Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) for the PlayStation 3. The game was a joint venture between developer, Level-5 and the animation studio, Studio Ghibli. Namco Bandai handled the publishing duties for the U.S. release. Level-5 is a veteran of the JRPG genre having done the Dark Cloud series, Rogue Galaxy and Dragon Quest VIII for the PlayStation 2 and the White Knight Chronicles series for the PS3. However, they are perhaps most known for their handheld output with the irresistibly charming Professor Layton series. Studio Ghibli is the house that Miyazaki built and is popular in the hearts and minds of children and adults alike for My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, as well as many others. How does the collaboration between Level-5 and the Disney of the East shape up?
Ni no Kuni’s story is fairly simple yet elegantly told. It has many antecedents to other popular video games and movies that revolve around young children and magic. Oliver is a young boy who lives in a town called Motorville, his days involve going to school and hanging out with his best friend, Phillip. One day, Phillip asks Oliver to sneak out at night so they can finally test out the car that Phillip and he have been building. While everything seems sublime in this small town where the youths dream big, there is something sinister happening. Early on, the eponymous White Witch watches Oliver from another world because she knows he is fated to save her world. She cannot allow that to happen. As she observes the plan that Oliver and Phillip concoct, she decides to use her considerable magic to tamper with the car. Once Oliver sneaks out and tries to test out the car, it runs into a river, which is ruinous since Oliver cannot swim. Phillip panics and is unable to help, but luckily Oliver’s mother, Alicia intuits the danger and runs out to save her son from drowning. Naturally, this selfless act does not go well and there is tragedy.
Ni no Kuni much like all Studio Ghibli films is told smoothly with plenty of whimsy and charm. The story is self contained (so no real worry about it being milked for sequels) and no one piece introduced to the ever-unfolding story is wasted or superfluous. All things have meaning even if they seem unclear at first. It is the credit of the story telling that all characters and plot beats eventually meet up in some way. Even if some of the “twists” seem obvious, they are elaborated on in such a manner that it never feels silly. The pace of the story moves at a good clip and there is always something happening that is fresh and plucky to keep the gamer’s attention.
The gameplay in Ni no Kuni takes cues from plenty of the modern JRPG mechanics and renovations of the old systems. Battles take place in active-time with a turn-based system, where players have the choice of several options by searching through a wheel menu. There is the option to attack, defend, use skills/magic and certain familiars (the game’s creatures/monsters) can evade or psyche up (which gives the familiar extra strength and can possibly cancel major enemy spells/attacks). The gamer is able to move around in a three-dimensional space in battle to help buy time for choices or for getting a better position on an enemy. There is a bit of an issue with the tactics section (where the player assigns non-controlled characters actions) with not being specific enough to refine combat strategies in the smartest way. So sometimes, non-controlled characters will do actions that the player would rather them not do. Ni no Kuni could have benefitted slightly from curbing from Final Fantasy XII’s gambit system.
While on the over world or in dungeons, there are no random battles. Instead, the game elects to have the enemies appear on screen, so the player has the option to engage, avoid or get the drop on the enemy by approaching from the back. One of the best things about this method is that once the player becomes too strong enemies will run away instead of trying to fight (for the most part). The game makes use a world map where players can visit towns and dungeons by either walking, sailing or flying.
Lastly, there is the game’s familiar system, which takes the Pokémon aspect that many JRPGs are using currently, where the player is able to capture the game’s creatures and use them to fight. At first, Oliver has only one familiar to use, but once the player gets Esther in their party, she is able to serenade charmed creatures allowing the player to tame them. The party is limited to three characters each able to use up to three familiars in battle (with three in reserve to switch out). During battle, the player can freely switch between the characters and their familiars at will for the best strategy. Characters and equipped familiars earn the same amount of experience after battle (familiars do not need to fight to earn experience). Certain familiar types are more suited for a certain character, so check that when equipping them for the best growth possible. Outside of leveling up, players can feed familiars different sweets (chocolate, flan, ice cream, etc.) to increase attributes. There is plenty of depth added to the gameplay from the mix of so many familiars and character strengths. So mix and match to find the best combinations to devastate bosses and random enemies.
Graphics and Sound
Ni no Kuni in many ways is a beautiful game from its story to its aesthetics to its aural virtuosity. The art style is done with Studio Ghibli’s design and flair. It looks much like an anime brought to life. What this game represents is the promise of all the cel shaded games before it by acting like and presented as a controllable cartoon. There are cut scenes hand drawn by Studio Ghibli that are utterly gorgeous, but even when the game cuts back to the in-game rendered graphics, it is not jarring. The way the character models, settings and landscapes are rendered give it a similar vibe and feel. There are moments in this game, where the angles and framing line up in a way that each one looks like an animated cell. Everything moves fluidly and smoothly bringing this bright and richly textured world to life.
The game features a wonderfully done soundtrack from composer Joe Hisaishi. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra performed every song in the game. The music is infectious, memorable and matches the grandiosity and whimsy of the story. The main theme is full of blaring horns to rouse the player into the grand adventure that they and Oliver are about to embark upon then is followed by mellow flutes to signify the exploration of this new world. Each world and town will have its own music to fall in love with and the soundtrack is robust. There is the theme song; Fragments of Hearts performed that Archie Buchanan that is haunting and beautiful. It is a shame that the soundtrack was only bundled with the Wizard Edition of the game.
Ni no Kuni is a magical and majestic experience. It is full of wonder and mirth rousing a childlike sense of exuberance for the game out of gamers. It is adorable and brimming with charm, whether it is a cat in frock coat and eye patch or feeding a mite chocolate then watching him shimmy-shake with joy. The game is a spectacular experience. There are plenty of hours of gameplay with a satisfying story. It proves the fact that JRPGs can still be good and worthwhile if done well. Ni no Kuni is a game that will surely fill whatever piece may be missing from someone’s heart.