Review by HailToTheGun

Reviewed: 02/26/13

Ni no Kuni's fondness for tradition and its remarkably mature story prove that the games industry still has a beating heart.

Do you remember the last game to make you cry? The last one to make you laugh? Can you recall a game that has done both? It’s a remarkable endeavor to strive for, and one that few in the industry have ever accomplished. Gaming by nature is mindless entertainment, but every once in a spectacularly rare occasion, along comes a title that manages to tug on just the right heartstrings to remind us that games can be a powerful tool for storytelling. When you combine the talents of two legendary creative forces of their respective mediums, the result is one of those occurrences.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch should not be good. In an age ripe with bleeding-edge technical presentation and blockbuster-equivalent action set pieces, there was a definite stigma attached to this project. Originally released only as a Nintendo DS title in Japan, Ni no Kuni met tremendous sales and critical success. But as a potential PS3 exclusive released worldwide, there was a greater anxiety: could such an adherently traditional Japanese role-playing game with a blatantly niche presentation meet equal success in places like North America and Europe? The answer was an obvious yes, and it is because of both Studio Ghibli’s sensitive art direction and Level-5’s understanding of the formula that made it so.

It’s the same question everyone asked before Nintendo was convinced to localize their Wii exclusive RPGs Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story, and it’s the same answer. In the hands of masterful creators, anything can be a success. But Ni no Kuni is more than just the sum of its parts. To call it “that game made by Studio Ghibli” would be a disservice to the title and complete disrespect to both teams. This is a love letter to the gaming industry; a plea for others to realize that games don’t need to pride themselves on their violence or their absurdity to tell a mature story. There’s no forced romantic subplot to drive home the marketing technique of “sex sells,” there isn’t vicarious warfare. There is simply a boy and his story, and it is one of the most mature tales seen in a video game in years.

Ni no Kuni begins in the sleepy town known as Mortorville, a fictional hamlet located in the Pacific Northwest sometime during the 1950s. After a tragic and unfortunate accident involving Oliver, our hero, and his best friend Phillip, Oliver’s mother suffers a heart attack and dies. Overwhelmed with grief and guilt, Oliver locks himself in his room and cries himself barren. Until his tears fall upon the patchwork doll that Oliver’s mother had given to him many years ago, and suddenly breathe life into the stuffed toy.

The doll, who is henceforth and shall forevermore be known as Mr. Drippy Lord High Lord of the Fairies, gives Oliver hope. He tells him that he is from another world much like Oliver’s, but this place is cursed by the Dark Djinn Shadar, and all who live there have become heartless shells of their former self. Everyone who lives in this world shares a soul mate with someone in Oliver’s world, and in particular there was once a great and powerful sage named Alicia who has been imprisoned by Shadar. As luck would have it, she is the soul mate of Oliver’s mother, and if Oliver can free her, he may be able to bring his mother back to life. Ultimately, Oliver’s significance to this other world and his role in the game’s grand scheme is something worth discovering on your own, but in traditional dramatic fashion, expect many surprises.

As a character, Oliver is an affable young boy with a kind heart and an almost frighteningly naïve perception about the world. His catch phrases (“Jeepers!” and “Neato!”) remind me of a time when innocence wasn’t lost so young. It turns out he’s a pretty killer wizard as well, as he quickly discovers his inherently natural gift for magic through the use of the Wizard’s Companion, a fabulous piece of in-game literature that serves as more than just a table of contents or a manual, but as an authentic presentation of sorcery and the art of spells. Mr. Drippy serves as a sidekick of sorts, and other times a mentor, but always a friend. He is brought to life through a superb vocal performance by Steffan Rhodri, whose thick welsh accent gives the lantern-accessorized fairy immense charm and personality.
Combat in Ni no Kuni is interesting, but it’s not the most effective use of genre-blending. Many of the traditional Japanese role-playing elements are present, such as the introductory splash screen and the formulaic turn-based combat, but much of this has its own unique spin. Though the combat is turn-based, it’s also real-time, in a way that’s probably most similar to a Tales of or a Star Ocean game. You select your actions, and then your character has an allotted time to perform those actions. When the time expires, you select again, and it’s during this selection process that many times combat will pause. Some actions will need to be done in real time, such as the broad strokes (selecting basic “Attack” or “Defend” options, or scrolling over to the “Provisions” menu). But it’s once you make that decision are you given the freedom to choose without pressure.

Here’s where things get interesting. Take all of that and throw Pokémon into the mix. Not only do you have the ability to control the primary characters, but you can also choose to select creatures (known as familiars) to fight for you, and for a majority of the game, that’s the better option. The familiars come in all shapes and sizes and as you’d expect from a Level-5 game, their names are hilariously pun-filled. Essentially, you’ll accrue a team of three heroes (a fourth joins your quest, but not until the very tail-end of the game), and each person can hold a total of three familiars. You can then choose three extra familiars to keep on your active reserves, and everything else you have excess of will get sent to the familiar retreat once you gain access to it, a pen house of sorts that you can access at almost every save location in the game.

The familiars and the characters level independently of each other, but certain stats of the heroes will affect their familiars, such as HP and MP. This is because the familiars share a direct bond with their owners. All damage they take is shared by their user. Nearly everything else is dependent on each character and familiar, so you will have to become aware very quickly of enemy weaknesses and strengths and know what to use to counter it: familiars with high defense, high attack or magic, or perhaps some good old fashion human magic?

Every enemy you fight that doesn’t include a boss is a familiar that you can capture, and once captured, you’ll then have to attend to their needs. A simple feeding mechanic sees that you give treats to your familiars to level their stats, and doing so fills up a couple of meters: one that measures their fullness, and another that tracks their familiarity (or otherwise, their affinity toward you). The latter increases more efficiently if you feed your familiar their favorite kind of treat. Familiarity has no real consequence if you don’t level it up. For instance, a familiar won’t ignore you if its familiarity is level one; however, there is benefit to leveling it up, as it allows you to continue feeding them more and increasing their stats further, as well as unlocking more ability slots for combat.

Once familiars reach a certain level, you can choose to metamorphose them. Doing so requires feeding them a particular item that matches their celestial sign (Sun, Moon, Star, or Planet. These signs also have a minor role in combat in a very primitive rocks-paper-scissor type fashion). Once they evolve, they will be able to learn new abilities, but their levels reset to 1 as do their stats; however, their growth rate is drastically increased, so when they reach the same level at which they evolved, they will be more powerful. There is a third tier of evolution as well, resulting in usually one of two possible outcomes for each familiar, typically with very minimal difference in stats but with opposite growth traits (such as one form being more proficient with fire abilities, and the other ice or storm).

All the glitz and glamor can’t cover up all of the blemishes, though. If there’s one area where Ni no Kuni suffers the most, it’s in the combat AI. Because you can only personally control either one character or one familiar at a time, the others are left up to rudimentary tactical settings. Things like “Provide backup” or “Keep us healthy” should prove useful, theoretically. The problem is that because they’re so general, the characters will perform those actions at the slightest trace of disaster. Esther, informally the game’s “healer,” is the most notorious offender of abusing the tactics settings. Within a few minutes and perhaps no more than four of five battles after first getting her, she had expended all of her MP. Adjusting her tactics to keep her on healing duty was even more fruitless as she’d waste an expensive heal on someone who would only suffer a minor scratch. Having to set your companion characters to “Do not use abilities” for nearly the entirety of the game except for boss fights seems like a complete misuse of the system, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out a better way.

Taking more direct control of each character could have also provided better management, but with the way the combat was designed, switching back and forth between characters puts a serious halt to the pacing of combat, and more often than not I found it just easier and more satisfying to do as stated above with the other characters while I simply controlled three well-balanced and versatile familiars for Oliver.

But it’s an RPG, and combat is just one facet of these games. The other side, of course, are the hundreds of side quests meant to broaden the world and characters within it. Ni no Kuni suffers no shortage of those, though they come in a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand there are many of the traditional side quests you’d expect, those as well split into two categories: Errands (a variety of gathering, capturing, or fetch quests), and Bounty Hunts, your usual “kill this powerful creature.” The other side of the coin are the missing heart quests, which ties loosely into the game’s story about the inhabitants of this world having their hearts stolen.

Essentially, random NPCs you encounter will be lacking any one emotion out of a dozen or so: things like courage, kindness, and enthusiasm. Your job is to go around and find someone who possesses an excess of this quality, use a special magical locket given to you to take a bit of that emotion, and then give it to the anemic person. It’s the Robin Hood syndrome – Communism at its finest. And while there’s nothing technically wrong with this whole subplot (especially since many of the rewards are excellent), the game never really allows you to do it. By that I mean, instead of letting you figure out what emotion a person might be lacking, every single time you’ll get the same scripted scene where Mr. Drippy will have to remind you that you can take pieces of someone else’s heart to give to this person, and without fail, he will tell you exactly which piece is missing. Every. Time.

These aren’t the only instances where the game feels like it’s underestimating its player, either. Among the various spells you’ll acquire that fill up the Wizard’s Companion, many of them serve no purpose in combat. Some have no purpose at all except for reading material, but several will be used in side quests or while exploring, and somehow the game feels the need to once again take control away from the player to tell you exactly what you need to do. The Bridge spells is perhaps the most commonly used utility spell out in the world. A spell that can create paths over stretches of land, Bridge finds a lot of use throughout the game. But on every occasion, instead of simply walking up to an area that you know you’ll need to use the spell for, you must interact with it first and have Mr. Drippy remind you that you have a spell that can create bridges.

But then there are instances when the game truly tests your mettle, and perhaps nowhere more so than the series of side quests given to you by a strange little ghost named Horace. Solve his riddle in the first town and you’ll encounter him in each subsequent location with a new and more difficult conundrum. These require you to actually invest time and effort into solving them, including reading through various excerpts of the Wizard’s Companion or deciphering an ancient alphabet. It’s a strange dichotomy to have a game that proposes all of these wonderful concepts, but then takes half of them away from you and your ability to simply play.

But playing is half the fun with No no Kuni. Given the game’s creators, you can expect nothing less of a spectacular visual design and a charming soundtrack that encapsulate both the feelings that Oliver must contend with, but also the adventure that he has embarked on. I highlighted Mr. Drippy’s voice actor earlier, but the whole ensemble is exceptional, and though Oliver’s buoyant enthusiasm can sometimes grate on my nerves, it’s by no means bad. Studio Ghibli’s talents have not gone to waste, either, giving us some of the most memorable (and occasionally awkward) scenes from their seasoned filmography yet.

The entire package is a thoughtfully and lovingly wrapped present to fans of both studios and long-time naysayers who cry that the genre is dead. Ni no Kuni’s faults are few and far between, and though some are more peculiar than others, there is little that can stand in the way of one’s enjoyment of this game. While it’s not the most forward-thinking RPG to come from Japan this generation (those honors go mutually to Xenoblade Chronicles and Demon’s Souls), it is certainly the one with the biggest heart.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (US, 01/22/13)

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