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Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Review
Ni No Kuni is an oasis in the desert that has been the JRPG landscape for western gamers over the past couple years. Ni No Kuni encompasses all the classic JRPG tropes for better or worse, but presented in the gorgeous wrappings that is Studio Ghibli. The marriage between Level-5 and Studio Ghibli is bound to keep any fan of the genre enthralled for a long time. However, the story and gameplay mechanics take a very long time to come into their own. If you don’t get absorbed into the world, then you can be left feeling wanting.
Immediately apparent about Ni No Kuni from the time you load up the game is the art design and soundtrack. A great part of the hype machine leading up to Ni No Kuni’s release was the attachment of Studio Ghibli to the project. The famed Japanese studio has become a brand of its own in the West for its titles dating back to Nausicaä, to it’s first western success, Spirited Away. However, just having that animation talent doesn’t necessarily equate to a great game, or even a visually pleasing game. What makes this game stand out from countless other anime-inspired games it the attention to detail. When walking into a town or city there is an overwhelming sense that the cities are alive. Every NPC is not just standing around waiting to talk to you, they are going about their lives and as far as they are concerned you are just another kid walking the streets. In the mechanical city of Hamlin, steam engines are not only appended to all the buildings but are chugging along. A merchant couple is plagued by problems in each city you go to, but when you find them in a new town, they have left the old town. Unlike the countless other games which feature characters simultaneously in every place at once, the world truly revolves and reacts to player’s progression. A man who has lost his journal in the first town of Ding Dong Dell will remain their until you’ve found his journal by a nearby brook, even if you have progressed to towns further in the game. If you visit characters from towns in the past they will have learned of your adventures and grant you awards. The multitude of ways this game reflects that what you, as the player, are doing matters, never ceases to amaze. As the world evolves the soundtrack is there to complement every swing in the mood, from the whimsical to downright haunting. Soaring on the back of a dragon over the plains of the Rolling Hills is properly treated with the grandiose such an event is deserving. There were countless times, when faced with the decision of fast traveling to a nearby town or flying, I would chose the later, simply for the joy of seeing the games art design and soundtrack married in perfect harmony.
The world design can be attributed to Studio Ghibli, but this is not to discount Level-5, who was responsible for all the monster designs. On paper seeing a pirate cat familiar evolve into either a Puss in Bouts or Puss in Boats, might earn a groan and a palm to the face. But this is not the case, the overwhelming number of puns and wordplay scattered throughout the game might seem cheap, looking from the outside in, but when backed up by the character and monster design it all becomes much more endearing. Creatures tie into the ever changing environments, in a manner that you never feel like you are fighting the same creatures over and over, unless you want to.
The core gameplay consist of assorted fetch quest, gathering materials to make items and most importantly: combat. Combat is a double edged sword for Ni No Kuni, on the one hand, many aspects of the combat contribute to the overall game’s allure; however, on the other hand, significant problems add up over time.
The alchemy system is Ni No Kuni’s crafting system, and is the sole reason you should care about the sparkling forage points scattered across the overworld. Alchemy, for the most part will allow you to craft weapons and armor better than anything you can find at any current point of the game. The game provides all the necessities given you are willing to dig through your Creature Compendium and Wizard’s Companion to find what the creatures around you drop and what combinations can be made. It is a little frustrating that all these features are in separate parts of your inventory, but just in the progression of the game you will find a good chunk of ingredients. Farming for rare ingredients gives some purpose to any grinding required and will keep your level at par for the challenges you will face. The alchemy system is not without flaw, though. The in-game Wizard’s Companion provides you with a great deal of recipes from the very beginning, but when you get the cauldron and manually Mix and Match those recipes, they aren’t stored anywhere. Which results in this awkward dance flipping between the alchemy cauldron and the Wizard’s Companion to check for recipes and ingredients.
The combat in Ni No Kuni is fast paced and the variety of enemy will never leave you feeling bored. The ability to avoid combat outright is also welcome, as opposed to the random battle encounters featured in many other games of the genre. The Combat system exudes a Final Fantasy 12 meets Pokémon sensibility, yet remains different enough from each to stay fresh. To account for the real time combat everything is distilled to a more manageable form, but herein lies the bulk of the problem. Each familiar only has access to a “deck” of 6 tricks, two of which are basic attack and defend. On paper that seems fine, not to much to get bogged down in menus, but enough to be prepared for multiple situations. In actuality the whole system of simplicity is squandered on the combat menu. Fashioned after speech bubbles and navigated in rotation, the menu is prone to you sliding just past the Evade! button half a second before a boss unleashes an ability, leaving you to face the brunt of the attack. In this regard a simple menu, while not as pretty may have much better served some of the faster paced fights.
Another issue with the simplified combat system is the friendly AI. The friendly AI is awful. There is no discernible logic to the familiars they chose and no way to program them otherwise. They will always use the Familiar you put in the first slot until his Stamina is depleted, but then just default to a seemingly random rotation. Worse yet the random rotation does not account for enemy strengths or weakness. In one particular instance a boss was weak to storm attacks and one of my companion’s familiar’s had 3 separate storm tricks. During the corse of the battle the companion only throws out that familiar once and then (even with mana half full) proceeds to use basic attack until the stamina runs out. The number of times I saw magic characters with full mana using their basic attack was utterly irritating. The game offers a bare bones Tactics system filled with binary decisions and settings with confusing results. All the commands are very black and white there is no “Conserve magic” tactic, it’s a binary “Abilities On/Off Switch.” Also, be warned the “Provide Back-Up” and “Keep Us Healthy” settings will make an ally focus on buffing or healing the team, but once the team is buffed they will just stand around until you have change the tactic. In addition to the commands being lackluster, the Tactics system itself is unruly and difficult to manage on the fly. There were numerous times where a fight would call for a specific element of Miracle Move, the game’s take on Limit Breaks triggered by golden glims. As such you want a specific character to get then golden glim, but your companions will all rush for it. By the time you’ve switched to the character you want to get it, you run a 50/50 chance of a teammate having already taken it—touching back on earlier point, regardless of boss weakness and resistance. Your only other option to prevent this is to brave the tactics menu, sliding over to it in real-time and ordering your companions to “Do Nothing.” This guarantees the desired character gets to perform their Miracle Move, but in the meantime all other attacks on the enemy have ceased.
Ni No Kuni is an enchanting tale that may look childish from afar, but will pull on the heartstrings of even the most cynical of gamers. The story starts off with a bang, and does not let up till the last minute. As far as your objectives are concerned, they draw striking similarity to JRPG’s of old: Young boy needs to learn magic so he can save the world. To do so he must seek the aid of 3 masters, gaining new modes of transportation along the way. Having met the three masters, the hero must now collect three artifacts to assemble the ultimate weapon. Having unlock the ultimate power and uniting the kingdoms, you then brave off into the unknown to put down the final boss.
However to distill the story to such basics would really do a disservice to the game. There are a good number of questions the game keeps hanging over your head throughout the story to propel you forward, but at the same time you are never left so in the dark it feels overwhelming. This is achieved in part, because the player receives an omnipotent narrative, often knowing things before the main character, Oliver. If it were not for this omnipotent narrative the final chapter of the game may have very well fallen flat and turned into a scenario where “you just defeated the world’s greatest evil, but not really.” While this is the case for the in-game characters, you the player have a greater sense of what’s to come. Not to say that the game doesn’t try to convince you otherwise. This balance of mystery and omnipotence contribute to engaging and heartwarming story.
If you are a long time fan of the JRPG genre, have never played one and are looking for a title to jump into, or anywhere in between, Ni No Kuni is a title that will provide you countless hours of entertainment and joy. While the game may take some time to come into its own, the pay off down the road is well worth the investment. From the beautifully designed environments, to the fresh take on JRPG combat to the endearing story, Ni No Kuni is a welcome addition to a genre which some might argue has lost its way.
(Note: This review was written after having played 73 hours on the PS3. The copy used to review this game was purchased by the reviewer. Ni No Kuni was released by Level 5, in conjunction with Studio Ghibli, in North America on January 22, 2013, as a Playstation 3 exclusive title.)