To Another World! – Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Review
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.
Are you a fan of eastern RPGs? What about anime movies? If you answered yes to both of these questions, then you’re in for one heck of a treat, as Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has hit North American shores. Coming from Level 5 Studios, this JRPG title’s graphical design was conceived by the amazing folks at Studio Ghibli! Like a love-child between Eternal Sonata and Ponyo, this title has all the makings of a great RPG!
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (or simply NNK to avoid a tongue twister) tells the tale of Oliver, a normal kid leading a simple life. Little does he know, however, that everything is about to change. Sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night to test his buddy’s home-made racecar, Oliver gets into an accident and nearly drowns in a river. Saved by his mother, he survives unscathed – but pays a greater price. Due to her weak heart, the shock of the evening’s events causes his mother to suffer a devastating heart attack, and sadly, she passes away before his very eyes…
After spending three days mourning and crying in his room, Oliver finds a doll that his mother had made to keep him from feeling lonely. Crushed by the memory, he can’t help but weep – his tears falling and soaking the lifeless creature. It’s at this moment that his sadness and love for his lost parent triggers a form of magic, bringing the stuffed animal to life! Revealing himself as Drippy, “Lord High Lord of the Fairies,” the tiny bloke tells Oliver that he was imprisoned by the Dark Djinn, Shadar, who is ravaging and terrorizing his world (a universe parallel to Oliver’s) and that his pure emotion broke said curse. Believing that Ollie is the “pure-hearted-one of legend,” Drippy begs the child to follow him into the other world and fight to free it by becoming a wizard and learning the art of magic. Oliver is very reluctant to do so, until he hears that each person has a Soul Mate – another version of themselves in the parallel universe – and that freeing his mother’s may bring her back from the dead. With high hopes, Oliver finally agrees, and the adventure in another world begins!
As Oliver explores this new universe – which has an ancient, somewhat medieval feel to it – he begins to learn more about the sinister doings of Shadar. Ruling the world with an iron fist, Shadar has left many people Broken Hearted – a state where a person is missing a part of his/her emotions (such as kindness or courage). These people are husks of their former selves, neither alive nor dead, and are harming their loved ones or causing distress to the populace. As he witnesses these tragedies firsthand, Oliver’s conviction to stop the Dark Djinn becomes all the stronger. However, Shadar isn’t the only malevolent force in the world, and many beings are pulling the strings behind the scenes – including the White Witch, Shadar’s master. Many questions will float around the players’ heads as they take on this adventure, bringing them back for more time and time again.
The narrative of NNK is handled brilliantly to tailor to all ages, from the budding young casual gamer to the older, hardcore JRPG fan. Subtle, grown-up themes like love and death have been carefully woven into the story, yet handled fairly casually, maintaining a serious ideal inside of a mainly family-oriented tale. What this title brings to the table is a perfect balance of serious themes and the friendship-triumphs-over-all joy that one expects from a PG anime. All of the wonder and excitement that one would expect from any Studio Ghibli film has been wrapped up in one neat, playable package.
Speaking of which, the depth of gameplay is absolutely massive, chock-full of content to keep you busy. For the most part, NNK keeps a general JRPG feel and focuses on two general aspects: exploration and combat. When not in battle, players are mostly free to explore the world, take on quests, search for items, and the like. Drippy’s world is massive in scale, taking a long while to travel through on foot. Dotted around the map are main towns, which contain inns where you can sleep/regain health; armories/general stores for your equipment/provisional needs; and guild halls containing new quests and bounty hunts. Each city is unique in design and inhabitants as well: from the royal architecture of Ding Dong Dell, to the swimsuit loving port of Castaway Cover.
Upon leaving these towns, players will be on the world map. It’s here where they can travel to another location, or wander the world in search of enemies to battle – which brings me to an important part of any JRPG: the combat. Battles are a mix between real-time actions and list-based commands, which makes for a very tactical yet action-oriented experience. After coming into contact with an enemy on the world map, you’re brought to the battle screen, where you select your character and begin. Basic commands vary from character to character, but include basic attacks, defense, or evasion, and special skills such as magic or physical abilities. When selecting a basic action, players enter a timed state where their character will move, attack, block, or evade continuously on their own until the timer runs out. When not within one of these states, players are able to run about as they see fit – which is helpful for avoiding enemies. Any continuous action may be player-interrupted at any time you see fit, although you will be unable to re-engage that option until the original timer would have finished. Special attacks require MP to use and also have a cooldown timer of their own – meaning you can’t simply spam your power attack time and time again.
How you enter battle is also very important, as both you and your foes are susceptible to surprise attacks. Should you be able to engage a foe from behind without them noticing, the following battle will see the enemy being unable to act for a certain period. This lets you whale away for free a little bit before the foes start to hit back. Be super careful though, as it also works the other way around: get attacked from behind and you will have a short timer before you can act, only letting you run around hoping not to get mauled. Should you fall in combat, you have the option of retrying from a place close to where you started your fight, though it will cost you ten percent of your total money.
Unlike most JRPGs, NNK only features three main party members for gamers to take control of: the mage Oliver, the musical Ester, and the gun-totting Swaine – each with his/her own base strengths in combat. However, each character can call upon different Familiars, which are beings forged from the world’s life force. These characters can be called upon and switched between in battle, acting in place of the character that summoned it – essentially making them another playable party member. Each Familiar has a stamina meter, which continuously counts down while the creature is in play. Should this meter run out, you enter a fatigued state, unable to act or swap characters until it finishes – meaning you have to be careful and tag in other Familiars or characters constantly. Players may equip up to three of these beasts per character, making the total of combatants twelve, with three more reserve units to switch out in between battles. This mechanic allows for a super wide variety of combatants, letting players adapt to any circumstance (assuming they set up their characters right). Note, though, that only active party members gain experience; reserves do not. Any other gained familiars are stored in the Familiar Retreat, which has a branch in every town and dungeon. Simply find one of their locations, and you can switch out your roster as need be.
Outside of battle, gamers are able to pamper their Familiars by feeding them treats. By giving your little monsters snacks, you help increase specific stats bit by bit, allowing you to play to a Familiar’s strengths or balance out weaker stats. One needs to be careful when doing so, however, as Familiars will become full if fed too much (preventing them from eating any more) and each creature has a cap for how many stat boosts a player can give them.
Looking for more Familiars? Simple! Sometimes, when you defeat an enemy, it will start to emit floating pink hearts instead of dying, which means you can tame it. At this point, players need to take control of Ester, who will have an additional battle option, symbolized by the same hearts pouring out of the enemy Familiar. Select this option to serenade the foe, causing it to join your cause. After naming the creature, you will either take control of it, or it will be sent to the Familiar Retreat that I mentioned earlier for storage. Keep in mind, though, that every new creature starts off at level one, so you’ll have to train them up a bit before use.
Aside from taking on the main story, there are several side missions for players to indulge in. These tasks can include collecting various items, helping people with various problems (like finding lost children), or taking bounties to hunt for powerful monsters. Completing these tasks yields various rewards, usually consisting of money, but there is an ulterior motive to them. Each side-mission completed will award you with merit stamps, which go on a stamp card. Once this card fills, you can cash it in for various bonuses, like extra item drops from enemies or allowing you to run faster around the world map. While not essential to the main game, these side missions and merit stamps will generally help players progress through the game a little easier.
One of the most interesting game mechanics is the ability to mend people’s hearts. As mentioned earlier, some characters that you discover around the world are Broken-Hearted and are missing a piece of their emotions, such as restraint or courage. Oliver can help these people by finding another person with an overabundance of one of these traits, taking a small piece of it, and bringing it to the Broken-Hearted one. To help determine if someone is capable of lending a piece of his/her heart, Oliver’s locket will start to glow when they’re within range. Helping Broken-Hearted people often yields the same rewards as side missions, alongside a feeling of righteousness, so they should be assisted whenever you get the chance.
Of course, no JRPG would be complete without some sort of crafting ability – which NNK sports. Eventually, players receive a cauldron which contains a genie who can alchemize materials for you. Along your way, you will find recipes that will allow you to automatically craft an item (so long as you have the right ingredients), but you’re also free to throw together anything you want to try to create something unique. Powerful weapons and helpful consumables can be obtained this way, so it’s really worth looking into as soon as you get the chance.
If all of this seems a little bit much to get used to, fear not! The pace of NNK is set up to give gamers ample time to practice with each mechanic before introducing a new one, usually giving a few tasks specifically designed to give you hands-on experience. Should it all still be a bit much for you, you’ve got two options: ask the Telling Stone (a feature you get early in the game) to repeat any tutorial to you or consult the Wizard’s Companion. The latter is a book given to Oliver by Drippy, and it contains all there is to know about being a Wizard, from spell-casting to Familiar usage, and even recipes for crafting. This book is a great addition to the game, as it is not only helpful, but incredibly interesting. There is even a page dedicated to teaching players to read the ancient Nazcaan script (a form of writing similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs) which can occasionally be found throughout the land – a very neat feature indeed.
The only issue in NNK comes from the pacing, which is a little too slow. Unfortunately, there are way too many filler spots within the game, which usually involve running back and forth from place to place, collecting items or simply talking to people. When the game lets the story do the talking, you get sucked in and don’t want to stop – but this feeling is slightly diminished when you end up running somewhat pointless errands, just so you can get to the next big area. While it does substantially increase playtime, a slightly smaller space between dungeons and important storyline events would have been appreciated – and would have appealed to more gamers’ attention spans. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a long game – there are just one too many filler moments in NNK.
What really makes NNK shine is its visuals, which are nothing short of breathtaking. As I mentioned earlier, the art direction has been handled by the brilliant folks at Studio Ghibli, including beautiful, hand-drawn anime cutscenes. The actual in-engine graphics mirror their 2D counterpart, utilizing wonderful cell-shading techniques and giving the overall impression of playing an anime. General art design is fantastic as well, covering both ends of the spectrum. Everyday characters and items usually contain super-basic designs (such as simple, one-colour pants and shirts), while the more unique enemies or locations feature wild and vivid designs that one would come to expect from a movie like Howl’s Moving Castle. Add in the fact that the game is visually glitch free, with no popping or tearing to be found anywhere, and you have one of the most beautiful RPGs to ever grace any system. Whether or not you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli, or any anime for that matter, you won’t be able to help falling in love with NNK’s appearance.
Art style isn’t the only thing Studio Ghibli fans will recognize, as the brilliant composer Joe Hisaishi lends his pen for the game’s original score. Players will be treated to relaxed travel themes utilizing broad string melodies and powerful brass accompaniments, as well as tense, upbeat battle themes featuring lots of quick, powerful melodic riffs. What makes the soundtrack so great is that, while very well-composed, it’s not overly complicated. While some scores can get muddled down in themes and counter melodies, NNK’s works are layered in a truly uncomplicated way, letting the melody (usually a unison between a few instruments) take precedent over the accompaniment and bass-line. Everything is easy to hear, and each note is placed perfectly within the song structure – without any piece feeling muddy or convoluted. Also playing in NNK’s favor is the fact that the melodies are fairly memorable. There were more than a few moments in play when I found myself humming along with the game, especially during battle. NNK’s score is an absolute wonder to hear and is something that you really need to experience. For combining the style of a video game soundtrack with the power of a movie score, my hat goes off to Mr. Hisaishi – he has created another masterpiece!
Voice acting is always hit and miss for JRPGs, as most titles contain both purely phenomenal performances and amazingly annoying atrocities. However, NNK is a bit of an oddball – which may be a good thing! The voice cast for the title is full of generally good performances, without any appearance from the big names in anime/gaming – no one really stands out, good or bad. Most main characters have a slight English accent to them, and Drippy features a very heavy Scottish accent, both in tone and in words. Overall, this gives a very different feel to the game, as most JRPGs go right for the basic North American voice set, with a few super annoying characters in the mix (anyone remember Celeste from MagnaCarta 2?). Thankfully, while not overly remarkable, the cast on hand does a very good job bringing NNK to life. Should you want a more authentic experience, however, there is the option of playing the game with the original Japanese voice cast – which is sure to appeal to the Otaku audience out there!
Overall, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is sure to join your collection of great RPG adventures. With its combination of great storytelling, wondrous gameplay, beautiful score, and lush anime visuals, gamers will feel like they’re living out a Studio Ghibli movie! Just be prepared for a long haul, as the title’s pace makes it seem even longer than it really is – which is considerable to begin with. Whether or not you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli, this is one quest that you do not want to miss out on. So, what are you waiting for? Grab your book of spells and magic wand, and get ready to visit another world of wonders and magic!
Final Score: 4.75 / 5.0 and the gift of magic in many forms.
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