Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is the love child of RPG specialists Level-5 and Studio Ghibli, the animation company behind such revered classics as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Grave of the Fireflies.
Debuting in Japan in 2010 for the Nintendo DS, Ni No Kuni finally launches in the West on January 22 courtesy of a PS3 port.
This game starts with quite a bang. Not only does the first ten minutes involve scenes of a mysterious witch trying to kill a little boy, but THAT LITTLE BOY, the main protagonist, Oliver, suddenly becomes an orphan. Your mother dies while saving you, leaving you all alone in the world.
Drippy, King of the Fairies, whose spirit has been residing in a toy doll passed down to our young adventurer by his loving mother, is awoken by the boy’s tears of sadness that he cannot seem to keep inside any longer (and understandably so)! Drippy informs Oliver that he might know a way to bring his mother back from the dead, and so they journey to “Another World” so that Oliver might become a proper wizard, and put an end to the evil Shadar.
Ni No Kuni might initially come across as your standard Japanese role-playing genre game. The thing that sets it far apart from the pack is clearly the Studio Ghibli influence. You literally feel as though you are playing one of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies. The camera-work throughout the game is extremely reminiscent to the kind of directing you would see in a film, and you often forget you are controlling the characters at all.
The team achieves this cinematic feel through a combination of beautifully animated cut scenes, impeccable voice acting (I played with the Japanese audio on; that option alone for the game is a big selling point for a player like me) and a musical score by world renowned, Joe Hisashi. The cut scenes are beautiful, bringing the characters to life and making you care about them all the more.
Thankfully, Level-5 has created a game large enough world with enough substance and grace to do the excellent music and animation justice. It has been a long time since a game has been able to do this. A long, long, long time. Can I say this again? “A long time.”
Ni no Kuni has two difficulty modes, which is always a relief for players more interested in the story than the daily monster grind found in most RPG games. The one button save feature is a nice touch too, although there are “saving stones” found throughout the game, at any time a player can simply open the menu and press “start” to save.
On easy mode, you pretty much never have to stop and think of where to go next, as there is a star on the map indicating where to go to trip the next event in the story-line at all times. Of course, it’s easy to get side-tracked in this game, VERY EASY. The world and towns are HUGE, with lots of places to explore and quests to complete in a lengthy adventure spanning dozens of hours excluding side missions. There is a feature in this game similar to the bounty hunting found in Final Fantasy XII in which there are places in town called “Swift Solutions” – kind of a chain shop actually, where you can find “Errand Boards.”
Simply look on the Errand Board for something to do! This can be finding flowers for a Cat-Woman’s porch, or slaying a mighty beast that has been causing problems for the townsfolk.
But enough about side-quests and errands! (Although I could talk about them for hours) Most of your time will be spent battling monsters using a combat system that SEEMS EASY… at first.
Though battles are fought in groups, players control one character at a time with the ability to swap at any moment using the L1 button. The battles are fought in real time, which means timing is important ! You miss a chance to defend and you are taking major damage. Most boss fights also have a point in time when you can attack for a HEAVY HIT, or a super move, so miss that and you have to wait for it to come around once more. Other than that, success will largely depend on your Familiars, (Kokoro no Senshi is what they call them in the Japanese track, so cute) small “beasts” with varying attributes, types and abilities that are used to fight in battles. Much like Pokémon, familiars learn new “tricks” or moves, and can only learn a certain amount of tricks at a time, forcing you to choose to “forget” one to replace with another.
The thing about familiars is they are much like players in your party. They have their own slots for different equipment, spells, weapons and the like. Not only do you fight with them, but you outfit them all to fit the fight. This adds the unseen layer of complicity to the battle system that one would not assume right off the bat! The critters all level up on their own too, so it’s important to pair familiar with party character wisely. Outside of battle, players can feed Familiars various treats to increase stats and boost relationships, (kind of like Pokéblocks or evolution stones!) something which sees them transform into more powerful monsters.
All and all, it’s the attention to detail that make this game something of a masterpiece. You can overhear NPC’s conversations as you walk by them, finding people’s missing shards of their hearts in other people, small pots that shine in the middle of a forest – It’s a huge game with a combat system made up of layer after layer of menus and set-up, which provides a very big scope of experimentation and challenges that the player can intuitively create themselves.
Level-5 has painted a picture so vivid – using music, animation and characters you care about, creating not only a touching but memorable story to be enjoyed by RPG fans young and old.
Heck, this could be the first RPG game you ever play and you’ll remember it for the rest of your life…
Release Date: January 22 in North America, February 1 in Europe
Platforms available on: PS3
From: Namco Bandai
All images © Namco Bandai