When Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch first hit my radar, it quickly became the most important game that could exist. It’s a project from the venerable Level-5 (Professor Layton, Dragon Quest VIII) in collaboration with famed Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke). The result of this pairing is essentially the Übermensch of Japanese RPGs, for better or worse, though those weary or wary of the genre have a great chance of being won over by its charm and artistry in spite of this.
Ni no Kuni is the delightful tale of Oliver and company. Young Oliver, by a particular turn of circumstances, winds up in another world – one in strife, no less, but it just so happens that Oliver can get to doing a little wizarding and help the people out. Lucky, ennit?
The game takes a while to get going – the first of many familiar feelings and genre staples. In doing so, however, you’re both introduced to Oliver’s home town of Motorville at a relaxing pace and offered a well thought out tutorial. As I started wading into the game proper, certain tutorial elements felt overdone, yet the dialogue is so well written and the gameplay elements so holistically contextualized within the confines of the narrative that I felt obliged to read on anyway. Some of that so called “hand holding” is quite welcome later, too, as things steadily become more complex.
While the game may start a bit slow and explanatory, I was constantly impressed by its pacing, narratively and mechanically. Instead of hitting you with everything early on when it’s just you and the incomparable, Welsh-accented Mr. Drippy (Lord High Lord of the Fairies), certain important mechanics don’t even show up until about ten hours in, when your party fills out. It helps keep early battles tense. I was constantly impressed by how well difficulty scales and keeps you on your toes for the first half of the game before it becomes likely or possible that you’ll do enough supplemental material that the main line difficulty plateaus before a late game spike.
Mileage will vary, of course. It’s still a JRPG and still ultimately dictated by the numbers. That being said, I played at my typical languid pace, exploring alcoves and doing all sidequests and hunts as they became available, and I was consistently impressed by the pacing. Money is always scarce, leaving you with just enough to pick up a curative item or two and maybe a new weapon at shops, making managing resources important early on.
The gameplay slowly reveals itself to be expertly designed — certainly the most inventive design element in play. There’s something of a Pokemon or Dragon Warrior Monster vibe to Ni no Kuni‘s Familiar system. Any enemy can be recruited as a Familiar; each party member can hold up to three, as there stamina can run out in lengthy battles, necessitating switching to another or back to the party characters. Dodging and evading become key. Doing so releases blue and green restorative gems and orange gems that unlock character and Familiar dependent special moves.
As good as the battle system is, though, it’s not without fault. The party AI can be incredibly difficult to work with. You can set tactics – keep us healthy, save magic points, etc – but they can prove insufficient. The AI will burn through MP, for example, and it can be hard to curtail them without leaving them devoid of skill moves entirely (“don’t use abilities”) which also hamstrings you. The all out defense command, which you don’t unlock until a fourth ways through the game, doesn’t always feel sufficient in settling your entire party on the defensive either, which can prove devastating.
The AI is occasionally flat out dense, attacking with party characters that do insignificant damage instead of using secondary familiars to spell their main ones. The missteps generally weren’t irrevocable, but they were annoying at times, and mar an otherwise engaging, inventive system. At times I was yearning hard for the beautiful elegance and flexibility of Final Fantasy XII‘s gambit system coupled with the ability to directly control your entire party with ease at any given moment.
As for the overarching structure the battle system is couched in, Ni no Kuni is what JRPG fans have been clamoring for. It’s what Final Fantasy X et al should have been, according to many. There is a robust, fully explorable overworld that gives way to dungeons or towns, which are represented on the map. There is open sea faring, followed by more open air travel. It’s a traditional progression. Enemies roam the overworld and dungeons; engaging them brings you to a battle screen. While you can sneak up on them (or be snuck up upon yourself) for a small advantage, I can’t help but miss the Paper Mario, Persona style ability to physically strike first, but I suppose Oliver being magic oriented and the main character precluded such an option.
The Familiars are delightful. I felt so bad beating up on them at first because they’re typically so cute, but Ruffians are also huge jerks so eventually I didn’t feel bad. The Familiar design is consistently interesting and their names, which are typically puns, kept my face in a permanent grin. The game is filthy with punnage, from the feline King Tom (His royal meowjesty) interjecting “meows” into his dialogue to the Cawtermaster, a giant crow fellow who sells supplies. I was also happy to see the game avoid the Pokémon problem of evolutions always becoming bigger and meaner looking. Some Familiars do gain a slightly harder edge, but typically they retain their adorableness and don’t increase in size. Also, there’s a pirate cat that stands upright and wields a cutlass. I named him Sakamoto and he’s the best.
The entire game is as charming as you might expect a collaboration between Ghibli and Level-5 to be. Oliver is a little boring, but Mr. Drippy and company help make up for it. While clearly slanted to a younger audience and a bit trite at times, the dialogue also tends to avoid the pitfall of terrible dialogue that plagues the genre. The voice acting (particularly Drippy) is generally excellent, but so too is the orchestral score of famed Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi.
Visually, it’s an obvious delight. Ghibli’s 2D animation work felt like it became scarcer as the game went on, but what’s there is stunning and Level-5 did such a magnificent job on the dominant 3D work that you’re not left wanting when the scenes in Ghibli’s signature style end. The level of artistry on display is consistently staggering. It’s such a joy to look at. Like Ghibli films, there’s also a loving attention to detail. You can read storefront signage in Oliver’s home town of Motorville and see how much potatoes cost in this somewhat unexpected slice of Americana. Even the subtleties in the animation add character and life to the world, like Drippy’s jaunty jigs when you’re stationary and in dialogue.
I love Ni no Kuni as the culmination of a genre near and dear to my heart. I love it for its sincere whimsy, even if the plot elements and characters are flat and familiar. I can just imagine a wee bairn playing it the same way I first played Final Fantasy and it warms my heart. That being said, it’s couched in JRPG conventionality. It’s lengthy, with an absurd amount of post game, grind heavy content to keep fans with too much time on their hands busy for another 40 hours in addition to the first 40 or so you might put in. As impressive as the atmosphere and the artistry are, it’s a loving look back at where we’ve been more than a look towards where were going. But that’s not always a bad thing. Ni no Kuni is endearing, sweet, and sincere. I’m glad to have it.