Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (JP import)

PlayStation 3

Reviewed: 10/28/2012

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has gained most of its attention by being an exceedingly pretty collaboration between forward-thinking developer Level 5 and animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli. That attention to its presentation is well-deserved, but the level of polish is actually the least interesting thing about Ni no Kuni. Were it not for the high-tech Ghibli gloss, one could play Wrath of the White Witch and mistake it for a 16-bit RPG classic. It recaptures that intangible spirit of the SNES-era RPG — that perfect blend of story, characters, environment, mechanics and design that drew so many people to the genre in the first place. If you have decried the state of the modern RPG and long for an experience reminiscent of Chrono Trigger, Earthbound or Final Fantasy IV, you owe it to yourself to try Ni no Kuni.

The game has very strong mechanics at its core, carefully balanced, that make it a ton of fun. Its pacing is impeccable, because it’s not just fun, but consistently fun. Most RPGs tend to have at least one area of drag — you know, “that one dungeon” or “that one part” where either progress slows to a crawl or the difficulty spikes into the heavens, but Ni no Kuni isn’t dragged down by that usual bane of JRPGs. The mechanics stay entertaining the whole game long; the battle system is engaging and doesn’t require any grinding, there are plenty of options for managing your party, and stepping out onto the vast world map never loses its impact. It’s extremely easy to get caught up doing “just one more” quest or exploring islands or finding treasure chests.

Many will undoubtedly name the world map as the best place to spend time in Ni no Kuni. Longtime JRPG fans will be be delighted to explore a “real” world map — the kind that has gradually become an endangered species over the last two generations. Ni no Kuni‘s take on the old staple is grand, three-dimensional, and lush, with every kind of landscape imaginable, and a perfect scale. Mountains tower over the party, and forests shield characters and monsters from view, while roads and rivers snake across the landscape. If you don’t want to explore it for its beauty, the world comes with plenty of trimmings, from buried treasure, to hidden villages, to areas to catch advanced monsters. It does a great job of instilling childlike glee and a sense of adventure, and you want to explore it just for the sake of exploring.

Battles in Ni no Kuni don’t feel like an interruption to the game because they bring their own brand of excitement to the game. Monsters appear on the world map and can be dodged with clever footwork, but sneaking up behind monsters provides a window of opportunity when the battles start. Fights flow in real time, and characters can be freely moved while the player selects actions from a rotating menu. All actions, like magic or using an item, require a certain amount of cooldown time before they can be used again, but different actions can be used consecutively with no delay.

Team management is essential to victory, and with up to twelve characters deployable in battle, there’s plenty of room for customization. The three human characters can each carry with them three “Imajinns,” monsters created from the depths of human hearts who can fight in their place. This forms three stacks of four characters each, and the stacks share HP and MP across characters. A typical battle will have the fighting member of each stack rotating multiple times, as each Imajinn can only spend a limited time in battle before needing to recharge. Each Imajinn has its own set of equipment, skills and battle commands, and there are over two hundred recruitable or evolvable Imajinn in the game.

Level 5 has created a battle system for Wrath of the White Witch that injects fun into every encounter by making attention a necessary factor in victory. Winning fights is determined much less by a difference of one or two levels or a new piece of equipment than by a deliberate focus by the player and attention to the tide of battle. Guarding at the correct time could mean the difference between a character taking 30 or 180 damage, but constantly trying to avoid damage wears down your resources. Enemies dish out a ton of damage in a very short time, and players must adapt or die a swift death. While the early hours are of course easing the player into things, don’t let that fool you; things ramp up. In-battle healing is a necessity even in many regular fights, and one needs to be prepared, as the leader, to play a variety of rapidly changing roles, from tanking to dodging to buffing to delivering killing blows. It’s frenetic, it’s intense, it’s exciting, and it stays that way the whole game long.

The story begins in the “real world” town of Hotroit, a spot-on interpretation of white picket fence America, where a boy named Oliver lives an idyllic life with friends and his mother, Ally. One day, after an accident, Ally abruptly dies, leaving Oliver orphaned and alone. As he mourns, his tears fall onto a doll, and it transforms into a strange creature. Introducing himself as the Great Fairy Shizuku, he tells Oliver he was cursed by an evil wizard that terrorizes his world, a parallel world called “Ni no Kuni” whose citizens share hearts with people from Oliver’s world. Shizuku tries to convince Oliver to take a magic spellbook and come to Ni no Kuni, but Oliver declines until he learns that Ni no Kuni houses a woman who resembles his mother, the Sage Alicia, who may be the key to saving his mother from her fate.

Dead parents are usually a horrible cliché in game stories, but Ni no Kuni tells what might be the most heartfelt Dead Parent Story out there. All of the scenes with Ally establish her as a loving, caring single mother, and the gaping hole her absence leaves is palpable. Even off screen, her impact on Oliver and the story as a whole is felt throughout the game.

A wonderful rapport is shared by the solid cast. As a kid protagonist, Oliver is likeable and believable. Sometimes he can come off as a bit too perfect, but usually he acts just like a normal kid: innocent, energetic, a bit of a crybaby, polite, gets excited about cool machines, and forgives easily. He’s sweet, and you enjoy cheering for him because he isn’t an annoying little puke. Later he’s joined by the desert girl Marl, who is brimming with optimism, faith and youthful overconfidence, while the reformed (?) thief Gyro’s addition to the team brings both adult experience and insecurity to the group dynamic. The Great Fairy Shizuku is self-important, smartly funny, and just the right amount of genre-savvy. Together, they form an interesting, cohesive team.

The minor characters are still memorable and enjoyable, but weaker than the core ensemble. The two villains have interesting pasts and motivations, but tend to do a lot of plotting and finger-steepling with their time in the spotlight. The leaders of the three major nations are funny but one-note characters, and a late-game addition to the party is cardboard compared to the other playable cast members.

Ni no Kuni isn’t the most intense, dramatic and adult tale on the market, but it takes itself seriously, and comes off as sincere instead of artificial. It puts a higher value on telling a good, holistic story than on spinning a yarn with marketable cutscenes. There are no characters tailor-made for profitable demographics, no loud demonstrations of might, no huge philosophical speeches, no outrageous outfits, no impossibly garish weapons, or any other trappings of the genre that have long since grown stale. Oliver, Shizuku, Marl and Gyro aren’t flashy, outgoing or bombastic, don’t act like Hollywood heroes, and are almost painfully uncool. They are just the humble heroes of a quiet story that is equal parts sweet, sad and refreshing.

“Quiet” and “humble” aren’t synonymns for “boring,” though. The story does appear simple and cutesy on the surface, and it is appropriate for children, but there are some dark elements lurking under its surface. The core themes of the game revolve around managing one’s emotions, with a heavy emphasis on dealing with guilt and grief, which means that there’s plenty of tragedy and trauma touched on but not always explicitly detailed.

Large portions of the story revolve around the dark wizard Jabo stealing pieces of humans’s hearts. Throughout the story and in extra quests, Oliver must track down people overflowing with positive emotions — like Kindness, Love, Self-confidence, and Patience — and take those back to people who have lost them. It could have been preachy and trite, if the situations weren’t so realistic. The people with missing hearts don’t behave like zombies or cartoonish villains, but like people that you meet every day. The man who lost Kindness snaps at his wife and convinces his daughter she’s worthless; the woman with no Patience wants to spend all her money on the latest trends; the researcher without Trust can’t work with his colleagues to finish their project, while the man with too much Self-confidence makes terrible business decisions. The NPCs don’t make much impact as individuals, but the population as a whole feels like its full of real people with real problems. Late in the game, a clever interface alteration makes that clearer than ever.

Lines are blurred between interface and story a few times, and while it doesn’t eliminate the separation between story and game, it does do a great job playing with some RPG tropes to convey an extra measure of meaning.

Ni no Kuni‘s presentation is phenomenal, pairing gorgeous graphics with a sweeping orchestral soundtrack and high-quality sound effects. The only thing that mars its image are a few minor sound glitches in battle; everything else is completely enchanting. Graphics on the in-game engine adhere to the Ghibli style so well that they can steal the thunder of the actual hand-drawn animation sequences, which are already beautiful in their own right and of higher quality than animated cutscenes in other games. The draw distance on the world map is very long, and the world looks very lush, while the towns and dungeons are a sea of colorful painted textures and packed with intricate objects. The music was composed by Joe Hisaishi, famous for writing scores for most of the modern Studio Ghibli films, and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Voice performances are cheese-free, and full of life and personality.

It’s not just the horsepower of the graphics or the quality of recorded sound that’s astounding, but the level of consideration and detail that the visuals and sound convey. For example, unlike in many games, stairs in Ni no Kuni are not ramps with stair textures on them, but sets of individual steps, and Oliver will plant his foot on each one as he ascends and can stop in mid-stride with his feet on different steps. Ambient market noises, like talking and clapping, in one town are not just mapped to specific NPCs, but will also match their bodies and lips.

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The main story could take anywhere from 25-40 hours to complete, and doing all quests available before the final dungeon pushes the play time well over 60 hours. Even after the main game is finished, there are still 100 hidden treasure chests, seven pirate memorials, and sixteen hidden villages on the world map to discover; an Imajinn battle league to conquer; a magic spell book to complete; a casino with slots, minigames and a cutscene theater; postgame quests and bounties to hunt down; alchemy recipes to find; and Golden Imajinns to catch. Full completion of the game will require at least 100 hours from most people.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch feels like the second coming of 16-bit RPG classics, with a breathtaking Studio Ghibli exterior and a sublime orchestral soundtrack. The pacing is impeccable. It never slows down, never waivers in the amount of excellence it packs into its experience. There is no “that one part” or “that one dungeon” that drags it down. It turns on the charm, the entertainment, and the fun from the first hours, and doesn’t turn them off throughout the entire duration of the sixty hours you’ll probably spend finishing it. Exploring the world map never gets old, the battle system stays thrilling, and the characters are lovable. Nothing about this game is phoned in. It contains the same elements and same spirit that made so many of us fall in love with the genre in the first place. It doesn’t have a complicated, emotional, life-changing message or story, but it doesn’t have to. It touches a deep vein of nostalgia and childlike wonder.

-Janelle Hindman

Score Breakdown
Out of 10
See our Review Criteria
Gameplay Excellent
Story Good
Graphics Legendary
Sound/Music Excellent
Replay Value Very Good
The Verdict: Legendary