This is a game about loss, hope, and a little stuffed guy named Drippy
A few weeks ago, my son was born. And if you've ever been a parent or have been around infants in general, you spend a majority of your time together playing a game called "Oh my god are they breathing?" Night and day, you feed and change and watch them, checking for the tiny rise and fall of their chests as they sleep, unaware that you're currently the most paranoid person on the planet hovering above them. But, despite my constant half-sleep, I fell in love with this stinky little potato person and have found myself firmly becoming a Dad Guy, a guy that gets emotional at the slightest mention of love or children or parents or a combination of those three things.
So maybe I wasn't in the best state to play Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a game that starts with a child losing his mother. Or maybe I WAS in the absolute best state to play through it, because y'all, I have sobbed through portions of this game.
Recently re-released for the Nintendo Switch, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch concerns a young boy named Oliver who lives in Motorville. After being rescued from an automobile accident by his mother, his mother tragically passes away from a heart problem, leaving Oliver distant and depressed. However, he's soon visited by his doll-come-to-life named Drippy who tells him that he has to save another world from a sorcerer. Oliver doesn't seem so hyped about being the Chosen One until he finds out that every person in his world has a "soulmate" in the other one, and that he might be able to bring his mother back by visiting a great sage that looks a lot like her.
From the beginning, the wonderful art style of the characters and the setting seemed remniscient of the work of Studio Ghibli, and it turns out that my Anime Spider Sense wasn't lying because Studio Ghibli collaborated with developer Level 5 to create the animated sequences. Level 5 used Ghibli as inspiration when designing just about everything else, too, and I'd consider this a wise decision as Wrath of the White Witch looks both unique amongst its RPG peers and classically Ghibli. So even when you're running around the overworld, trying to dodge (or run into battle with) monsters, the experience is sublime. I don't fully recommend using "IT'S LIKE YOU'RE ACTUALLY PLAYING KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE" when telling others about this game, but I also don't don't fully recommend it.
So, I've established that the game is gorgeous (and written by Akihiro Hino, who directed Dragon Quest VIII, one of my favorite Dragon Quest games), but how does it play? Well, here's where it might divide people. When you collide with a monster, the battle area is free to roam around in, as you control human characters and one of many "familiars" that you can switch in and out. Each character and each Familiar has their own set of customizable attacks and abilities (which you gain as you level up or complete certain objectives,) so you'll want to mix and match to take on all beasties. For instance, Oliver is great from a distance, but he'll get eviscerated up close. So you'll want to consistently pair him with Familiars that are a bit...punch-in-the-face-ier.
At first, this system feels a bit chaotic, but you soon get the hang of it as battles are plentiful. Then, as the difficulty moves up, the chaos returns and I was forced to get the hang of it yet again. Eventually, I stabilized into being perfectly mediocre at monster fightin', but every once in a while, I found myself overwhelmed, as if my skill level, the game's battling system, and the AI of the enemies weren't lining up. Again, this isn't so much a con as it's just a battle system that takes time to get used to. It's good, and can have a lot of depth, but you have to be willing to practice a bit to feel like you're mastering the art of the Familiars.
As for the characters that you're not locked in combat with on a regular basis, they run the spectrum from delightfully designed and enchanting in personality, to just kind of Garden Variety Ghibli Cute. Oliver is a pretty standard child protagonist, and the main villains Shadar and the titular White Witch almost looked like Nintendo 64 Legend of Zelda characters (and I mean that in the best of ways).
Oliver's human allies are fun but not totally memorable, and they often left me wishing we got more characters like King Tom, the giant cat ruler. Plus, bosses like the Guardian of the Woods and Moltaan set the bar pretty high, design-wise, so going through a roll call of standard RPG supporters when it came to the people that Oliver pals around with was fairly disappointing at times.
But none of this was enough to lose me, as the core of Wrath of the White Witch is about Oliver growing up through helping people. And buddy, that is a theme that I can get behind. See, Oliver has the ability to restore pieces of people's hearts, helping the downtrodden and distressed to continue on, whether their motivations are touching or comical. So in this way, Wrath of the White Witch tells a story about not just loss, but moving on from loss and contributing to the world in positive ways. This is where a lot of my aforementioned crying took place, not just because I have a son now and I can't fathom being taken away from him, but because there's so much there that I want to impart to him.
Wrath of the White Witch doesn't provide a lesson plan for helping someone through grief. Grief is often unknowable and personal and affects us in a variety of weird, unexpected ways. However, it does provide a portrayal of grief that is aspirational, where we cope with it even without knowing that we're coping. Where we continue to help those around us because the good people around us are all we have. Where, even when we've lost what's most important to us, we're still important to others.
Though I'm not the biggest evangelist of Studio Ghibli, I'm so glad that they're around to give us movies that don't talk down to the younger part of their audience. And I'm glad that I got the chance to play Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, an RPG that I needed right now.
+ Beautiful visuals that are either created by Studio Ghibli, or Ghibli-inspired
+ Wonderful themes about grief, loss, and redemption
+ Exploring the world and its various areas is never tiring
+/- Battle system is extremely fun, but takes some getting used to
- Some of the side character designs feel uninspired in comparison to the rest of the game
Have you played Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch? What was your favorite aspect of it? Ever played any other Level 5 games? Let us know in the comments!