|System: PS3, Xbox 360, PC|
|Dev: Level-5, Studio Ghibli|
|Pub: NAMCO Bandai|
|Release: January 22, 2013|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Alcohol and Tobacco Reference, Comic Mischief, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Simulated Gambling|
by Becky Cunningham
In a world full of dark and complex role-playing games, it's been some time since we've seen a simpler kind of game, where good faces off against evil and adventure is accompanied by a sense of wonder. Enter Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a collaboration between veteran RPG developer Level-5 and internationally acclaimed animation house Studio Ghibli. This visually stunning game, with the sensibility of a fairy tale and the scope of an epic quest, is exactly what the doctor ordered.
The star of our story is Oliver, a kindhearted little boy who lives in a city that's apparently stuck in the halcyon suburban days of the 1950s. When tragedy strikes his family, Oliver's tears bring his odd stuffed fairy friend, Mr. Drippy, to life. Soon, Oliver is whisked off to Mr. Drippy's fantastic world and declared to be the “pure-hearted one,” the prophesied savior of a land under siege by the evil djinn Shadar. Oliver decides to become a wizard in order to save both his family and the other world, leading to the adventure of a lifetime.
Oliver and the friends he makes in Ni No Kuni aren't terribly complex characters, but that's not the point of this kind of fantasy story. Our heroes are very determined and likeable characters who want to do the right thing for the world, each in their own way. They're facing off against far greater and more powerful evil forces than they can imagine, and we want to guide them to victory because they're genuinely good people.
What makes the game's black-and-white story work is the incredible world dreamed up by Studio Ghibli's artists and animators. Every area of the game, from the sweeping overworld to the dazzling cities, possesses a lush and dreamlike quality. Ghibli's mastery of animated fantasy is fully on display here, and playing Ni No Kuni feels like stepping into a movie like My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away. All the traditional fantasy game ecosystems (pastoral forest, desert, volcano, frozen kingdom) are here, but they're given interesting visual and cultural twists that make them feel fresh and worth exploring.
The unusual characters and bizarre creatures that populate the world are brought to life with cel-shaded animation. They don't completely fit in with the game's non-cel-shaded environments, but the sheer beauty of it all causes that distinction to rapidly fade away. The subtle shading found on the models is impressive—just watch it play across Oliver's red cloak as he moves. The whimsical animations possessed by the characters and monsters bring their personalities to life, reminding us that a moving picture can be worth a million words in terms of character expression.
The icing on the cake is the musical score, composed by one of Ghibli's finest and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. It's quite simply the best video game score I've heard in years, featuring one stirring piece after another and giving texture and a truly cinematic feel to the world. Ni No Kuni's sound effects and (somewhat sparse) voice acting are also quite well done, but it's the music that will really blow players away.
This being a role-playing game, there's far more to it than a stunning world and heartwarming story. Level-5 steps in here, developing a deceptively deep combat system with complexity that unfolds as the game progresses. There are lots of nasty beasts in Drippy's world, all of them spoiling for a fight. As Oliver and his young companions aren't physically powerful, the majority of the combat is performed by familiars, creatures formed from the power of a wizard's heart or befriended on the battlefield.
Combat is a mix of real-time and turn-based, with action that pauses to allow the player to make decisions when a combat option is selected. Each character in Oliver's party can choose between three familiars to send into battle, and familiars have a stamina gauge that depletes over time. This means that the familiars will need to be swapped around during longer battles. Human characters can also be swapped to in order to cast spells or use items, but their physical attacks are fairly underwhelming and it's not a good idea to let monsters bash them for very long.
There are many different kinds of familiars, each with different offensive and defensive capabilities. Some are good physical attackers, while others excel at magic. Of course, enemies have various strengths and weaknesses, with colored numbers providing a quick guide as to whether your attacks are normal, weak, or strong against them. Defense is more interesting—do you want a familiar who can defend slowly against massive enemy attacks, one who can quickly evade them (requiring better timing than defending), or one that can psych up and go wild on the opponent, possibly canceling the special attack from being executed in the first place?
Although it's generally engaging, there are weaknesses to the combat system. The player is expected to react to enemy tells quickly with a defensive move, but needs to flip through menus in real time in order to select that move. There's no way to interrupt an attack or spell in progress, either, so the player can expect to eat a certain number of dangerous enemy attacks during difficult battles. Soon after acquiring a full party of three characters, the player gets the ability to tell everyone to defend using the square button, which helps the A.I. characters but not necessarily the player.
There are holes in the A.I. as well. Though the player can assign tactics to the A.I.-controlled characters and can freely swap between characters in battle, the tactics aren't very customizable. I was never able to find a sweet spot between “don't use any abilities” and “drain all your magic points within thirty seconds,” and MP-regenerating items are too expensive to pop on a regular basis. This leads to the need to play conservatively when entering a new area, sticking close to an inn or restoration point until the characters are strong enough to mop the floor with the area's enemies.