I don’t play Japanese role-playing games; I’ve never enjoyed them and I cannot understand the appeal this genre has for so many people. Despite this, since laying eyes on Level 5 and Studio Ghibli’s Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch I was unable to convince myself that this was something I didn’t want to attempt. That change of heart is entirely thanks to Studio Ghibli: the Japanese animation company that is responsible for making some truly amazing films, and is responsible for all of the animation in this game.
Ni no Kuni is arguably one of this year’s most anticipated JRPG releases. Developer Level 5, I am told, has a remarkable track record of creating some of the best JRPGs around, and a collaboration between them and animation house Studio Ghibli is for many JRPG and anime geeks a match made in heaven.
I know what you’re thinking: here’s somebody saying they dislike the genre of a game that they’re about to review; this can only go one way. To be honest, I felt the same when I started the game, but it’s funny how things have a way of surprising you.
Ni No Kuni follows the adventures of a young boy called Oliver who tragically loses his mother within the opening hour of the game. While mourning his mother’s passing, Oliver’s tears fall onto a homemade doll, bringing it to life. The doll turns out to be a fairy called Mr. Drippy who has been trapped in Oliver’s world for some time. Mr. Drippy explains that he comes from another world that is in danger of being destroyed by the evil Shadar. Drippy asks Oliver for his help in saving that world, but Oliver is understandably reluctant to leave his home. Mr. Drippy’s world is populated by twins of the people from Oliver’s world. As such, a woman who looks identical to Oliver’s mother is actually the Great Sage Alicia in Mr. Drippy’s world. Alicia is Oliver’s mother’s soul mate, but unfortunately she has been imprisoned by Shadar. Mr. Drippy convinces Oliver that if they are able to defeat Shadar and save Alicia, this might bring back Oliver’s mother. It’s a premise that’s not unfamiliar to Studio Ghibli: a young child experiences a traumatic event, which becomes the springboard for an adventure to a fantasy land that is itself in turmoil. By the child helping that land, he or she overcomes their trauma and life regains some normalcy.
The story of Ni no Kuni is rather straightforward with the occasional plot revelation skating dangerously close to predictability. Despite this, the characters never lose their charm and the little voice-acting that there is, is world-class stuff. It’s a pity there isn’t more, because sadly, the vast majority of the game’s plot is divulged through copious lines of text.
Fans of Ghibli’s animation will be thrilled to see the studio’s whimsical style is all over this game. The world of Ni no Kuni is an unquestionably beautiful one. Hand-drawn, animated cut-scenes blend into game engine graphics almost seamlessly, and everywhere you look, a tenacious attention to detail can be found. While the world itself is fairly large and wonderful to behold, it’s the tiny details that really hit home, like the way Oliver’s gait changes as he climbs up and down stairs; or how he looks rather disconcertedly at his boots whenever you run him through a stream or puddle. This world feels alive and brimming with character despite the fact that NPCs never stray from pre-set paths, and no self-governing AI can be found at all.
The world’s inhabitants are equally charming, with humans co-existing alongside anthropomorphic animals. This makes for some delightful encounters and pun-filled writing, such as his “meowjesty” the cat King Tom XIV of Ding Dong Dell. But the quirkiness and puns don’t stop with NPC characters and quest givers: the land is brimming with cleverly named beasties, like the “Turbandits” that inhabit the game’s desert regions.
Clever character and world design is only half of what’s required for a good JRPG – combat, character development and quests are equally important.
Combat is a strange mix of third-person, real-time movement that pauses whenever you select spells or items. Commands are issued via speech bubbles on the lower left of the screen, from which you can pick various spells or physical attacks. There’s also an entire creature capturing and training mechanic not altogether dissimilar to what you’d find in a Pokémon game. Certain people in the world of Ni no Kuni are capable of conjuring and fighting with familiars; alternatively you’ll eventually learn how to capture the creatures you fight, and take them on as new familiars. Eventually you’ll be able to have three familiars to juggle between during combat, but each familiar can only be on the battlefield for a fixed amount of time before they need to be recalled to cool off. As your familiars level-up, they learn more magic-based attacks that are cast using Oliver’s mana reserve.
During combat, health and mana orbs are dropped which you can pick-up to replenish your precious reserves. If you are able to block a particularly vicious magic attack, a special golden orb will sometimes appear. These remain on the battlefield for a very short amount of time so snatching them up is important. Once retrieved, golden orbs allow you to cast Miracle Moves. Each character and familiar has its own Miracle Move; some dish out massive damage and others do more strategic things like replenish your party’s health. That’s right, eventually you’ll have a party of three characters, which means you’ll be juggling up to nine familiars in total. It sounds like a lot but the game does a very good job of drip-feeding the combat mechanics. I was still being introduced to new mechanics about 30 hours into the game.
Unfortunately the combat is not without issues. Camera control sometimes disappears as the view locks onto enemies the further away you get from them. This is obviously so you don’t lose your bearings, but it’s infuriating when it happens while you’re racing towards one of those fleeting golden orbs. Having the camera suddenly swivel your view away from the orb, often results in you running straight past it and it floating out of reach. While on the topic of golden orbs, far too often your AI companions beat you to them and activate some unwanted Miracle Move. Invariably this will happen during a particularly difficult boss battle when all you want to do is dish out as much damage as possible. Which leads me to a third combat problem: difficulty spikes. The game is riddled with sudden, massive jumps in difficulty and there were two occasions when I had to revert to an earlier save so that I could grind character levels before re-attempting a boss encounter. Oh yes, as charming as the world of Ni no Kuni can be, grinding character levels can suck the joy out of the title all too quickly. Despite all of this, there’s a sort of rhythm to the combat which, if you get it right, can prove to be wildly satisfying especially if it results in the defeat of a nasty boss.
Ni no Kuni is a long game; the main quest takes at least 40 hours to complete, and then there are dozens of side quests and bounty hunts to finish. The side quests offer a unique take on unlocking character perks by awarding you, for being the good Boy Scout that you are, with Merit Stamps. Complete a Merit Stamp card and trade it in at specific side quest kiosks to gain a new perk. It’s a cute way to implement a staple RPG system, and one that ties in nicely with the game world.
I wish I could say that the 40 hours of main quest are a joy from beginning to end, but very often it’s a little hit and miss in terms of pacing. It seems like Level 5 has purposefully included endless traipsing about to artificially lengthen the experience. Traveling across the entire world map only to reach an objective that solely exists to tell you “what you’re looking for isn’t here so you’d better go back and check with the NPC who sent you here in the first place”, happens rather often and wrecks the flow of the story. Furthermore, about a third of the way through the game you reach a city called Hamelin, which feels so dull and devoid of character when compared to other areas.
Sadly, odd quest pacing wasn’t the only irritation: you’ll hear the same piece of battle music literally hundreds of times during all non-boss encounters; you’ll fix dozens of NPCs’ broken hearts (how Shadar controls the denizens of this world) using a very repetitive mechanic; you’ll be given loads of spells that you’ll only ever use once at very specific points in the game, which just makes the whole spell casting element feel contrived; and you’ll constantly battle to make sure you have enough mana, or enough money to afford the ridiculously expensive mana replenishing items. Considering Oliver is meant to be this powerful wizard child, it takes about 30 hours before you begin to feel remotely awesome.
Despite this seemingly massive list of gripes, the game charmed my pants off. I loved the world that Studio Ghibli and Level 5 have created; I fell in love with so many of the adorable characters that populate the game; I chuckled at some of the dialogue and awful, awful puns; I relished being ingested by a colossal fairy mother so that Oliver and company could help her give birth to the baby fairies that inhabit her internal “Faycare Centre”; I spent ages paging through the Wizard’s Companion book which is masterfully put together; I loved the fact that I was still being introduced to new gameplay mechanics 30 hours into the game; and I loved the fact that this was just a “feel-good” kind of title devoid of gratuitous violence and gore. Basically, for me, Ni No Kuni was a breath of fresh air – albeit an occasionally long-winded one at that.