If you haven’t read any of my previous reviews then you probably won’t know that I have a love of RPGs and all things anime, so imagine my surprise when I found out that two of my favorite companies, developer Level-5 and the legendary animation company Studio Ghibli was pairing up to make a game over 2 years ago. After a long agonizing wait, North America finally gets its stateside release of Ni No Kuni: Wraith of the White Witch on the PS3.
The partnership of these two amazing companies has brought about a journey that spans two worlds and touches the heart at the most unexpected times. I can’t say a whole lot about the story without spoiling the good bits but I’ll lay out the basics. The story follows the happy-turned-tragic life of young Oliver in a 1950’s inspired world. After a freak “accident”, Oliver’s mom succumbs to a heart attack after saving her son from a watery grave. Yeah, I know this comes off as a bit much, but this story may just have a happy ending for the player after all for those willing to stick through Ni No Kuni until the very end.
In true Level-5 and Ghibli form, Oliver awakens in a magical fairy in his world. This little Welsh speaking fairy with a lantern as a nose jewelry reveals to Oliver that there is another world from which he came that is in danger. It turns out that Oli-boy, is the Pure-Hearted One, the only one that could save their parallel world using magic as his weapon. As an added bonus for saving their world in true JRPG form, Oliver may have a way to help himself in the process. One of my favorite things about that Ni No Kuni is that the gameplay is a unique mixture of classic RPG elements and some creature training goodness.
Ni No Kuni is different than most of the RPGs that I’ve played over the years. I’m used to just beating the daylights out of any enemy in my way via swords and daggers and the like. In this world the key method of attack is magic, not that that stops Oliver from beating on creatures with his wand. Combat is a nice mix of real-time and turned-based action with a few twists. For starters, players are allowed to move around the battlefield at will which is fast becoming the norm for modern RPGs. The actual fighting works via a rolodex menu setup and timers which is classic fare. Whether it’s in a dungeon or out in the world, the enemy count in Ni No Kuni is off the scales. Sometimes it’s downright annoying when you defeat an enemy and take a few steps forward only to have another one standing there when you turn around, but on the bright side it’s a great way to level grind occasionally should the need arise.
The biggest and most welcome feature is the creature training and future capturing that occurs as you hit critical points in the story. You get your first creature, or Familiar, from Oliver’s heart while the rest are earned via story events or added features. Very similar to a certain franchise, these Familiars level up as you use them and can even evolve if given proper attention. The downside is the creature’s level resets back to level one when you do this, but the character is stronger for it. Some of the creatures you get naturally are pretty awesome like Thumbelemur, but there are a bunch of amazing enemies out there that any player would want on their side. With a little help from a certain character you can catch them and use them in battle. The one thing that makes this game unique is that you share the same health and mana bar as your familiars so if they are defeated so are you. It’s all about managing what abilities to use and when, whether it is via Oliver and his friends or their familiars.
There is more to the world of Ni No Kuni than meets the eye. There is a level of emotional elements that ties the two parallel worlds together. One of the main elements in the game is that an evil man has caused discord in the fantasy world resulting in some of its inhabitants losing heart in their everyday lives. Oliver, being the little wizard-in-training that he is, has to help restore what was stolen from these people on a regular basis throughout the game via magic. For instance, if someone is lacking the courage to do something, then he has to find another person in the surrounding area that is filled with an overabundance of it. There are several side quests as well as main story elements that require you to restore people to their former selves, usually to some reward. It’s a touching element that I haven’t encountered in any other gaming experience.
Ni No Kuni heavily focuses on friendship, family, and helping out others throughout its course and this is ever so apparent in the side quests. By visiting a certain shop in each town you can take jobs for those in need of a little help. Some quests are about curing someone of “broken heartedness” while others will have you collecting items or defeating X number of monsters. Completing these tasks will earn you stamps on a card. Upon filling up a card you can redeem them for perks that will aid young Oliver in his quests such as running faster on the world map.
As I said before Studio Ghibli are masters of what they do. One of the main reasons, I love this game so much is that I felt like I was actually in one of their films. The hand-drawn animated sequences alone are absolutely stunning, but it’s Level-5’s ability to take Ghibli’s trademark style and create the world and its inhabitants in 3-dimensional space. Their ability to create and blend these two styles is a marvel itself. The world at large is beautifully vibrant and detailed right down to the monsters and landscape. There are also the little atmospheric nuances such as cloud shadows and light particles that really flush out the presentation.
The graphics are topnotch but the music and audio are what really completes the package. Most of the major conversations are spoken in either English or the native Japanese. For the sake of my review I went with English. That and I didn’t want to reinstall the 4GB of game date just to see what a Welsh fairy sounded like in Japanese. The score for Ni No Kuni is everything that I expected in a project involving Studio Ghibli. This largely has to do with the composer chosen for this project which is none other than the renowned Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi’s trademark style is as instantly recognizable to the ear as is Studio Ghibli’s art to the eyes. It’s only fitting as Hisaishi has scored most of Ghibli’s most successful films to date. Every track be it the exotic Middle Eastern inspired tone of the city of Al Mamoon to the touching theme song is absolutely perfect for Ni No Kuni. I’m looking forward to the soundtrack when it releases in March.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was an experience unlike any RPG that I’ve ever played. The story was engrossing right to the end as I felt myself rooting for Oliver and his new friends the whole way. The fantastic art direction of Studio Ghibli and the attention and craft of Level-5 is just astounding throughout. The score is out of this world awesome and the voice cast is well done. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch isn’t just another RPG on the market; it is an adventure that every PS3 owner should experience. This is a must buy!