Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is the result of a partnership of Studio Ghibli and Level-5 studios. A love child in a lot of ways, Ni no Kuni marries the lovely design and artwork of Studio Ghibli and the highly polished gameplay that Level-5 is known for. The result of which is a wonderful piece of storytelling with solid — if not, repetitive — combat and puzzles.
Ni no Kuni follows the story of a young boy named Oliver, whose mother has just passed away. Oliver is accompanied by Drippy — a stuffed animal brought to life by the purity of Oliver’s tears — into another world to bring his mother back to life. The world they arrive in, Ni no Kuni, is a world of nursery rhymes and folk tales a mother might tell her child. Unfortunately, this world has been taken over by the embodiment of death: the White Witch and her servant, Shadar. Level-5 handles the story elements and they craft a beautiful tale of loss, love and learning to cope with death. They must have studied Studio Ghibli films. Because, if I didn’t know better, I would have said the Ghibli team wrote the story as well. A particularly favorite moment of mine involves being shot into the Fairy Mother and sliding down her stomach to free little baby fairies from monsters, then leaving out the “exit” with the rest of the kids. A truly vintage Ghibli moment. Throughout the journey you’ll meet some interesting characters ranging from a giant bovine queen, pirate lords, king cats, the enormous fairy mother and many other characters that all live and breathe Studio Ghibli.
There were several times while I was in the living room playing the game and one of my roommates would come in and ask when the new Ghibli movie came out. Even I, for the first 20 hours or so, couldn’t get past the thrill of what amounted to playing and controlling something I would normally only be able to watch.
Accompanying this gorgeous art direction is a splendid soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. For those that aren’t aware of it, Joe Hisaishi composes the music for every other Studio Ghibli movie. There wasn’t a moment where I wanted to turn the music down, which can be the case in some instances where you hear battle music over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and ov– well, you get the picture. This is Level-5 at the helm after all and that means… Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG for short) mechanics!
For those that don’t know what JRPG mechanics are… well, let me see if I can summarize it for you. Combat is time based and you level up as you gain experience. There is typically a somewhat large amount of repetitive monster fighting to gain experience — think training montage but a lot longer — which is traditionally called “grinding”. Ni no Kuni is no different in this regard. There are copious moments of grinding. If you would rather play the game solely for the story and the experience, rejoice! Level-5 saw fit to add an easy mode just for you. The boss battles in easy mode still offer a fair challenge, but the difficulty scales way down so you don’t have to do nearly as much of the grinding.
Oliver, an aspiring sage, has a plethora of spells to use. You’ll get classic spells like Fireball and Holy Arrow as well as a bunch of specific non-combat spells — like Broom Broom (a sweeping spell) — that you’ll use to solve puzzles and complete various tasks for characters you meet in the game. For the most part, the puzzles are as simple as finding the right spell. Some do require you to find patterns and think of the best way to solve it. The game shines in those moments, testing your wits and mettle to solve an obstacle in your own way. There wasn’t a single puzzle that felt impossible and not a moment where I wanted to put the controller down in frustration. A key puzzle — one you’ll do a lot of — is finding the missing pieces of someone’s broken heart. This has a lot to do with the villainous Shadar doing everything he can to make life miserable for everyone. They are fairly simple errands that rarely ever require you to do much more than talk to another person that is usually only a little ways away. Occasionally, you’ll have to go back into your world and find that person’s soul mate to cure their broken heart. Everyone in Ni no Kuni has a soul mate back in Oliver’s home town of Motorville and sometimes you can figure out what is wrong with someone in one world by talking to them in another… PUZZLES!
Where the gameplay really shines — and the game separates itself — is the familiar system. Familiars are little creatures running all over the world that you can capt– recruit to join you in the fight against Shadar. There are a ton of the little things to chose from, and each has two final forms that you can metamorphose it into after it reaches a certain level. If this sounds a lot like another game with little monsters — the pocket kind — then you aren’t far off base. It does take the formula from Pokemon and use it for its own purposes. Level-5 did makes some improvements on the traditional Pokemon formula, however. You can switch between the familiars on the fly and roam freely around the battlefield. You’ll have full control of your familiar as they move, attack and defend. Having the ability to switch on the fly allows the combat to flow quickly and helps you in getting the best creature out for each situation you face. You’ll also be able to switch between Ollie and his partners during combat — and even their familiars — allowing for a widely varying combat experience. While the game does have amazing art design and a wonderfully fluid combat system, the one thing familiars didn’t bring to the table was the infallible charm the Pokemon franchise has. I feel like this happened in part because there is just so much to do…
The game even has a deep crafting system in the form of the alchemy screen. There you’ll be able to craft everything from treats for your familiars, which grant stat bonuses to equipment for yourself and teammates. A lot of these recipes are already found in your Wizards Companion, which is quite possibly the most helpful game manual ever.
The Wizards Companion is full of everything, from lore to a long list of familiars, recipes and even a bunch of short stories that you unlock as you play the game. It also houses a decrypting guide for the in-game old sage language, Nazcaan. That’s right. On top of everything else, there is even a language to decipher.
Which leads me to my biggest and perhaps only problem with this game: there are SOOO many tutorials!!! [Which was the exact opposite in the demo they released that had me worried they weren’t going to explain anything.] I can assure you, dear reader, that tens of hours into the game, you’ll still get one last tutorial. There is always one more tutorial…
In reality, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is two games in one. If you want to play it just for the story, Level-5 made that available via Easy mode. If you really want to get to the meat of the experience and dive fully into the world they and Studio Ghibli created, then play on the normal difficulty and prepare for an excellent time sink. The story itself will tug at your heartstrings and more than one little moment will leave you complaining about those damn allergies that make your eyes water. The gameplay is fun and offers some variety, but does suffer from the same things that every JRPG does; namely heavy amounts of level grinding which slow down the otherwise wonderfully paced story. There is a deep well of offering in this game that gives you tons of places to see and things to do. Level-5 and Studio Ghibli have crafted more than just a game. They crafted a beautiful experience.
When Dylan Tano isn't floating amongst the clouds in his beautiful balloon you can find him up to his ears in work at Comics Bulletin. As a fellow writer once said if he gets paid in the morning then he's drunk in the afternoon. He dwells in the realms of video games and comic books, writing about both till he is either drunk or delirious. He has yet to confuse the two but his editors are working on it. If he had it his way, all robots would have pain receptors.
You can follow him on Twitter as @BroSpider. You can join him on PSN at Blues_Doc and Steam at Frostbite21251. You can read some of his musings on Blogger and he keeps a list of short stories on his Tumblr.