Ni No Kuni is turned into something very special thanks to its gorgeous Studio Ghibli visuals.
If I had to review Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch in a single sentence, it would go something like this: I hate Japanese role-playing games, but after 25 hours I am still enjoying Ni No Kuni.
However, I know that Screen Play readers demand more from me than single-line reviews, so I'll endeavour to give you a bit more detail.
Ni No Kuni is a PlayStation 3 exclusive, made by Level 5 (of Professor Layton fame) and legendary Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, who created Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, and many more classic cartoons.
The mite is the first of many familiars.
The result is a stunningly beautiful game, brought to life with a variety of techniques. Many of the scenes that are especially significant to the story are hand-animated by Ghibli, and are exactly as charming as you would expect. The interactive game world and in-engine cutscenes are cel-shaded and rendered in such a way as to perfectly match the traditional hand-drawn animation.
Quite simply, it looks and feels like you are playing a Studio Ghibli film, whether you are exploring, interacting with people, or battling monsters. Possibly my favourite part of the game is the breathtaking over-world maps. These are the large-scale areas where you explore the countryside, get in fights with the wildlife, and find your way to important new locations. The first time I left a city and entered the stunning over-world, I stopped playing for a while and just looked around, admiring the scenery.
As somebody who is not a fan of JRPGs, I was less impressed with the content that lurked beneath all of this beautiful packaging. Despite a few small tweaks to the usual formula, at its heart this is a very traditional JRPG.
The beauty of the game's over-world is literally breathtaking.
Combat is carried out by deploying familiars, Pokemon-like creatures that you summon with magic to fight for you. Like the aforementioned pocket monsters, your familiars will level up and can even be evolved into more powerful forms. You can also improve them outside combat by equipping them with weapons and gear, and by feeding them sweet treats that increase their skills and make them more loyal to you.
In battle, familiars can run around, and combat is free-flowing instead of turn-based. Even so, the attacks and spells are stock JRPG; when your familiar attacks, it expends its action and needs to wait until it can act again. It can employ standard physical attacks, or spend mana points to employ powerful special attacks or cast spells.
For those who love JRPGs (and I know the Screen Play readership includes quite a few fans) none of this will be discouraging at all. Long-time JRPG players will slip comfortably into Ni No Kuni's familiar gameplay mechanics, probably appreciating the small but welcome teaks to the classic formula.
The other big group that this game will appeal to most strongly is Studio Ghibli fans, and they will not be disappointed. While I have some reservations about a few of the design decisions and the surreal nature of some of the monsters (the first time you fight a creature that looks like a big bunch of bananas is a strange experience) Ghibi has done an amazing job. Their hand-animated story sections could have been lifted right out of a classic Ghibli film, and this informs the look of the entire game. Purists will also be pleased to know that the game can be played in Japanese with English subtitles.
The story is standard Japanese metaphysics. The world exists on two levels, the real world and the fairy world. People, and sometimes even animals, exists in both worlds, sometimes in very different forms. The two versions of this character are unaware of each other, and yet if something happens to one, it can affect the other. A person being trapped by evil magic in one world, for example, could result in the other version of themselves becoming fearful and refusing to leave their home. Much of the story involves the player jumping back and forth between the two worlds, helping people in one place by solving the problems of their doppelganger in the other.
The plot revolves around a young boy named Oliver who is left orphaned when his mother dies suddenly from a weak heart, a death he feels personally responsible for. A strange fairy lord named Drippy befriends the boy, and reveals that his mother's twin in the fairy world may still be alive, and if she can be saved then his mother could be brought back to life in his own world. Determined to save his mother, Oliver sets off into the fairy world to learn to be a wizard and prepare to take on the powerful evil djinn Shadar. The djinn controls the people of the fairy world by fear, thanks to his ability to steal parts of people's souls and reduce them to aimless husks.
I am not a JRPG fan, and yet I am still playing Ni No Kuni after 25 hours, and still enjoying it. While I find the combat to be fairly dull, the story, the visuals, and the party-management aspects of the game all keep me coming back for more. It's also a serious epic - despite all my hours playing, I still feel like I am right at the beginning of the story. I have checked other reviews online, and they claim that you can power through the main story in around 30 hours, but if you are a completionist who likes to finish every side-quest, you will get at least 50 hours out of it. As such, if you like to think of games in a hours-of-play-per-dollar equation, Ni No Kuni is excellent value.
Thanks mainly to its beautiful visuals, Ni No Kuni has almost managed to make me forget that I dislike JRPGs. As such, if you're not a fan of the genre but you're a sucker for beautiful presentation and great animation, Ni No Kuni could still be for you.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez