Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Review

What do you get when you take a battle system that’s a cross between Pokemon and Xenoblade Chronicles, adds in a cell shaded visual style to rival Wind Waker and mixes them up with a Studio Ghibli story? You get Ni No Kuni, Level 5 and Namco Bandai’s new JRPG. The ambitious game is Studio Ghibli’s first attempt at a video game and while in many ways it completely excels, inconsistency issues cause occasional peaks and dips in quality.

Ni No Kuni is the story of a thirteen year old boy called Oliver, whose mother dies suddenly after saving him from drowning. His tears over his mother’s death bring a doll she made him come to life, revealing him to be a magical creature named Drippy, Lord of the Fairies. Using a magic book given to him by Drippy, Oliver travels to the world of Ni No Kuni (Japanese for “The Other World”), which runs parallel to his own, in the hopes of being able to bring his mother back to life and save both worlds in the process. It’s peppered with Anime cutscenes created by Studio Ghibi, voice acting from the company that worked on the terrific English voiceover track for Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii, and features the kind of off the wall, highly distinct character designs that Ghibli’s films are known for.

The story is truly heartwarming, with some great moments of character interaction that feel both believable and touching. I’ll avoid spoiling too much of it here as you’ll want to experience it first hand for maximum effect, but there are some great plot twists I didn’t see coming. Even though the death of Oliver’s mother at the beginning of the game brought me to tears it was not the most emotionally impactful scene in the game by a long shot. There are several scenes later in the game that do an even better job at tugging at the heartstrings.

The gameplay is centred around a couple of key activities. You’ll spend a good amount of your time battling monsters and the rest of your time trying to fix the broken hearts of the citizens of both worlds. You’ll do this by travelling back and forth to find people with an excess of traits – like courage, enthusiasm, ambition or love – as the main villain you’ll be encountering throughout the game is attempting to take these elements from the worlds citizens in the hope that they will lose any and all motivation they had to stand up to him, making his attempt to rule the world that much easier.

Another interesting aspect is that every character has a “soulmate”. This is a person running parallel to themselves in the other world, and you’ll often have to track down and help a character’s soulmate in one world to help their parallel character in the other world. The idea is used to great effect and gives a reliable structure to both the main quest, and a good chunk of the side quests.

The main character Oliver spends much of his journey trying to become stronger and master magic as a wizard. As such, you can expect to learn a great deal of spells throughout the game. Spells are spread out across combat spells, spells that are required for main quest progression, spells that aid you in traversing the world and spells that are used more for side quests and situational moments (in cutscenes in order to progress the story for example). When playing I was often reminded of the way that the Golden Sun games handled their spells, in that while some are clearly designed primarily for combat, you’ll sometimes find yourself using combat spells outside in the towns and dungeons or main world map in order to complete puzzles and continue on your quest. It might be something as simple as using a fireball spell to light candles for example, but it will force you to use spells in ways you may not have imagined they could be used.

Magic usage is highly encouraged, particularly by its menu placement. In battle your spells are always to hand and sensibly organised, not hidden in menus like some JRPGs. When using spells outside of battle one of the face buttons on the controller goes straight to the magic menu rather than requiring you to go there via the main menu first. Examples of where magic needs to be used to progress outside of battle are occasionally highlighted by a “?” above Oliver’s head, but that will also occur at times when magic CAN be used but won’t have any real effect as well.

By the end of the game you’ll have more than a couple of dozen spells at your disposal, but they are introduced at a perfect pace that allows you time to get used to them before you’re given new ones. Upon completing each main objective in your quest you’ll find yourself presented with 3 – 5 new spells which gives a real sense of accomplishment to quest progression and aids your sense of growth as a character.

Ni No Kuni is a real treat visually, both in engine and during the pre rendered Anime cutscenes. Unlike the recent trend where using a palette composed of blacks, greys and browns makes your game darker and more gritty, Ni No Kuni makes the most of a large range of bright, vibrant colours. Every area has its own set of colours that helps to set tone. The environments are nicely detailed and the character models are expressive. At a later point in the game you gain the ability to fly around the world on the back of a dragon and the first time I did so I just flew around the world for a while, taking in how beautiful all the scenery was. The only real complaint I have about the visuals is that during the beginning of the game we get several Studio Ghibli created Anime cutscenes; these become much fewer and further between as the game goes on. The high quality of them makes their absence more notable, which is a problem that also affects the game’s voice acting, but I’ll get to that later.  

The combat is one of the areas where the game shines brightest, showcasing a level of depth I’ve not seen in a JRPG for some time, even if it does take four of five hours to reach its full potential. You free roam the battle arena with your party of three characters, each of whom can bring three monsters called Familiars with them into battle and you can have three Familiars with you in reserve to switch into your party between fights. You can switch between which of your characters to control, which of their Familiars to use and set up what sort of tactics you want the computer controlled party members to focus on at any time. While the battles started off easy, I found myself having to take full advantage of my squad’s varied skills as the game went on.

The ability to choose and collect Familiars has several elements in common with Pokemon. They can be summoned to fight on your behalf, named, independently levelled up and tailored to suit your situation. When taking part in battles with regular monsters you may find that rather than dying, one of the monsters you’re fighting develops a set of hearts floating above its head. When this happens, one of your party will have a few seconds to charm it and tame it for your party.

From there it will gain experience points whenever it’s with your party, level up, learn new moves and attacks, and even metamorphose (read evolve) into a second and third form. One of the biggest places the Familiars system deviates from the Pokemon formula is that when you choose to bring your Familiar to its next form, its level will drop back down to LV 1. Sure, it will be stronger in the long run and have a wider array of moves at its disposal, but you have you weigh up the potential of proceeding to the next form mid-dungeon with the risk of temporarily having one of your Familiars stuck at LV 1 and completely uncompetitive in battle. This trade off really added a sense of balance to the system and made whether to metamorphose or not a decision that required much more thought than evolution in Pokemon.

Once you’ve got a good party of Familiars set up and plenty of spells and abilities at your command the battles will be both fun and engaging throughout the rest of the game, with my only complaint being that the battle system doesn’t reach its stride until you’ve got all three party members and stocked them with three Familiars, but from that point on it’s fantastic. There is a lot of optional depth to the battle system. You can either choose one character to fight with, selecting your favourite attacks and trying to win that way, or choose to increase the depth of mechanics by swapping which character or Familiar you’re controlling at any time, using a mix of physical and distance attacks, changing what strategy the characters you aren’t directly controlling will use, cancelling your attacks midway through their activation and juggling the amount of time each Familiar can be summoned for, along with each character’s HP and MP. Add in the Special attack orbs occasionally dropped (that allow whoever picks them up to unleash a super powerful special attack), the fact that your Familiars share HP and MP with the character controlling them and the rock-paper-scissors style of elemental damage and you’ve got a huge amount of options for how you approach each battle.

Like any Studio Ghibli film, Ni No Kuni has a beautiful soundtrack. Performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and composed by Joe Hisashi, it makes stunning use of everything from the loudest and most energetic battle melodies to the most subtle twinkling melodies and environmental effects. Not only do the tracks do a brilliant job of setting the scene for any given environment, but several of them have that wonderful memorability that was commonplace in 8-bit and 16-bit JRPGs. I regularly found myself walking away from the game and humming battle themes, the main theme or just little bits of music I’d heard on my travels.  

Ni No Kuni’s dialogue localisation is one of the strongest I’ve seen in the years I’ve been enjoying the genre, thanks in large part to the localised humour, puns that make the most of the English language’s many quirks and scenes of dialogue so well written that they were both believable and enthralling. From the Shrimpaler enemy (a shrimp armed with a sword) to Almamoon (a town where milk and cheese play an important role), the En Guardian trophy (awarded for defeating the forest gaurdian) to the Man of Steal trophy (for successfully stealing 50 items from enemies), the localisation team have gone the extra mile to ensure that the game’s dialogue and text all feels like it was written natively in English. Pretty much every monsters name is a clever pun and every town has witty dialogue throughout which really helps the world to feel alive. 

Ni No Kuni has been wonderfully re-dubbed during its trip over to western shores. Thanks to voiceover work from the same company responsible for Xenoblade Chronicles, the characters are all voiced by British voice actors, creating a cast where the voices are almost as distinct as the characters visual designs (while steering away from the easy stereotype of overly posh sounding English people). From Drippy with his thick Welsh accent and turns of phrase, to the pirate who wouldn’t sound amiss playing Captain Hook, the voice overs are of a really high calibre and well worth giving a shot, even if you usually play JRPGs or watch Anime in Japanese. It’s a natural sounding cast who are able to deliver a huge amount of emotion in their given lines.

The biggest problem I had with the game unfortunately happens to stem from the voice acting, which is best described as inconsistent. Early on almost every line is voiced, at the very least every important or emotionally impactful line, but as the game progreses the voice acting becomes less and less common, ending up being a real rarity. Around 30 hours into the story there was a scene between Oliver and his best friend Phil discussing their feelings of guilt over the death of Oliver’s mother. This could have been a really touching scene for several reasons, but it just didn’t have the same effect when you’ve got bleeps and bloops rather than the super high quality voice acting that appears at other points in the game. Even more strange, later in that scene they do a voiceover for just two words, the characters saying each other’s names, then drop back to bleeps and bloops. The choice of when to voice the characters seems almost random and the high quality of the voiceover just makes its absence at other points all the more noticeable and apparent.

To wrap up, the fact that the inconsistency of the voice acting is my only major complaint says an awful lot for Ni No Kuni’s level of quality. I’ve not played a game that gave me the same sense of childlike wonder and eagerness to keep playing in many years. The story is truly moving, the battle system unlike anything I’ve played before and it has an absolutely beautiful art style. If you’re a current JRPG fan, or a past fan who stopped playing because of stagnation in the genre, then Ni No Kuni is a must buy. It took me over 40 hours just to complete the main story, skipping past the vast majority of the side quests and I could happily have spent even longer in the game’s wonderful world.

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