Its no secret that Japanese RPGs took a back seat during this generation of home consoles. During the golden era of the PS2 nobody referred to a JRPG as a ‘JRPG’ but simply referred to these games as RPGs. The anticipation behind Ni no Kuni has been immense especially with Level-5 and Studio Ghibli co-creating the game. With high expectation, could Ni no Kuni be the game to put JRPGs back on the map?
When Level-5 announced that it would be working on a game for the PS3 with famed Studio Ghibli, it wasn’t all that suprising when the Internet exploded. Level-5 is known for crafting top notch RPGs such as Dark Could, Rogue Galaxy, Dragon Quest and the White Knight Chronicles series. In addition, the work done by Studio Ghibli helmed by Hayao Miyazaki is legendary with anime films such as Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Spirited away.
While the game may look like its geared towards a younger crowd, the story is actually quite mature dealing with adult subject matter such as death, domestic abuse and coping with depression. Some of the dialog, especially from Drippy (one of the main characters in the game) utilizes mature euphemisms quite often.
Unlike traditional RPGs where a lone protagonist is on a journey to seek revenge or to single handedly save the world, Ollie the main character in Ni no Kuni, is an average young boy coping with a difficult time in his life who sets out on a quest to save his mother. Ollie must leave the ordinary town of Motorsville and travel to a fantasy world in order to find his mother’s “soul-mate.” As it turns out, by saving his mother he will also be saving the fate of the fantasy world in the process.
In order to achieve this, high lord of the fairies, Drippy will be helping Ollie along the way. While Ollie is overcome with emotions near the beginning of the game, Drippy a doll given to him by his mother springs alive, exclaiming that a curse has been lifted off him. With Drippy’s help, Ollie finds a wand and the Wizard’s Companion, which contains a spell that allows them to travel to the fantasy world.
Once there, Ollie learns that an evil Dark Djinn named Shadar, is bent on the destruction of the fantasy world. Shadar casted an evil spell over the land by taking pieces of hearts from many, leaving them in despair. Ollie will encounter a good number of these victims along his journey, with some lacking in ambition or enthusiasm or any of the other emotional states defined in the game.
An interesting hook the developers have implemented is the concept of parallel worlds. At times, Ollie and company will have to travel back to Motorsville in order to figure out why something bad is happening to someone in the fantasy world. In one section of the game Ollie encounters a girl that is in despair with a broken heart. When he travels back to Motorsville he finds out that her soul-mate is facing serious family issues.
Clearly, the game is taking a different path from other RPGs in how it sets out to tell the story with quests and missions that are relatable and have some basis in reality. While the missions that bring you back to Motorsville can be an emotional roller-coaster, it does leave you wanting to escape back to the beautiful fantasy world.
The story in Ni no Kuni is moving and engaging with a surprising plot twist near the end. The developers have done a good job in showing personal growth of each character, as Ollie becomes a powerful wizard by the end of the game.
It seems like Level-5 took some elements from other RPGs such as Kingdom Hearts, Tales series and Pokémon, while adding a unique twist of their own. Fans of the Pokémon and Monster Hunter series will fall instantly in love with the game’s “Familiar” system with over 400 creatures available to collect. Gamers will be able to collect and level up each of the familiar’s captured in the wild. Familiars range from a Mitey, who is literally born out of Ollie’s heart to something that looks like a Zombie creature.
The familiars also have quite a bit of depth, as Ollie can purchase weapons and armor for the little beasties as well as level up each of the creatures by feeding it treats such as cake and ice cream. Once the familiar reaches a certain level, the player will have the option to Metamorphosize it, changing the appearance of it to something new. The metamorphosed familiar’s level will be reset back to 1, but its stats will be higher than before with additional abilities unlocked for use. Ollie will meet new characters that will join his party and each member will be able to carry up to three familiars at a time.
Ni no Kuni’s combat system is a mix of real-time action with a battle menu system. Ollie and his party members will be able to run and evade attacks in real-time during battle, but the action will pause when Ollie is flipping through his capabilities such as magic or provisions.
Its great to be able to evade attacks by moving away from the enemy during battle. All enemies will usually have a tell-tale before launching an area of effect type attack. Usually Ollie can defend, resulting in minimal loss of health. The combat is well balanced and is quite fun. Every boss encounter feels challenging and fresh, with my character usually barely scraping by. Players may have to adapt to switching to defense quickly, failure to do so may result in casualties. However, this does get easier as you progress and unlock the capability to initiate a “defend all” command to all of your party members.
I did spend some time in between main quest missions grinding to level up and earn gold. For those that want to take it easy and avoid having to grind may want to start the game off on ‘Easy’ rather than ‘Normal.’ The game does offer a plethora of side quests to help break away from the main quest line. Ni no Kuni cleverly utilizes a stamp card system, where you can earn stamps based on the number of side quests completed. Having a high number of stamped cards will allow you to trade them in for rare items in town.
In addition to learning magic along the way, Ollie will pick up a genie that will perform alchemy in order to create weapons and armor from ingredients using recipes in the Wizard’s Companion.
The world in Ni no Kuni is beautifully crafted using advanced cell shaded tech, that truly blurs the line between anime and video game. At times the transition from the anime cut scene were so seamless, I didn’t realize that I was back in control of my character. From an artistic stand point Ni no Kuni is one of the best looking games of this generation and is nicely complemented by an amazing orchestral performance that sets the tone and mood of each locale. The music will shift from the desert, to the icy snow covered country side as well as helping to set the mood in the swamps and forest locations.
The world map is beautifully rendered with immaculate detail even when Ollie is coming up to a town or a village. Whenever I discovered a new town, I found myself taking a moment to span the camera around to look at all the little details of the city from a birds eye perspective. While you start out on foot travel initially, over time you will be able to travel to distant lands via ship, teleportation and finally by riding a flying dragon.
There is no random encounter in Ni no Kuni as you can see all of the enemies on the world map. As you get closer to them, the enemies will come running towards you. However, if you are strong enough, the enemies will all run away from you. There is a little bit of strategy involved when taking the enemies head on. If you time your encounter right, you can run up behind the enemy and get a preemptive strike against them.
In addition to the visuals and music, the voice acting is top notch. I now understand why Level-5 spent so much time localizing the game for the west. The work done by the Welsh voice actor that portrays Drippy has to be the best performance I have seen in a long time. The voice work definitely fleshes out Drippy and gives him a 3D personality rarely seen in video games. The voice work definitely feels like something Studio Ghibli might have a hand in.
Unfortunately, the downside to this is that everything is not fully voice. There is still quite a bit of text dialog you must read through, but given the length of the game its quite understandable why this was not done. I clocked in over 55 hours with the game and that was without completing all of the side quests and getting the best weapon in the game.
Ni no Kun: Wrath of the White Witch is a game that will instill a sense of wonder that you won’t find in many other games out there. Studio Ghibli and Level-5 masterfully crafts a tale that feels seamless from start to finish. Even each minor plot points within the main story feel extremely important and big enough to be its own separate story.
While there are some minor grips with the amount of grinding and difficulty curve with the boss battles, most of these points can be addressed by simply starting a game on “easy” rather than “normal.” The game does do a bit of hand holding even ten hours into the game, which can be turned off in the settings. I suppose this is a testament to how deep Ni no Kuni truly is. While it may feel like there is a lot of game mechanics, it never really felt overwhelming due to how the developers spoon feed it to you over time.
The amount of content in the game is astounding and the developers clearly know this as you still have the option to continue playing after beating the final boss to experience hours of post-story content. When you watch a Studio Ghibli film, you become engrossed in that world as it feels alive; similarly the developers have successfully created a game world that feels the same.
If you are a fan of RPGs, animes and games in general with a good story, I would highly recommend everyone to pick up a copy of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.