[Editor’s Note: The following is a review of the US version of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, we previously reviewed the Japanese version and gave it full marks]
As a big fan of Studio Ghibli and the work they do on animated movies, I was very excited to hear about Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Add in the talented group of RPG makers at Level-5 and you have the groundwork for a great RPG. After spending a lot of time in the game this week, I am proud to say that this combination of Ghibli and Level-5 shines in almost every aspect, resulting in an experience like no other.
This stunning adventure puts players in the small sized shoes of Oliver, a young boy out to save his mother and save a parallel world that is at the mercy of an evil mage. Along the way, Oliver will free the High Lord of all Fairies and from there, the journey begins. This is a story that finds a great way to tell a child’s tale in a way to where it doesn’t feel too childish for adults and is not too mature for children. It is a beautiful adventure full of topics such as love, courage and enthusiasm. It is a striking tale that will draw you in and just make you smile the whole way through.
To make any story great, you have to have just the right characters to give it life. Absent from the game are any of the typical characters that gamers have come accustomed to in JRPGs. Oliver is not your usual annoying, teenage-angst filled hero. He is a child that believes in respect and honesty, showing maturity beyond his years. The rest of the cast compliments him and, countless hours in, I have yet to find a truly annoying character… something that I have not been able to say about almost 90 percent of the RPGs made the past 10 years. There is a great chemistry between the cast and the story is one of the best told stories this generation.
Past the story and its characters, Ni no Kuni delivers a unique style of gameplay that is very refreshing to the genre. The combat is a combination of action and turn-based that takes a little bit of getting used to, but after a few fights it feels natural. Players are able to run around the battlefield at their own leisure but must select an action from your combat menu to perform it. It feels a little strange at first glance, but fits extremely well into the game. In the beginning, you fight as Oliver and a familiar, switching between sending out the familiar to attack or performing magic with Oliver. The real strategy of the system doesn’t come into play however until around 10 hours in, when you get a second party member and the ability to capture animals throughout the world to be new familiars. Each character can carry three familiars into battle, with some being better at defense, some solid at magic, and others are pure attackers. The twist here is that both the player and the familiars they summon share the same Health and Mana bar. The combat is a wonderful blend of timing and action; switching between a defensive familiar and one with more offensive stats.
My only real gripe with the combat system is that there are not enough tactical options to choose from on how your 2nd party member will act in battle. The options available are very basic, ranging from go all out to support leader. It would be nice to have some of the options that the Tales series has – something along the lines of ‘don’t use abilities when your mana is below 50%’. Also, the AI of your teammates at times can be questionable, as I have, on numerous occasions, watched them die because they refused to summon their familiar with the ability to heal.
As you progress through the story, you not only level up with your characters but also with all of the familiars in your party. To do this, you have to collect foods throughout your journey that add different effects like attack or magic defense. Each familiar can only have 10 stats upgrades, so you have to pick and choose wisely how you want to improve them. As you level them up, you will also have the ability to morph them into a strong version of themselves. A third time morphing your familiars will find you at a fork, giving players choices as to how they want to take each familiar. This little wrinkle adds a lot of options and replay value to the game.
The entire leveling system for the familiar works but could really use a bit of updating. The process of going in and feeding food the familiar, then watching it eat and celebrate is a bit long-winded. This becomes especially annoying when you have 6 familiars to feed and multiple different kinds of food you want to feed them. An ability to feed someone 3 chocolate bars at once instead of 3 separately would be nice, but this is by no means a deal breaker and is but a minor hiccup.
Outside of combat, gamers have the ability to accept quests from people in each town and also take on bounty hunts. The quests range from going to gather things in the world, fight off enemies, or provide a heartbroken person with something to fix them up. The theme of fixing heartbroken people throughout the world is a central theme and found all through the game. To fix someone who is heartbroken, you must find out what they are lacking – whether it is courage or something else – and find someone with an abundance of what is needed and use magic to take a piece of it from them and give it to the person in need. The bounties are typical go here and kill this mini-boss type of quests.
As you complete quests, you will not only get money and items, but also a set number of merit stamps. These stamps are placed on a merit card that has 10 spots. Once it is filled up, you move on to the next card. As you collect more cards, you can turn them in to unlock game boosts like faster movement throughout the world map or more health and mana dropped during battle. These boosts are very helpful and kind of making quests more of a necessity than an option.
The world map is a refreshing change from the norm. Outside of towns, players are placed onto a beautifully rendered landscape, running over sand dunes in one part of the world and through forests in another, all from a high angle. These worlds are huge, with tons of land to hike across – and there’s plenty of reason to, with hidden towns and items sprinkled throughout. Enemies are also visible and littered throughout the map, making each trip a real adventure. The world map fits the game like a glove, bringing back a nostalgic feeling of games I played when growing up.
Magic also plays a huge part in moving around the world map. If you find a spot where you can’t cross the water, simply cast the bridge spell to create a path across. There is also a growth spell to cause things like mushrooms to grow up so you can use them as stairs. It is these uses of magic that are something new while roaming the world and adds a cool twist to the action. Alchemy is also used in the game, with players able to combine ingredients found throughout the world to make items, weapons, and armor.
On the presentation front, there is absolutely nothing to find any flaws with. Studio Ghibli is a true master in their field, with the game featuring adorable and stunning cutscenes. Characters and enemies are brought to life with bright colors and very unique design choices that work wonders to make a simple enemy that much more. The game also offers voice acting through a good chunk of it and the casting here is top notch. Every character’s voice fits perfectly in with who they are and how they act.
I have been asked a few times which games Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch resembles the most and, to be honest, I cannot think of a single one. This is such a refreshing and unique experience that brings together a solid story and characters with gorgeous visuals and a fun combat system. Merit cards add huge value to the questing system and magic adds a great element to how you traverse the world. The only gripes are extremely minor and don’t even put a dent in this polished game. This collaboration between Studio Ghibli and Level-5 has produced a beautiful tale of friendship, courage, and adventure that covers multiple age groups and brings older gamers back to a time when they first started to fall in love with RPGs. With over 30-60 hours of gameplay, this is a game that you cannot afford to pass up, it is a true gem. To put it best, this game gave me the same feeling as the first time I saw the original Star Wars trilogy.