Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Review
There's a reason you see so few JRPG reviews here on AtomicGamer: none of us are big fans of them. And I'm the least likely to enjoy them; as far as I can remember, I haven't reviewed a single JRPG in the history of my career, usually because I don't even try them, but I've given a rare one a try and just couldn't even get started properly. Simply put, the last JRPG I enjoyed was Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest). I'm talking about the very first one back on the NES when I was a kid. I say that because I want to let you know that Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch from Level-5, made with world-famous animators Studio Ghibli and publisher Namco Bandai, is a game that's so incredibly charming and beautiful that I was able to suspend my dislike for JRPG character archetypes and their often convoluted mechanics and just play... and play, and play.
I won't suddenly start proclaiming myself as a lover of JRPGs just because of Ni no Kuni, but this PS3-exclusive might be the one game in decades to open my eyes to the genre once again.
Ni no Kuni starts with an innocent adventure that turns into tragedy, as the little boy and protagonist Oliver starts off happy but quickly finds himself alone and destitute. A chance encounter with a doll that was given to him when he was younger brings this little stuffed... thing to life. Mr. Drippy, as the animated doll is called, is this game's first sign of the scope of brilliance and creativeness that have gone into Level-5's latest effort. Drippy has the right combination of gruff voice, wide-eyed wonder, and likable silliness that make dealing with Oliver's early whining bearable. Oliver's not spending long in this world, however, as he's quickly taught the magic to open up a portal to another world. And when you find out that the people on one side are connected to alternate versions of themselves over on the other, that's when players start to experience the kind of interesting character interactions and emotional connections that make this game so unique and fun as you go on.
The exploration and battle systems start out simple, with an overworld map and creatures running around it like we've seen in JRPGs for decades. Oliver can deftly dodge these monster encounters, allow them to happen to begin up-close combat, or even try to sneak up behind an enemy to get something like an initiative bonus when starting the fight. Once in battle, Oliver can move around the playing field in real-time, dishing out attacks and blocks with a cooldown-based system. At first I thought that system along with some party members might be the whole of it, but I'm sure that JRPG veterans knew better all along. It might take the game hours to get there, but eventually it opens up a system with four total party members (including Oliver), each using three combat pets called familiars - and these creatures each wield unique abilities and have their own stamina bars (forcing you to swap them out often), and an additional limitation is that they share the host character's health and mana.
With all of this juggling, combat becomes something interesting where skillful cooldown management and multitasking are rewarded as you load up situationally-useful abilities and swap out stamina-drained familiars while timing your blocks and attacks. If I were more well-versed in JRPG history I'd be able to tell you what elements were borrowed from which game, but I'm not; all I can say is that this story of this little kid jumping into another world leads to a combat system that'll keep you thinking, working to improve, and most importantly, coming back for more. And it's not just fighting and story progression that becomes addictive, especially with the ability to level up and transform familiars, the extensive lore you can read, and the many collectibles to find.
Unfortunately, there's grinding. Sure, seasoned players who are familiar with many of these systems and know what to do will be able to avoid much of the grind even on their first time through Ni no Kuni, but at some point nearly everyone will have to stop progress just to level up enough (or farm enough gold) to survive a big upcoming encounter. To me, this is still acceptable in at least the western RPG sense - I've done the grinding to get to level 81 in Skyrim three times - but just keep in mind that those who hate this phenomenon are not going to be happy when this particular demon rears its head.
I can't go any further without expounding on the genius in this game's presentation. Studio Ghibli is famous for wonderful animation, sure, but along with Level-5, the game uses real-time rendering (rather than traditional animation) for its cutscenes and non-interactive portions more often than you might expect - and the result is often breathtaking. The world design is awe-inspiring and the animations are incredibly smooth. Finally, the music has all the splendor you'd expect, with a fully orchestral score that JRPG fans are going to just gobble up.
I played the game with a bit of both the English and Japanese voice acting, and while I've always been a proponent of watching or playing a game in its native language with subtitles, I have to say that the English dub in this game is extremely good, especially for Mr. Drippy. Still, coming from outside the genre, I did find it weird that we've got full voice work in two languages for some dialogue, while a bunch of the dialogue is still done in that old scrolling text box that I remember clicking through back in Dragon Warrior on the NES. It might be a silly thing to want in a game this big, but I guess I'd still like to see efforts made to voice all dialogue, especially coming from the western side of RPGs where that's become the norm for the most ambitious and expensive games.
Ni no Kuni does have its frustrations, too. The interface is decent but not always helpful and sometimes a bit clunky, and the twists in the mildly convoluted plot are a little predictable. The combat system requires a particular type of play where you're frantically managing many things at once, diluting some of the dice-rolling and tactical elements I've come to love in party-based western RPGs, and the slow start can turn people off if the animation style and story don't hook them immediately. (It hooked me, sure, but mileage may vary.) There's nothing particularly damning here, though, so if you're a PS3 owner and a JRPG fan, then you need to do whatever's necessary to play this game.
The best praise I can give Ni no Kuni is that after 20-plus years of even the most beloved JRPGs severely disappointing me in one way or another, this is the first one that hasn't. The charm and childlike wonder that this game just oozes is enough to melt all but the coldest of hearts, and the battle system and presentation offer a depth and brilliance that JRPGs often aspire to but, in my opinion, rarely achieve. Any fan of the genre owes it to themselves to give Ni no Kuni a try, but I won't go so far as to guarantee that you'll love this game even if you've hated past JRPGs. Still, it did it for me, and I'm sure this game will do it for at least some like me. It's worth a try.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail copy provided to us by the publisher.