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Review: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Around the first part of 1999, a good friend of mine invented the cell shading graphical style.  Now don’t go fact checking me on Wikipedia, it’s not there.  You’re just going to have to trust me.  See, he and I were having a conversation one night, and he asked me “Why can’t someone develop a game that looks like a hand-drawn cartoon?  It would still be 3D, but everything would appear flat like 2D animation.”  I thought that sounded brilliant, and I agreed that someone should get on that.  A few months later, the world got its first look at Jet Set Radio.  So naturally, someone had us bugged that night and recorded our conversation.  Unfortunately, as far as I know he has yet to see any royalty checks from that invention, but at least now I’ve done my part in giving him the credit he deserves.  Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch might possibly be the best use of that graphical style I’ve seen to date, but that isn’t all it has going for it – it’s also one of the best JRPGs to come along in a long time.

Ni no Kuni - 1The story revolves around Oliver, a young boy who is hit with a pretty tragic event early in the game.  This event is the catalyst for him to travel with Mr. Drippy, a fairy who had been trapped in the form of Oliver’s stuffed toy, to another world in order to attempt to set things right in Oliver’s own world.  This is all setup with a combination of hand-drawn animation courtesy of Studio Ghibli and in-game cutscenes that look gorgeous in their own right.  The striking presentation is the first thing that hits you right from the start, because it truly looks as if you are controlling a character in a Studio Ghibli movie.  If by some chance you aren’t familiar with Studio Ghibli, they have been called the Disney of Japan and are responsible for such incredible movies as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away and many, many more.  Ni no Kuni fits right in with the rest of their work and maintains the same charm and child-like innocence that they are known for.

Ni no Kuni - 2This style fits in perfectly with Level-5’s style.  In fact, the two seem to complement each other perfectly – Level-5’s incredible gameplay, layered systems and mastery of introducing things to you so that you have a firm grasp on them before the next new thing comes along.  And Studio Ghibli’s excellent characters and story telling – the two elements that Level-5 have traditionally been weakest at.  If you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time on the presentation, it’s because that it is phenomenal, and on another level from most every other game out there.  Even the menus are all perfectly laid out and very logical to navigate, with subtle graphical flourishes that weren’t necessary but make the whole package that much better.  Early on, Oliver is given a book called the Wizard’s Companion.  This book serves as his spell book, item catalog, regional history book and collection of legends.  At over 300 pages, you discover pages of it throughout your journey and can then read them at your leisure.  But this is no bare bones wall of text like you’ll find in the books in Skyrim.  No, each page contains detailed hand-drawn artwork, distinctive fonts and dialects – things you would expect to see in a very old wizard’s book.  I was so impressed with the in-game book that I started kicking myself for not preordering the collector’s edition of the game that came with a physical copy of the book.  I then remedied the situation by ordering the German version of the collector’s edition, which came with the English book.  The book is that good, I don’t regret it a bit.

Ni no Kuni - 3There’s also plenty of substance to backup the flash in this game.  Combat is a mixture of real-time and turn based, and generally works really well.  You fight using captured creatures in a very Pokemon-esque turn, and you issue these creatures commands as you freely move them around the battlefield.  You can control 3 creatures at a time, and you can also choose to directly control Oliver instead of a creature – although his only strength lies in using spells or items, you will not want to physically fight with him.  All four of them share a common health and magic bar.  As you advance in the game you gain party members, and you have have a total of three party members who in turn each have 3 creatures, so you’ll be juggling 12 characters in battle total.  This can get a little hectic, but by the time they add that many to you you have a pretty good grasp on the battle system.

Ni no Kuni - 4The game is linear like a typical JRPG, but at the same time there are quests that you can pickup which will keep you globe trotting throughout the game to places you have previously visited.  Many of these quests tell mini stories or even fill in back story in the world, and some are quite interesting.  However, there is a certain type of quest that the game does a lot that is the epitome of “fetch quest”.  Oliver has the ability to “borrow” pieces of heart from people who have an abundance of one of several qualities such as enthusiasm, love, courage, etc.  He can then give these pieces of heart to people who are lacking in that same quality.  The reason for this ties into the overall story of the game.  But the actual quests are very basic – you will see green dots on your radar indicating someone that has extra heart.  You talk to them & take whatever they have extra.  Then at some point in the future, you will find someone who is missing that quality.  Rinse, repeat.  I was hoping that there would be a bit of puzzle solving involved in this mechanic, but it’s really as simple as that.  On the bright side, these quests can generally be completed pretty easily while focusing on the more complex parts of the game so it doesn’t really hurt the overall enjoyment.  And there are certainly a lot of other side activities to focus on, including capturing and evolving creatures and creating items using alchemy.

The main story will take you around 50 hours to complete, give or take a few depending on how thorough you are.  And after you’ve completed that, a ton of additional side quests open up that add a good deal to the game – I found some of these post-game quests to be the most interesting in the game.  I was addicted, and didn’t stop playing until I had earned the platinum trophy which took me about 91 hours.  Suffice to say, you will get your money’s worth out of this one.

Ni no Kuni - 5Voice acting is all top notch, with the stand out performance going to Mr. Drippy and his Cockney accent.  He had me laughing on more than a few occasions.  The story in general was so well done that I always looked forward to the next story segment.  In fact, I only have one complaint in regards to the voice acting – there’s not enough of it.  Many scenes are not voiced at all, which feels strange and out of place in this day – especially given the overall high production values of the game otherwise.  Even stranger, some scenes would be fully text except for literally one or two words that were voiced seemingly at random.  It was knowing how good the voice acting was that made it that much more noticeable when it was missing.  Music is generally well done and is all fully orchestrated, but was a little over dramatic most of the time for my taste.  Your mileage may vary on that point.

Ni no Kuni - 6Any negatives I’ve mentioned thus far are very minor in my book, but there is one that stood out more than the others – the party AI.  As I mentioned, you end up with 3 party members and the ones you aren’t controlling are controlled by AI.  You can give them general commands such as “Use no abilities” or “Keep us healthy”, or you can choose to manually control them at will.  The problem is, if you tell them to do anything other than “Use no abilites”, they will use a LOT of magic.  As in, they will drain their magic meters in a few fights.  If you tell one of them to heal, as is necessary at times, then they will cast spells to heal even the most minor wounds.  They will then cast any buff spells they have available.  And if there’s absolutely nothing left for them to heal or buff, they will cast any attack spells they have available.  The end result of this is that in harder fights you have to babysit the other party members way too much.  This also lead to me changing the difficulty to Easy, because on Normal it just seemed too much to micro manage.  Easy felt like Normal to me, and once I made that change the AI problems, while still present, were more manageable.  I was able to keep them on “Use no abilities” most of the time with no problem.  I only really had a hard time with the high end arena fights, where you cannot use items to refill your magic, but these fights are completely optional.

Even with the AI issue, the game is simply phenomenal.  This one goes a long way on its charm and the sheer addictiveness of catching and evolving the creatures you fight.  While it may not surpass my favorite games from Level-5, Dark Cloud 2 and Dragon Quest VIII, the fact that it comes close to them says something.  This game is an amazing experience that I didn’t want to end, as my extended playtime proves.  Even after I had done everything there was to do in the game, I found it difficult to tear myself away from it.  An absolute must for any JRPG fans, and proof positive that the genre still has a lot of life left in it.

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