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Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch – Game Review

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NinoKuni Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch   Cover Art UnveiledTitle: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Developed By: Level-5 and Studio Ghibli
Published By: Namco Bandai
Based On: Original Game Series
Console: Playstation 3
Genre: RPG
Classification (AU): This title has been classified as PG for Mild Themes, Violence and Simulated Gambling
Review Conditions: Australian Edition, Physical Media
Special Thanks: Namco Bandai Partners (Australia) for providing a review copy of this title

After losing his mother in a tragic accident, a young boy named Oliver sheds tears of grief onto one of his stuffed roys. Suddenly, its curse lifted, the dolls springs to life and reveals itself to be none other than Drippy – a fairy from another world. Drippy explains to Oliver that if they can defeat Shadar, the Dark Djinn – an evil being who threatens this world – they may be able to bring his mother back. With his spellbook, The Wizard’s Companion, in hand, Oliver sets out on an adventure the likes of which he has never seen.

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After many months and years of waiting, Namco Bandai games have (depending on your region) finally just released or are soon to release Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on the Playstation 3. Ni no Kuni is a collaboration project between the development company Level-5 and the highly acclaimed team at Studio Ghibli (The folks behind some of the more renown anime classics including Howl’s Moving Castle, Arrietty and My Neighbor Totoro). From past experience with both companies, I know upfront that they are talented at what they do…. and the coming together of the two and harmonizing their skills has quite possibly resulted in one of the most charming JRPG’s in recent years.

While on the outside, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch may initially come off as a niche game given its anime-esque visuals and mostly all-ages friendly storyline, once you look past this you should see that the game is designed to offer something for every RPG fan….. and I absolutely enjoyed my time with it. Why shall be explained over the next many paragraphs!Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch may initially come off as a niche game given its very anime-esque visuals and (Mostly) all-ages friendly storyline, once you look past that it is a game designed to offer something for every RPG fan, and I loved it….

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Storyline

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch follows a young boy named Oliver who lives in a small village by the name of Motortown. Alongside one of his mates, he tests a new vehicle his friend had developed which had resulted in him falling into a river. While initially brushing off the attention of his mother, she catches him drowning and subsequently rescues him….. however soon afterwards results in her passing away at the side of the riverbank. Hiding himself away in his bedroom, his tears break the curse off his stuffed toy who turns out to be Drippy – lord of the fairies in a parallel world and just may be the key to rescuing / resurrecting his mother.

The game works on the premise that there are two parallel worlds, the normal world in which Oliver resides, and an alternate more “magical” world – where each person in one world has a corresponding alter ego in the other world. The alternate person of his mother happens to be Alicia, a powerful sage who was subsequently captured by an evil being by the name of Shadar. Therefore, as Oliver is believed to be a legendary boy known as the “Pure-Hearted One”, he sets out to defeat Shadar and hopefully find the means of saving Alicia and his mother. While working on a simple premise the storyline does expand upon this basic plot and both uses it well and extends upon it.

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Granted “The Wizards Companion” and a simple wand from a girl who he can only see, Oliver sets out to this brand new world and gets involved in training himself up to be able to face Shadar and others who lay before him – meeting sages similar to Alica, making friends, allies and companions with the people of the world and venturing all around the mystical world that lays before him. The game is rather heavily storyline oriented and can become very slow at some points, but there is a lot of storytelling to be done and those who enjoy games for this regard should be pleased. Equally, world building is creative, character development and the characters themselves are pleasant to watch. The parallel worlds plot device was interestingly incorporated but I felt could have used a bit more fleshing out and use in the storyline.

While not so much attention seemed to be paid to the plot of the games numerous side-quests which I feel they could have put a bit more effort to, you are given a lot of storyline for your buck. Whilst it may not be fine tuned to more mature audiences as other RPG’s have in recent years with an overly serious plot – given Ni no Kuni’s more all-ages approach I think it works well for any age and I immensely enjoyed it.

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Design

For many decades now, Studio Ghibli have been behind some of the most visually impressive (amongst other things) anime films – both with their earlier works from the late 80’s such as Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor Totoro (Which have since been remastered and released on Blu-ray) to their more recent releases such as Arrietty and From Up on Poppy Hill. While Ni no Kuni is only the second game series the company has ever been involved with, this has had little impact on their capacity to integrate their animation skills into the game environment. Despite not being like recent Namco Bandai release Toki to Towa where they attempted to minimize the differences between in-game and animated cutscenes, many animated cutscenes where included in this release – and they all were fantastic in appearance and captured the “Ghibli Charm”.

Ni no Kuni features excellent cel-shaded graphics, with both character designs and environment designs complementing each other nicely. Each of the games main characters look distinct and through the events of the game boast many different apparel and appearance changes based on the city and/or location you are in (Up to all the four main characters donning pig outfits as they sneak around a mechanical looking castle) while each location features a different set of character designs – so don’t expect the same looking non-important NPC’s to turn up in each and every city.

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The game takes place across one giant world with many different environments – and while you get the basic grassland, fire, desert, ocean combination – they throw in a couple of interesting localities which shows that effort has been put in to extend this game from the generic set of localities. The world is big, and it can take a while to navigate from place to place (Especially with all the enemies and slow pace of moment) so you have plenty of areas to explore and a few side areas to uncover as you sail around it.

Before being released on the Playstation 3, Level-5 released a separate edition on the Nintendo DS which featured many differences across the board and of more interest an actual physical copy of “The Wizards Companion” which was more or less essential for playing the game. Given the control schema of the Playstation 3 and other factors, Level-5 decided to build the book into the game rather than release it as a physical copy (You can cast spells through pressing the square button rather than drawing on the screen). While you can pick up a physical copy of the book through the limited edition of the game which has sold out everywhere (At least where I reside), by implementing it in-game I don’t think the contents of it would capture ones attention as much as everything you need to complete the game can be done without the book – rather than if you had a physical copy of the book to peruse at your leisure (If you are lucky enough to have picked up the limited edition – this will not pertain to you).

Boasting strong cutscenes animation by Studio Ghibli, as well as a creative and engaging world – Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is one of the more impressive “anime” themed games I have seen in quite a while.

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Music / Voice Acting

In terms of music, Level-5 brought in well renown music composer and director Joe Hisaishi, and is of a standard I would expect from him. It is a fully orchestrated soundtrack and offers quite a diverse range of songs to suit every mood in event scenes, however unfortunately other areas lacked in variety. For example, for the most part you will only have a standard theme while wandering the world map (Despite the number of different areas there are in the game and the time you may spend on the map) and for normal battles there is a lack of variety as well (As after battle after battle I would have welcomed more variety).

While the game features multiple subtitled languages (You have to reinstall game data if you wish to change them however), the game only includes an English dub as well as the original Japanese dub which you can change freely from the main menu. For the purposes of this review I only played with the English dub turned on, and I was happy with the voice acting. When it comes to English voice acting, there are quite a few voice actors/actresses which are primarily behind the voicing of child characters  but Namco Bandai decided to choose children to voice the games child characters – with Adam Wilson and Lauren Mote voicing Oliver and Esther (Two of the main playable characters) very well. Louis Tamone also voiced the other main playable character (Swaine) well, but the true highlight had to be Steffan Rhodri as the companion character Drippy very well, and matching the very out there personality of his role. While the quality of all other side-characters did very, as a collective it was of a solid standard. While what I know of the Japanese dub is through the trailers, it also sounds equally good.

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Gameplay

Ni no Kuni features a battle system features a core gameplay system reminiscent of Eternal Sonata or a Tales game, where the battles take place in an open area with a real time aspect – where you are provided with little time to think unless you are in a spell casting menu. This is a pretty generic system and there have been many games that have used a similar aspect in their releases…. but what sets it apart from others is including a more Persona/Pokemon aspect to it where you can capture monsters as well as use them in battle. You are given the freedom to use any one of the three main playable “Human” characters in battle, however as they each have their pros and cons you can choose to call out one of three companion characters “familiars” your characters have equipped to each of them to dish out damage instead. Whilst each character originally begins with one familiar, you can unlock others randomly upon defeating monsters in battle and serenading them to entice them onto your side.

Each of the three main human characters (Oliver, Esther and Swaine) have their own unique battle style – Oliver for example can cast offensive magic spells he unlocks during the game while Esther can use music to give status boosts to characters, however as they mostly lack physical attack abilities – familiars make up for physical and additional magical attacks in their arsenal when battling enemies. Each of the main characters as well as each of the familiars have their own level bar (Although you can manually improve familiars stats with items), and upon reaching a certain level the familiars can evolve into improved versions of themselves (A basic visual change with improved stats and unfortunately a boot back to level 1).

The familiars add an interesting depth to the battles, and provide a whole new array of skills to your battle strategy, however as humans and familiars share a health and MP bar….. if you mis-select a familiar you may find yourself out of the battle in doing so. MP proves to be a bigger hassle than HP to keep up during your adventures – especially as your companions unless you set different tactics seem so fond of using theirs all up in the first battle or two. Despite a simple looking battle system from the outset, the game provides ample challenge, and especially the boss battles requires a diverse number of strategies making use of both the human characters and familiars, finding weak spots or patterns and making use of defensive actions. Don’t just let the pretty visuals fool or distract you….

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Outside the games battle system and progressively making your way through the storyline, there are quite a few activities to do. In order to unlock a number of gameplay benefits, you are required to complete subquests and bounties which can be found in practically any town. The game makes use of a few basic “quest” formulas ranging from Find A, Bring someone X of Y or defeat # of Z – but also brings in a few of their own. One of the most notable is people around the land being “Brokenhearted”, and in order to free the person of this ailment you must identify what “element” of their heart has been broken and find someone who is brimming with it to give to the other person. In the beginning of the game you are given only a couple of types to work with, but tracking down characters does get a tad harder as the game progresses and does at the very least tie in with the storyline.

Upon completion of this quest there is a reward – usually in the form of money and an item – but you also earn yourself stamps which are placed on a merit card and are considered full when you reach 10. You can trade in these full merit cards for bonus gameplay features, ranging from simple ones such as jumping and a bit of world map speed (Always helpful when you have mobs of enemies chasing after you) to more interesting ones unlocked as you progress through the game. While unfortunately these don’t offer as magical a storyline aspect, it does give you reason to continue playing through areas you have already visited and several you will just find yourself coming across as you progress through your journey.

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The game also features a simple alchemy system which unfortunately never lived up to its potential in my books – with slowly unlocking recipes or otherwise requiring you to mix in ingredients randomly and hope for the best. The game also features a battle arena of sorts, where you can work your way up tournaments of increasing difficulty against NPC’s familiars and a casino which to be honest I didn’t really follow much in during my playthrough but has quite a few interesting games if it catches your attention. All these modes unlock pretty early in the game and do carry you through to the rest of the game along with a few other features during and post-game.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch features a main storyline that could take you several dozen hours to complete along with a set of trophies which could very take you even longer as you work to 100% complete the game. Overall the game is pretty challenging and offers you quite a diverse number of things to do both in and out of battle.

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Final Word

It has been many years since I have played an RPG at the standard of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, and I feel it could easily be up there with the Playstation 3 greats… and may just be the JRPG that Playstation 3 fans have been waiting for. Delivering an engaging storyline coupled with excellent visuals and an interesting and surprisingly complex battle system…. I enjoyed my time with this game and am looking forward to seeing what else this year holds for RPG’s.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is definitely being shortlisted for my Game of the Year 2013.

Final Score
Storyline/Character Development: A
Design: A
Music/Voice Acting: B+
Gameplay: A
Replayability: A-
Personal Opinion: A
Overall Score: S

An S ranking is the top grade that can be given to a review on The Otaku’s Study, generally given to a title which has offered a highly memorable experience for the genre.

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Sam
Founder of The Otaku's Study. I have been exploring this labyrinth of fandom these last fourteen years, and still nowhere close to the exit yet. Probably searching for a long time to come.

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