Whether you're firmly on one side of the spectrum when it comes to eastern and western RPGs, the vast majority of the genre's fans know a good RPG when they see one. While none have to feature the world's most epic story, they almost always have to include an interesting cast of characters, an accessible battle and looting system, and a world you just want to be a part of. Lately, all of that has been a regular part of western RPGs, especially in that of games such as Skyrim. With the exception of the Demon's Souls games, perhaps Tales of Vesperia, and a few games on iOS, JRPG options simply haven't been as strong. This all makes Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch a soothing breath of fresh air.
What Is It About?
With the famed Studio Ghibli (known for high-grossing anime films such as Spirited Away and Kiki's Delivery Service) heading production, Ni no Kuni showcases the masterful work the studio does in its storytelling. Players starting a new save file in the game are treated to a gorgeous scene showing the main character and his fairy follower running away from wild beasts as they come to a cliff where they get a view of a world unlike their own.
After that, the game really begins in Motorville, a little town where all of its inhabitants have a bit of a fetish for automobiles. Players assume the role of the well-mannered and innocent Oliver, who fetches groceries for his mother shortly before meeting up with his best friend to take the new car he's created out for a spin.
When he tests the car out, Oliver suddenly loses control and drives it into the river, where he's fortunate enough to have his mother save him from drowning. But instead of a scolding, Oliver receives an even more grave punishment. His mother suffers a heart attack shortly after the ordeal, leaving Oliver in a regretful state of denial.
As he spends every day in his room alone, he cries into a stuffed toy his mother gave him years ago — and in typical cartoon fashion, it comes to life. Introducing himself as Mr. Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies, he tells Oliver that the boy is "The Chosen One" who will save the world from chaos. He then tells Oliver that he is a great wizard and that bringing his mother back is a possibility, fully convincing the now orphaned child to go on this journey.
Why Should I Care?
If you couldn't already tell, the plot is a little out of the ordinary, especially compared to your standard Japanese RPGs. This isn't your typical "save the princess" kind of narrative, and it's not about an immature loudmouth coming of age. It's about a little boy doing whatever he possibly can to be reunited with his mother. And if it means traveling to a parallel universe and taking on a slew of ferocious monsters, so be it.
Japanese RPGs have typically suffered with battle systems that don't hold a candle to their game's plots and vice versa. In Ni no Kuni, Level-5 created one that isn't only simple but also purposely makes the player not really have it mastered until hours into the game.
Battles are fought in real-time on a 3D plane where the player can move around freely to dodge attacks and/or stand where it's safe to use spells. At the same time, the use of attacks, spells, items, and other abilities are limited to menu screens in the form of manga speech bubbles. So in essence the game's battle system is pretty much Final Fantasy's classic active-time battle system with the ability to move about the screen.
On top of that, battles aren't random either. You'll clearly see the enemies wherever they are in a dungeon or world map, so they can be avoided. Of course, if they see you and are fast enough, they'll catch up to you. But as you grow more and more, weaker monsters will also avoid you.
If that seems simple enough, it gets a little more interesting. After you explore the first town, you'll come across a beast that wants to befriend you. Called "familiars," Oliver can capture and train up to three of these beasts at a time and use them to do the dirty work, Pokémon style. Like Pokémon, familiars have their own abilities and have distinct type advantages against other enemies, further adding to the battle system's depth and strategy.
The first few battles are relatively simple, but the system takes a while to master because it doesn't give players every nuance from the get-go. Aside from getting a familiar early, one of the earliest strategies players will learn about is the importance of defending. This is especially key against super attacks that enemies cast. Defending against these attacks are often the difference between life and death, and don't let the cartoon style and Oliver's cute appearance fool you. While not really cheap, the CPU will take every chance there is to kill you, even on the game's easy mode.
Eventually like most JRPGs, Oliver will meet others who share his same ambitions and they'll eventually join the party. Players will meet Esther, the daughter of a Great Sage who comes off a bit feisty but is also a great healer. (Yeah, the first girl you meet is a healer. In fact, she's too good of a healer.) Much later in the game players will also come across the mysterious Swaine, a gunslinging thief. Aside from their abilities of healing and stealing, which are both rather useful techniques in battle, Esther comes with the ability to tame other monsters, and Swaine has the ability to loot chests that are out of Oliver's reach.
In battle, the use of other characters and their familiars is mostly done by the AI, but players can switch and use them at any time. This happens pretty often because if there's anything that isn't great about the game, it's the fact that the AI isn't the most ideal. Both Esther and Swaine are prone to wasting all their MP using abilities they don't have to use, and players might find themselves spending a lot of time backtracking in dungeons and forests looking for save spots to replenish their HP and MP.
Speaking of abilities, they come into play outside of battle as well. Aside from "Gateway," which gives Oliver the ability to travel back and forth between Motorville and the magical world, he will also be using the spells "Take Heart" and "Give Heart" a lot. Many of the citizens in this parallel universe are brokenhearted, meaning that they're missing an essential piece of their heart that makes them normal. Oliver helps bring people back to normal by taking people's excess enthusiasm, confidence, belief, love, and other feelings that make a heart whole and giving them to citizens in need. Doing this results in being rewarded with loot and merit stamps that Oliver can exchange for abilities that will aid in his quest.
Of course, there are more typical uses for his spells as well. "Fireball," normally an attack in battle, can be used to light torches, while "Travel" will allow Oliver to quickly warp outside of towns and dungeons he's already visited … which players won't get until about 20 hours or so into the game. (Okay, that's a little bit of a spoiler, but for those of you wondering if the game does open up from it's harsh linearity, rest assured knowing that it does. Not to mention almost all JRPGs like this have such a spell.)
Another cool time-wasting feature is the depth of Oliver's spellbook, dubbed the Wizard's Companion. Here, not only can you read about the different spells that Oliver can conjure, but you can also read up on the history of every place you step foot in, along with every item and spell you get your hands on. Nothing is really beneficial to the overall gameplay, but it's a great touch that gives fans of the game something to look forward to.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Players looking for a deep, lengthy, and interesting title will find one here. At a little more than 40 hours to beat, there's hardly a dull moment in Ni no Kuni, and it isn't the easiest game in the world either. With such careful skill put into almost every amount of detail in the game's presentation, from its masterful Studio Ghibli artwork to its original soundtrack composed by the great Joe Hisaishi, the production values in a game like this are nearly second to none. Only Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII production values rival Ni no Kuni's, but Ni no Kuni has so much to offer than just a pretty game.
The game starts off linear, and it's about as accessible as it gets because if you're ever confused, the top of the screen literally gives you your next objective, and the map on the upper right corner of the screen has a star that indicates where it is you need to go. But as stated earlier, some parts of the game are pretty challenging, so the hand-holding really isn't all that bad.
Namco could've just let it roll with the superb graphics, music, and voice acting, but they didn't stop there. The story makes the game worth coming back to, the sidequests and bounty hunts leave a sense of importance to complete, and the characters really make you care about saving the world. This is the kind of JRPG that has heart and will make you remember every town and person in the game, even more so if you give the Wizard's Companion a look.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a game doesn't even need a review. This is the kind of game that the PlayStation 3 has been lacking, and that alone will easily make this great experience a contender for Game of the Year at multiple publications.