Video games meet Studio Ghibli, and amazing things happen.
There’s something to be said about buying a game without knowing a lot about it. Often it’s an incredibly stupid move, risking $80 just like that. But sometimes, you stumble across something wonderful, and that risk is one of the best things you could’ve done. You buy it on recommendation, or because the marketing machine compels you to, and for the next week you find yourself so utterly absorbed in the game you find it hard to turn off your console at times. That’s how I feel about Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.
The main feature drawing people to Ni No Kuni is undoubtedly the art style. That’s what grabbed me, for sure, as someone who doesn’t play many JRPGs. Exploring a video game world as realised by Studio Ghibli is simply incredible, it feels and plays like a Ghibli film. Graphics and art style should by no means be the be-all-end-all selling point of a game, but there’s no denying how superb Ghibli’s style is here. The locations vary greatly and each is masterfully designed. Exploring Ding Dong Dell for the first time was an incredible experience, and with every new quest I looked forward to exploring more of the world and seeing what it had to offer. The music, also done by Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi, only accentuates that feeling. A week after finishing the game, I still find myself whistling the overworld music.
The story opens rather simplistically – young Oliver enters another world in the hopes of saving his mother – and while the story doesn’t have a ridiculous amount of depth to it, there’s enough there to be endearing and enjoyable. It’s a fairly typical story, Oliver explores this new world and makes friends in his attempt to defeat the Dark Djnn, Shadar. Throughout the game the player is treated to cutscenes of Shadar’s interaction with the White Witch as they attempt to stop or delay Oliver. Their roles become more prevalent as the story progresses, and it’s here that the voice acting really shines.
I played Ni No Kuni with the English dub as that’s always been my preference, but there wasn’t really anything glowing to say about it. Cue Shadar and the White Witch, who are both wonderfully acted, and made their parts of the story that much more interesting. Drippy’s accent, for whatever reason, bleeds into the subtitles, meaning you’ll find yourself reading words like ‘youer’ and ‘ent’it?’ a little too frequently, which even appears to affect players using the Japanese language track (and this is where I learned of the term ‘dubtitles’). It’s a minor problem for sure, but if you’re the kind of person who gets bothered by that kind of thing, you’ll be bothered here.
Oliver does most of his fighting with Familiars (affectionately titled Ghiblimon by players) who have unique abilities and characteristics – some are meant for healing and don’t know many attacks, while others are so focused on attacking they don’t have the ability to defend. Familiars are fun to collect and evolve – I have a habit of naming Pokemon after friends and I was glad to be able to do that here. Doc was my attack specialist, Shiggy was my meat shield, and Blaghman kept his distance in battle, firing off spells and outright evading enemy attacks.
I wish there was more to their evolutions though. You have a choice as to what your Familiar’s final form will be, which is great because it means you can specialise them to your advantage, usually favouring either attack or defence stats. But in terms of appearance, very little actually changes about them. They feel more like costume changes most of the time – they simply don’t look any stronger. Their size never changes, which makes them look a little off against the larger enemies you face later in the game. Looks certainly aren’t everything, because they are stronger, but more of a visual change would have been appreciated.
If you tire of your Familiars, you can even play as Oliver himself, who becomes much more useful as he learns a variety of spells throughout the game. Knowing when to use your Familiars and when to use your own spells is an integral part of the battle system.
The battle system starts off simple and gradually gets more complex as your party grows. There’s a lot to manage in battle; familiars have a time limit to their use; you have to watch your positioning carefully; you need to be ready to enter a defensive stance when an enemy charges an attack; you must know when to switch characters based on elemental advantages, and you need to keep a close eye on the health and mana of your party. Most of this doesn’t come into play in standard encounters – you can roll through them quickly with the use of one familiar and let your allies cover your back – but the system really shines in boss battles, where your ability to manage all these features is tested against a chaotic background and a powerful enemy. Whereas I spend most games dreading boss fights, in Ni No Kuni I welcomed them. It was a delight to see all those features fall into place. The enemy is about to use his strongest move, so you defend, and while he’s recovering you tell everybody to make an all-out attack on him, or maybe you use that time to heal your party, who just barely survived the attack. There’s a lot to do, and sometimes you have to make those decisions on the spot. It’s incredibly tense, and makes your eventual victory that much sweeter.
Ni No Kuni offers a wealth of side quests that slowly open up as you progress in the game, and they offer a welcome distraction and a chance to simply wander the world for just a little bit longer. Ranging from simple fetch quests to challenging bounty hunts, there’s a lot of side content available here, but most of it is short and quickly becomes repetitive. Restoring the hearts of brokenhearted people across the world is a feature of both the main questline and side quests, but these side quests are really nothing more than short conversations. A traveller is missing his enthusiasm, so walk across town until you find someone with extra enthusiasm, and bring it to the traveller. It’d be fine if there weren’t so many of them, but there are a lot, and what was originally a very charming part of the game becomes a bit too dull and repetitive. The bounty hunts, on the other hand, are much more enjoyable, requiring you to scour the world map for the location of these mini-bosses that can be a bit of a challenge to take down. Side quests reward you with merit stamps which can be cashed in for rewards that improves your abilities, so they’re well worth doing to get that extra edge.
As the world opens up and you gain easier ways to travel, the difficulty begins to ramp up as well. Ni No Kuni punishes going off the beaten path a lot of the time, which was particularly bad after being given a way to easily travel around the entire world. There’s nothing to indicate that the monsters in any area are out of your league until after you’ve been thoroughly destroyed by them.
In general, Ni No Kuni can be a fairly difficult game. When I died twice in a tutorial battle meant to demonstrate a very important feature of the battle system, I relented and lowered the difficulty. It’s a challenging game, even on the easiest difficulty, but the challenge makes it endearing, and seeing the efforts of my grinding begin to pay off was immensely satisfying.
There’s an odd imbalance here, because Ni No Kuni also holds your hand too much at times. This is okay in the first few hours of the game as you learn the game formula, but having Drippy forcefully remind you that a person is missing a piece of their heart grows tiresome 30 hours in. Related to these sidequests again, it would have been far better to let the player figure out exactly which piece of heart a person was missing by themselves, to add even a bit of challenge to these quests. Drippy also interferes in boss fights to explain their weaknesses. That can be helpful, but if you’ve already figured it out he’s just a nuisance, and either way it interrupts the flow of the battle.
Despite these criticisms, Ni No Kuni is an incredible experience. In fact, some of these criticisms might not even apply to you – I’ll admit some of them are fairly nitpicky. There’s no denying that after the 35 hours it took me to complete the main storyline, I was satisfied, and eager to dive into the post-game features. When you boil it down, Ni No Kuni is a charming game with superb visuals and a battle system that kept me engaged and constantly adjusting. It’s certainly a promising start for the year in gaming.