Everyone wants to be a wizard. Whether it is the spectacled boy who lived or the wizard who is never late, there is something alluring about the wizarding arts. So what would you do if you were handed a spell book by an odd short creature who claims to be from another world?
A great game should play out like a great book. The player should be on a journey of discovery with the protagonist, learning as much as possible while soaking up the rich ambiance. The player should also, for the most part, be privy to a bit more information than the characters. This allows the player to realise what must happen before the hapless hero gets thrown to the wolves. This balance of tension between discovery, knowledge and the plight of the characters will pull you deep into the game, and fast.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch does exactly that, sucking you in with the power of a black hole from the onset, while the bright colours and rousing music lower your defences and put a stupid grin on your face before the story can truly start. By the time young Oliver’s world gets turned upside down, and he learns of another world, a second country (literal translation of Ni No Kuni), it is too late to turn back.
So how far would you go for someone you love? Would you brave a new world and leave your friends behind? Ni No Kuni may look like something for children, but under the young protagonist and cute monsters lurks the evil truth of what happens to those filled with the darkest despair. Can you repair those broken hearts?
Broken-heartedness is something much more sinister in this world of fairies and magic. Your heart is broken when a part of it is taken from you, completely shattering your personality. Depending on what part is missing, people end up just being plain different. These range from autism to a loss of joy in their life’s work. This world is in the clutches of an evil force which enjoys a form of cold war with the inhabitants. Instead of open battles and fireballs, the will to live and to fight are quietly drained from people all over, sometimes imperceptible to those around them. Kings and the once mighty Great Sages are powerless to resist, instead cowing and admitting defeat.
Healing these hearts is no easy task, forcing Oliver to learn the strength that each of the eight virtues contains, while fighting against those who lack those virtues completely. Thankfully, Oliver doesn’t have to do this alone, he has a sidekick! He is short, yellow and has a lantern attached to his nose. Meet Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies. “I was stuck in youer world and needed help in ouer world, en it? Now be a good lad then and find more spells for youer spell book!”
Drippy is not only a font of knowledge and a guide, he also acts as a conscience and a sense of humour to lift spirits after dealing with the dark nature of twisted hearts. From advice in battle to conversations with NPCs, the Lord High Lord of the Fairies is more than happy to add his few cents with his lovely accent. In fact, the level of detail paid to translating accents and animalistic quirks into the game’s text is amazing. From the Grimalkin adding purrs to their words (purrofessor for example) to Drippy’s lingo, they are all present in every line of text, every piece of voice acting.
This of course had me in conflict. The game includes both the Japanese and English audio and both are amazing. I found it hard to choose which one I wanted, eventually settling on the English (purists don’t shun me yet) because of the lovely accents and turns of phrase. But I also wanted to hear the Japanese voice acting, which is stellar. Sigh, I’m going to have to play the whole game again, aren’t I?
Anime buffs will recognise the signature charm of Studio Ghibli permeating this game. Vibrant colours and creatures and people in all shapes and sizes bring Ni No Kuni to life. For those not accustomed to it, you might find it strange that the world is populated by feline humanoids, people with cloven hoofs and hearty appetites and “normal” humans all living alongside one another. For those in the know, this world will seem like a toned-down version of Spirited Away and many nods to the studios work are to be found in your travels. For example, a meeting with a creature named My Neighbour Totoro are there for the astute fans of Ghibli’s body of work.
Joe Hisaishi helms the music for the game, using the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra to masterful effect. While there aren’t quite enough songs in the game, they are all powerful compositions. Hearing the version of the song with lyrics as the end credits rolled (another pro English reason) was both chilling and comforting.
So what is wrong with the game? While I imagine not everyone will enjoy Studio Ghibli’s feel, the game had very few annoyances. Some of the quests are repetitive and until you get better travel options, the back tracking for early side quests is a chore. Combat sometimes suffers from the AI stumbling when given commands or just plain doing the wrong thing or the least efficient thing, something that can result in a wipe during a challenging fight. Due to file size restrictions (probably a carryover from the original 3DS launch on a 4GB card), not everything is voiced, even in the main story. Several critical story moments fell back to text only, which is pretty jarring. The other things I could mention are so entrenched in old school JRPGs that it would be like writing about a game that pays homage to 8 bit, then complaining about the 8 bit characteristics present.
How does one boy save the world alone? He doesn’t. Oliver soon learns how to use familiars in combat. These creatures, the same as ones found in the wild, do the heavy lifting for you. While a creature is out, your character cannot perform actions, devoting their attention to controlling their minion. Sounds like Pokémon? Not really, due to several fundamental differences. The damage dealt to your minion comes off your health, as does their mana expenditure. So while you may have a good defence stat, summoning a level one minion later in the game will get you killed. Your minions can also be geared depending on their genus and species. Your minions are also controlled in real time in a 3D arena, meaning you can dodge some attacks with luck. This also makes the range of their attacks and their movement speed really important. Without delving too deeply into the topic (I could write pages on what I have discovered about minions), each creature has a unique stat progression and experience to level requirements, and this is before considering which astral sign that creature has (which can differ if you are lucky with your taming). The only way to discover all this? Experimentation!
When I first started playing this game I thought to myself, ‘This is the game I will use to open the world of JRPGs to Wookiee Jr.’ This thought was expelled from my mind a few hours later as the difficulty, depth and complexity of the game revealed itself to me. By the end of the game you will probably have read the entire spell book cover to cover, with some chapters getting some extra earmarks. There is a vast wealth of information right there under your nose, but only if you apply it yourself. Don’t be surprised to find yourself jotting down notes as you play this game. For example, your spell book has pages upon pages of alchemical formulae, but when using the cauldron, your list of recipes is only those you have mixed correctly and those given to you by NPCs. While you could probably get by with the recipes you gain from quests, don’t be so lazy!
It has been a long time since I finished a game and felt goosebumps and had to wipe away a singular tear that escaped before I noticed. These are the moments that make you look at the back cover of your great book and sigh contentedly.
Ni No Kuni was reviewed by Garth Holden on a PlayStation 3