In an era where ever game is so self-serious, it’s kind of refreshing to see a title that basks in whimsy. Level 5 and Studio Ghibli’s Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is such a game. It fairly oozes with clever environment design and goofy, pun-filled dialogue.
Traditionally, I don’t truck with JRPGs. Not because I actively dislike them, or anything, but they never really clicked with me. That said, Ni no Kuni is an experience that wrapped itself around me like a warm blanket and drew me in. Let’s get down to specifics, though, shall we?
The World and The Story
You start off the game in the idyllic 1950’s Americana-style Motor Town as 13-year old Oliver. Everything is going well until he loses his Mom, at which point his tears bring his doll, Mr. Drippy, to life. You see, Mr. Drippy is a fairy from a parallel world, and he was turned into a doll and banished to Oliver’s dimension by Shadar, the Dark Djinn. Mr. Drippy tells Oliver that even though his mother is dead in this world, she, like all living beings has a soul-mate in Drippy’s world, and her soul-mate is being held prisoner by Shadar. If Oliver can rescue his mom’s soul-mate, then he could conceivably save his Mom in his world.
It all sounds a bit convoluted, and, truth be told, it kind of is. Ni no Kuni’s story frequently bounces back between Oliver’s world and the fantasy-realm that Mr. Drippy hails from. Despite being fairly twisted, the plot is conveyed well enough that keeping up doesn’t take much effort. The story is told with in-game cinematics and through animated sequences done in brilliant fashion by Studio Ghibli. These pad out the game near the beginning and middle, but unfortunately after a certain part they disappear completely. When they do appear, however, they’re a nice reward and toward the end of the game you’ll be wishing that there were more of them.
I honestly can’t say enough about how well designed the game is. Even though you run through a pretty standard sampling of video game environments (forest, desert, ice caves) the way that Level 5 has interpreted Studio Ghibli’s designs into video game form makes everything pop off the screen. Each of the cities in the game have their own unique style, and there are puns abound, especially when the rulers of these cities are referred to (like the cat king being called “Your Meowjesty”). It also says a lot that, despite the limited amount of music tracks in the game, you never tire of hearing them. The visual and audio elements of Ni no Kuni work together in such harmony and create one of the most picturesque and memorable video game environments in recent memory.
As polished as the visuals are in Ni no Kuni, the combat leaves a lot to be desired, especially as you get later in to the game. When you enter combat, you can take control of either Oliver or one of the other party members, or control one of your “familiars”, which are caught Pokemon-style in the over-world. Oliver can use some pretty powerful magical spells, while Swaine and Esther have their own specialties (different types of gunshots or buffs and heals, respectively).
Using the tactics menu, you can set your party member’s behaviors, which seems like a good practice in theory. The AI has a tendency to ignore your commands, so even if you set Esther to “Keep us Healthy” she tends to waste all her MP on her familiar’s magical spells (your familiars share your HP and MP) and won’t have any left over to heal you. This is especially trying in the early sections of the game where restorative items are in short supply and you can’t Fast Travel to a Waystone for a quick heal. Add this to the fact that your AI buddies will sometimes ignore your All Out Defense commands and you’ll be left wondering if you wouldn’t have just been better off on your own.
Even though Ni no Kuni’s combat is real time, the game still pauses when you are selecting a spell or attack to use and which enemy or ally to use it on. The game tells you to use the PS3 controller’s D-pad to make your choice, but unless you have some seriously dexterous fingers, you’re better off using the shoulder buttons, which the game doesn’t instruct you to do. All of your abilities have a cool down (even the defense command for some reason) and your familiars will need a rest after a little while. Each party member can carry up to three familiars (and they all have certain monster type affinities and each familiar has an element weakness and strength) so it behooves you to have a well-balanced team.
A small nitpick of mine with the combat is that when you’re being buffed or healed, you temporarily lose control of your character. If you’re down to your last few hits points and you get whacked by an enemy during the middle of a heal because you can’t move and faint, well, you can imagine the white-knuckle grips my controller faced during those moments.
Even though combat can sometimes get pretty frustrating in Ni no Kuni, the journey is more than worth it. Oliver’s quest takes him all over the world and there are always quests to do, monsters to catch, and bounties to hunt. If you can look past some imperfections here and there, you’ll find the prospect of playing through an interactive Studio Ghibli film more than worth it.
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