FIRST SHOT: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White WitchA column article by: Dylan Tano
First Shot is where we get a hands-on with a game before its release and share our first impressions with you. Remember that the games are not in their final stage and that these are in no way reviews, but merely previews.
Dylan Tano takes a First Shot at Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, from Level-5 and Namco Bandai, with animation by Studio Ghibli.
I got a chance to sit down with Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch recently, after I had been eagerly awaiting the demo to hit PlayStation Network. With art by Studio Ghibli (of Spirited Away fame), music by Joe Hisaishi (also of Spirited Away fame) and put together by Level-5 (Dark Cloud), this game represents the video game equivalent of Bob Dylan’s The Band for me. Bringing in the wonderful art from the group that brought us the likes of Princess Mononoke and the music of Hisaishi to match. Combine that with Level-5, who brought us Dragon Quest VIII, this has instilled pretty high hopes with me. After playing both demo scenarios several times over I can safely say that it has met those expectations.
You play Oliver, whose mother has recently passed away and your tears awaken your stuffed animal, Mr. Drippy, a Jamaican-sounding Lord High Lord of the Faeries. What follows is a quest into this world to save your mother. In the demo, you’re asked by an old tree to go tame the forest guardian who is running amok. After defeating the guardian, you arrive back at the old tree and he gives you the locket to hold heart pieces. In the second part of the demo, you’re trekking up a volcano trying to prevent it from exploding. Once you’re up on the top of the mountain, you’re greeted by Shaadir, a menacing rasta magician who summons some crazy fire demon from the lava. A pretty difficult fight ensues, but once you manage to defeat the crazy fire monster, you seal him off with a giant boulder and Shaadir is nowhere to be found.
Character designs are about what we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli; inventive and fun. If they decide to go into merchandising with some of these neat little guys then I know I’ll be buying my fair share. Story segments are fully voiced and animated, giving it an authentic Ghibli feel. The story itself at first glance does seem like it was written for a young audience. But if you look underneath the fairy tale exterior, you’ll see a story of real depth and humor awaiting you. The story is actually handled by Level-5, but you can tell Studio Ghibli put a lot of effort into it. There are references to other stories and subtle jokes hidden in character names and even designs.
The gameplay takes a little getting use to at first. Part Final Fantasy XII, part Dragon Warrior Monster, part Pokemon and part something else. Battles basically break up into multiple parts, the moments when you’re controlling Oliver, which plays a lot like Final Fantasy XII with running around and casting spells. Then those moments where you summon companions like Mighty Mite (my favorite from the demo) play a lot like you’d expect a console version of Pokemon, with the ability to switch between companions on the fly while having control of choosing when to defend and when to attack. They also level up and it looks like they evolve (Mighty Mite turns into Veggy Mite), which adds an aspect of grinding on the world map (where you’ll bump into your fair share of encounters). I didn’t get to do too much of that as each scenario is on a twenty-five minute timer and I was eager to push forward as far as possible.
As Oliver goes along, he develops new spells to use. Pretty standard stuff, until you get to the plot mechanic of giving and taking hearts. You see, there is something wrong with people in this world of magic and monsters: they’re lacking pieces of their heart. Not everyone is, but in my time with the demo, I had to find a guard some enthusiasm so he’d open a gate and things like that. It operates as a pretty nifty puzzle piece to the game, giving your interactions some added meaning. Level-5 has really added a lot to this game and luckily they’ve taken the time to make sure it all works. The gameplay could have been a mess. Instead, once you figure it out, switching between Oliver and his companions is really smooth and fairly effortless, making for some fast paced battles with a lot of action. And the few big battles I was a part of weren’t easy. They took time and a lot of switching. I’m sure it was partially because of my newness to the game but they were exciting and most of the creature names were puns of what they were. For instance, Brrrian was a plumpy little frost magic creature that really took Moltaan (some triceratops fire minotaur) to town with his ice magic.
Ni no Kuni has thrown a lot into the mix here with a ton of gameplay elements and an engrossing story. If any of the gameplay elements were off, it could have really tripped up the rest of the game. Thankfully this English port has a lot of polish (the game came out for PlayStation 3 and Nintendo DS in Japan in 2011). I had a lot of expectations for this game and if my brief playthrough is any indicator, I’m really going to enjoy it.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch comes out only on PlayStation 3 on January 22nd, 2013. In the meantime, the demo is currently available on PlayStation Network.
Dylan Tano has been playing video games since before he could walk. He's scaled castles and rode on the backs of giants. He has lived many lives and will live many more. He revealed himself to be the infamous Spider-Bro on Twitter as @BroSpider.