An entrancing, magical journey that is masterfully crafted, insanely fun and a joy to experience.
What Ni no Kuni Got Right
- + Story and characters are amazing
- + 'Familiars' & combat system is superb
- + Art style and musical score stand out
- + Wizard's Companion is detailed
What Ni no Kuni Got Wrong
- - Not all dialogue is voiced
- - Levelling system can be shaky
- - Capturing Familiars can be a pain
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is the magical love child of famed JRPG developer Level-5 and critically acclaimed Japanese animation group, Studio Ghibli. If that’s not already reason enough to secure your interest, it’s also the epitome of Japanese role-playing games, and is easily the best JRPG I’ve played since Tales of Vesperia.
Released way back in 2011 in Japan, the wait for Ni no Kuni in the West was well worth it. Level-5 and Studio Ghibli have created something incredibly special in their collaboration, one that could have easily been less impressive had not both parties worked the project together. While at first glance one could easily dismiss Ni no Kuni as just another archetypical JRPG title, it manages to use and refine the best gameplay aspects of old school turn-based roleplaying games while adding a chunk more.
Rest assured: from the moment you begin your journey, you will be swept into an intriguingly mystical, infinitely imaginative world full of heartbreak, magic and hope, and you will never want to leave.
How far would you go to save someone you love?
Ni No Kuni puts players in control of Oliver, a very young, enthusiastic boy who resembles the perfect kid on the block: he’s close with his mother, does his chores, is polite to adults and is friendly and liked by everyone. Oliver is from Motorville, an "anytown" U.S.A. sort of place modelled after 1950s America, an idyllic home where, from a child’s perspective, nothing can ever go wrong.
The introduction of Oliver and the emphasis on his kind and selfless nature -- right from the beginning of the game -- lies at the crux of Ni no Kuni, and drives both the narrative and your own personal emotional investment forward. When Oliver makes an innocent childhood mistake that turns his life upside down, his mind is briefly overwhelmed with grief, but his true strength and spirit is revealed.
Soon, players and Oliver will find themselves embarking on an intimidating but magical adventure to help fix the world he left behind in his grief, and another world he barely knows. His drive to do so is not because of a stereotypical quest for vengeance or to save a princess, but to fix the broken hearts of lost loved ones and other good people he encounters, and to see if he can mend his own in the process.
Without spoiling too much of the storyline -- it's just that good -- Oliver finds out on his journey that the terrible events happening in his world are connected to the evil threatening the magical kingdom he finds himself in, and that he, as a pure-hearted hero and talented Wizard, is destined to stop it. As such, a big part of the game is travelling in between both worlds by the use of magic to solve puzzles and resolve issues preventing you from progressing in the other world. I found the shift between worlds to be a great concept that suits the game's heavily magical themes, and one that truly helps immerse you in the overall journey.
...from the moment you begin your journey, you will be swept into an intriguingly mystical, infinitely imaginative world full of heartbreak, magic and hope, and you will never want to leave."
The core plot of Oliver's quest into Ni no Kuni follows through excellently. There are very few cliché's and annoying characters many have come to expect with similar RPG titles, and Oliver's genuinely likeable and kind nature drove me to want to help him succeed. His personality, as well as the other iconic characters -- such as his hilarious fairy companion Drippy (best Welsh accent ever) the talented Esther and the morally ambiguous Swaine -- are thankfully never sickeningly sweet but instead infectiously charming. The English localisation has also been executed well, with all voice-actors and dialogue up to scratch, though much of the dialogue outside major events remained unvoiced; it's disappointing considering the talent of the voice cast. As a possible alternative, Level-5 has been awesome enough to leave the original Japanese voice-over for those extremely dedicated JRPG fans.
Even NPCs are full of life and unique personality. Most of the inhabitants I encountered were a joy to interact with and complete 'Errands' and 'Bounty Hunts' for -- Ni no Kuni's version of Quests -- which range from anything to gathering resources, beating down a frightening monster, or helping an aspiring chef cook a long-lost dish. These quests are optional but very rewarding; every successful errand results in Merit Stamps, which can be used to upgrade or grant Oliver useful new abilities. These are obtained at the local 'Swift Solutions', a influential organisation where most of the official Bounty Hunts are contracted.
Errands and Bounty Hunts also lead to another big part of the game: the evil Shadar has broken the hearts of several citizens, which has also lead to many others becoming disillusioned husks of their former selves. It's up to Oliver to help fix these poor souls by liberating another consenting person's heart -- those with an overabundance of kindness, enthusiasm, courage and more -- to magically share with those in more dire need. These people are easily identifiable as they glow green on your minimap, and are scattered throughout the world. It may sound like a lame concept in text, but the story and gameplay execute the concept in such a way that you will feel genuinely compelled to help all those in need, and not just for the merit stamps or story progression.
Drippy is the best video game sidekick ever: helpful without being annoying, genuinely funny and he has an awesome Welsh accent.
Outside of mending broken hearts and being a generally great kid, Oliver's progression within the story and game is essentially linked to magic. Training to be a better Wizard is key to beating the evil Shadar and advancing, and during your journey across the world of Ni no Kuni, you will collect several spell pages to fill in Oliver's 'Wizard Companion' book, useful for puzzles, offensive capabilities in battle, and interacting with characters. The book also acts as an excellent codex of information, with plenty of tales that flesh out the wider fantasy world of Ni no Kuni and helpful detail on alchemy, equipment, and 'Familiars', a wide variety of magical beasts and creatures which Wizards like Oliver use to fight for them: i.e. Pokemon.
Ni no Kuni’s battle system will resonate well for the many fans of grinding, levelling, and tactical combat in RPGs of its nature. Reminiscent of the Tales series with an intriguing and very obvious Pokemon influence, players control Oliver and up to two other party members -- human characters or Familiars -- in an arena against a wide variety of different enemies, with actions such as the basic ‘Attack’, ‘Defend’, ‘Spells’ and a flee option all present. Movement is real-time, skills require cooldowns, and timing is crucial; visual and auditory indicators frequently let you know which moves to employ on-the-fly, where to strike the enemy’s weak spot, and how to generally survive the often unpredictable nature of the battlefield.
From time-to-time, Drippy and your enemies will drop special health and mana orbs during the fight, which can prove crucial for continued survival in the longer fights. A special golden orb also appears from time to time to help you finish off your enemies with a powerful finisher, which varies in animation and power depending on who you use.
In the beginning you will be limited to using Oliver, who is relatively weak without his magical offensive abilities. But soon enough -- and consistently throughout the game -- the combat system opens up and introduces new mechanics. The main fighters you will be using are the aforementioned ‘Familiars’. Every region of the world contains its own unique familiars available for capture by Esther, but the game is flexible in that you can choose to simply stick with a core group for the entire game, or go out in the wild and capture every Familiar available and experiment in depth in which ones suit you aesthetically, statistically and tactically.
The battle system consistently evolves and opens up even 20 hours into the game.
A minor but noticeable problem with Familiars is the randomness of capture; only Esther can 'serenade' and capture a Familiar, but capturing Familiars is a random event rather than a controlled one. Sometimes I found myself battling up to 40 of the Familiar I wanted just to get the capture option to become available, and this often became frustrating and overly time-consuming.
Familiars can be equipped with weapons and armour like human party members, as well as learn their own special moves and finishing attacks -- fully animated to separate them from the basic strikes or spells. From there, it’s all about learning what to equip, when to switch between familiars and Oliver and his human friends and who is best suited for the ever-changing situations at hand. Ni no Kuni is not an easy game, and such management of fighters will be necessary, as bosses and enemies will often challenge you to consistently change your tactics and party rather than relying on grinding and using a select few party members to a high level to solve everything.
Adding to the complexity to the battle and Familiars systems is the 'Creature Cage', where you feed your Familiar treats to 'familiarise' better with them, which results in stronger stats depending on the treat. This is also where 'Metamorphosis' occurs -- essentially the physical and statistical evolution of your Familiars. Depending on their Sign -- their corresponding element which determines who they are effective and ineffective against -- a specific edible 'drop' is necessary to evolve them to the next stage. However, when they do so, they begin at Level 1 all over again, making evolving all of your Familiars at the same time strategically poor.
However, when they all are beefed up again, they'll be noticeably and significantly stronger than before. There are also benefits to keeping Familiars in younger states -- they learn moves and level quicker, for example -- which makes experimenting with your favourite Familiars all the more engaging and fun. All in all, the battle and Familiar systems is one for the fans of old-school JRPGs, with plenty of new twists and mechanics that make battling in Ni no Kuni extremely fun and exciting rather than merely a chore to grind for stats and progression.
The world of Ni no Kuni is extensive, detailed, engrossing and beautifully realised.
Visually, the game excels on all fronts. The art design is stunningly beautiful and masterfully crafted with the iconic Studio Ghibli style, and the transition between the cel-shaded style to the occasional anime cutscenes spliced in important parts of the story is seamless and easily one of the best parts of the experience. The characters and environments resemble the best of Ghibli's past anime work, such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, sometimes even surpassing those worlds. The first time you enter the overworld of Ni no Kuni is pure delight, with a varied and exotic landscape that is colourful, detailed and jaw-droppingly gorgeous, just begging for exploration.
The musical score is also something which everyone -- even if you rarely pay attention to video game soundtracks -- will notice and come to love. The music in the game was composed by the world-renowned music composer Joe Hisaishi, and it reflects in-game. One particular tune played consistently throughout the game evolves into something more emotional, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking every time it's played.
The Final Verdict
Level-5 and Studio Ghibli have created a classic JRPG which refines the best aspects of the classic role-playing template while adding a whole lot more to offer an experience that will resonate with old-school, long-term RPG fans and potential new players alike, and healthily challenges the conceptions of what people expect from a JRPG.
In my 40+ hour time reviewing Ni no Kuni, I can't remember a time I've been so endeared, emotionally invested and engrossed by the fictional world, characters and gameplay of a videogame. With plenty more content to play through -- capturing, mastering and metamorphosing all of my 'Familiars', completing all Errands and going for that Platinum trophy -- I've got plenty more of its world to look forward to. There's no doubt in my mind that Ni no Kuni is definitely one of the best gaming experiences I've had in a long time, and easily one of the best Playstation 3 exclusives currently available. If you're a big JRPG fan or maybe an avid gamer looking for a new, exciting gaming experience, I recommend it passionately.
By Nathan Misa