learning new spells, acquiring new actions, powers, abilities and even alchemy.
Oliver can takes things into his own hands by converting collected ingredients into forged weapons, armour, food and many more, either through found recipes or via experimentation. The list of ingredients is extensive with a seemingly endless array of items to craft and create.
Gameplay shines brilliantly during boss battles which offers a great degree of fun and refreshing encounters. Clever enemy design creates unique and creative matchups that will require some strategy to overcome. After grinding through all the peons standing in your way, bosses are a welcome departure and immensely satisfying to overcome. There’s approximately 40-hours worth of gaming here to enjoy for just the storyline itself, and that doesn’t include the side quests and bounty hunts for completionist and trophy hunters.
Ni no Kuni does suffer from a fundamental drawback (for some), largely due to its association with Studio Ghibli. Older gamers may find the topics addressed and the way in which they are handled a little too family-friendly in nature, although hardly surprisingly if you’re well-versed in Studio Ghibli’s previous work. The studio is renown for producing work that plays on heart strings and the inner child within so if you’re a heartless gamer void of emotion, you may want to look elsewhere for a J-RPG fix.
At times, Ni no Kuni’s hand-drawn cutscenes and painted backdrops plays out more akin to an epic feature film experience with splashes of interactive involvement on the player’s part thrown into the mix. There’s an air of whimsical charm and innocence most will delight in from the immersive story-telling to the palette of colour that washes over the characters and their surrounding environments.
Accompanied by the orchestral melodies composed by Joe Hisaishi, expertly performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Ni no Kuni ties all the key elements of visuals, gameplay and music together to produce one of the best (if not the best) J-RPGs for this generation of console gaming. If you’re a fan of the genre, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a must-play experience that you’ll remember fondly for a long time to come.
9.0 – Excellent. Fun, enjoyable, engaging, and memorable but is missing that little something that will make it exceptionable. People will fondly talk about this for generations to come.