Ni No Kuni’s luscious visuals and heartfelt story meld together to create a world you won’t soon forget.
JRPG fans appear to have gotten the short end of the stick this generation. With a plethora of classics being released on the SNES, Playstation, and Playstation 2 it was easy to get excited for what could be done on a new batch of consoles. Sadly, there have only been a mere handful of JRPGs that reached that high bar set in prior years. When long time developer Level-5 and famed Japanese animation team Studio Ghibli teamed up to create this title, they seemed poised to live up to those lofty expectations. With the care and craftsmanship that they’ve put into Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, it’s safe to say they have.
The heart of this story begins and ends with the ever so eager Oliver. He’s a joyful little guy with the best intentions and a constant willingness to see the good in people, no matter how bad they may seem. Through an unfortunate set of circumstances that take place early on, Oliver is left alone and grieving over the loss of his mother, Alicia. Soon after, Oliver is visited by a fairy that spins a tale of a parallel universe that houses his mother’s “soul mate”. To make matters worse there is an evil wizard by the name of Shadar holding her and this other world’s people captive. To save his mom and restore order to his once ideal life, Oliver sets out on a journey to defeat the maniacal evildoer.
Like many RPGs, Oliver is said to be the savior of the world. Where the differences come from here are that the world he’s saving is not the one he inhabits and that the main motivation is to revive his mother. So often we’re treated to stories that have the world hanging in the balance, with our characters being the only ones capable of stopping it. Ni No Kuni does share some of these tropes, but Oliver’s undying love for his mother is what carries this story past the same old clichés we’re accustomed to. Never have I felt more of a connection with a character in a game before. We’ve all had to deal with the loss of a loved one and thought “What I wouldn’t do to bring them back”. Seeing this young boy go through such hardship had me wanting to do all I could to help him experience the love of his mother, if even for just one more moment.
Luckily, Oliver is not alone in his endeavors. Joining him is the quip-filled fairy, Mr. Drippy. With a thick Welsh accent and a penchant for hilarious banter, Drippy will quickly find a way into the hearts of even the most stoic of players. On many occasions I found myself laughing out loud at his witty one-liners, often directed at his own friends and party members. Even in the face of towering foes he’ll find a way to make light of the situation. Characters with such an overwhelming presence like these can sometimes get on your nerves (I’m looking at you Vanille), but I found myself growing more attached to Drippy as the adventure continued. That may not sound like a lot to most, but with a game that takes around 40 to 50 hours to complete that’s quite an accomplishment. The two other party members, Esther and Swaine, while not as enjoyable as Drippy, do a fine job as well. Most of the voice acting is top-notch, but Oliver may be the weakest link. It’s not that he’s bad, but some lines can come off as forced. For the most part he is more than acceptable, though. Just be prepared for liberal use of the word “Neat-O”.
Accompanying the fine voice acting is the stellar soundtrack, composed by Joe Hisaishi and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. It can’t be understated how important the music is in this game. Each track is used incredibly well to convey the feelings associated with the characters and the trials and tribulations they face. One standout is actually the theme of the entire game. It’s used often throughout the game, each with a slightly different tone to change the pace. The songs that go along with whatever location you’re visiting always fit the bill. Wandering through the American Dream-like Motorville, U.S.A. with the charismatic whistling of flutes coupled with soothing violins is always a treat. Visiting a swampy meadow brings with it a haunting tune that follows you throughout the murky waters. It also gives an appropriate feeling of tension when in the heated boss fights, getting me psyched for battle each and every time.
On this journey you’ll feast your eyes on some of the most beautifully crafted environments to grace the Playstation 3. There’s an almost cartoon-like quality to the visuals that really helps establish the whimsical mood of this land. Upon being transported to the “Other World” for the first time my mouth was agape. Forests stretch off into the distance only to be swallowed by deep caverns. Later on, you’ll find yourself gazing out at a sea of golden sand while a giant volcano bellows smoke into the skies off in the distance. It’s not often that the world map actually begs to be explored, but that’s exactly what I wanted to do (and did).The vibrant details aren’t only limited to the map though. Oliver’s hometown of Motorville is oozing with personality. Friendly neighbors stroll along the sidewalks, cheerily greeting Oliver whenever he passes by. The town and its inhabitants give off such a warm and inviting feeling, further reinforcing the themes of friendship. When venturing into the bustling towns, you’ll see shop signs touting the newest equipment or the days’ sale. Industrial cities are littered with soldiers dressed as pigs patrolling the steam punk streets of Hamelin. The game has no shortage of mesmerizing characters to run into, either. In the early city of Ding Dong Dell you seek the help of their overly sleepy cat leader, King Tom. Fittingly, he is referred to as “Your Meowjesty”. The famed ruler of the desert town, Al Mamoon, is a giant cow that goes by "Cowlipha”. The constant stream of goofy characters had me grinning from ear to ear. The clever word play doesn’t stop with the main story characters. Out in the battlefield it’s not uncommon to run into tiny turban sporting baddies with the name “Turban Legend” or pirate cats called “Puss in Boats”. The cutesy nature of just about everything could rub some people the wrong way. For me, it struck just the right chord.
Like any RPG of the past couple of decades there will be a fair amount of combat to be had. It may come off as simple at first, but the subtle intricacies begin to show themselves about 10 hours in. The best way to describe the combat system is that it’s a mix between any recent Tales games and the popular Pokemon series. Oliver and friends are free to run around a fully 3D battlefield, queuing up their own attacks in the process. You can also dodge many enemies’ physical attacks just by being out of their range. Hitting the triangle and square buttons will have party members go on the offensive or defensive, respectively. Introducing this mechanic brings a welcome layer of strategy. Timing becomes essential and if you get off a hit in at the right time, you can stun enemies and throw in a few extra blows. Like in Final Fantasy XII you can assign your party members actions for when they are in battle so you can concentrate without having to worry about them. Unfortunately, the AI is dodgy most of the time, leaving you to manage everything yourself. There were countless instances of the AI controlled characters wasting all of their MP up front and not having the sense to use items to restore it. With battles becoming more and more about timing this makes switching around to micromanage a needless chore. Despite the hit or miss AI, the combat can still be loads of fun though. Popping off magical spells looks fantastic and the enemy design is never dull. Bosses especially adhere to this rule. Highlights include a hulking forest monster covered with plants, a six-armed, vibrantly colored behemoth, and a chattering undead pirate. Needless to say, the bosses never cease to delight.
Separating combat from the norm is the use of familiars. Familiars are creatures that you’ll come across that you can capture and use in battle. Familiars do most of the dirty work, swapping in with the humans every so often when items and spells are needed. They have their own set of weapons and armor to equip and experience to gain. Once they get to certain levels, you can choose to have them evolve. This gives them more abilities and the chance to become stronger, but the downside is that they’ll start back at level one. There are hundreds of familiars to collect and level up. Having this option is nice, but I found myself sticking to the main characters gained through the story. This is a shame because there are a ton of interestingly designed creatures that look like they’d be fun to mess around with. They just tend to be useless in most situations, especially given the fact that your starting familiars will be fairly beefed up already.
To bolster Oliver’s various skills and spells you’ll have to take part in some enjoyable side quests or “Errands” as they’re called here. These errands can range from collecting some rare items to mix together, a forgetful city man that somehow manages to lose his diary wherever he goes, or healing someone who’s brokenhearted. The best of the errands comes in the latters’ form. Throughout the land there are people who are lacking emotions such as love or courage. Oliver, being the thoughtful lad he is, can take excess amounts of people’s emotions and transfer them to folks in need. Most of these boil down to fetch quests so the incentive of some funny and heartwarming moments is a nice addition.
Ni No Kuni is a wonderful game in every facet. The combat may not be perfect, but warts and all, it can still be downright enthralling. The amazing soundtrack and fine voice acting go a long way in drawing you into this lush world and its characters. The heartwarming tale in the center is what will drive you to its fantastic conclusion. Combine all of these aspects and you have an adventure that cements itself as an instant classic.