I normally only write about old games, but sometimes a game comes along that evokes the spirit of the games of yesterday and I feel compelled to write about it. It doesn’t hurt that said game is a collaborative effort between developer Level-5 and the great animation super power Studio Ghibli. I am, of course, speaking of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a role-playing game for the Playstation 3 that came out nearly a year ago in the US. Translated literally as Second Country, Ni no Kuni is a Japanese RPG that borrows heavily from the games of old such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, with a touch of Pokémon for good measure. The game tasks the player with guiding the main character Oliver into a parallel world on a quest to not only save that world from an evil wizard, but also save his mother. There’s swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons, and all of the familiar tropes of the genre. It’s a fun trip down memory lane for those of us old enough to remember when seemingly every RPG followed the same path, but there is enough infusion of modern elements to give the game a fresh feeling. Top it off with the unparalleled presentation afforded by Ghibli, and Ni no Kuni is easily one of the top games of 2013.
The plot for Ni no Kuni is, like its gameplay, a mixture of traditional and non-traditional. The main character, a kid named Oliver, is the typical unlikely hero destined to save the world from evil. The non-traditional part is how the story begins with Oliver being rescued from an innocent mishap with a go-kart by his mother, who tragically loses her life in the process. It’s a seemingly ordinary piece of tragedy and it plunges the main character into depression, something not many video games are willing to deal with. Much of the story centers around depression, or similar emotions, and Oliver is beckoned to help heal their broken hearts while healing his own in the process. Not long after Oliver becomes withdrawn, his stuffed animal Mr. Drippy soon comes to life as Drippy, High Lord of the Fairies, and he takes Oliver to a parallel world to not only save his mother, but save Drippy’s world from the evil dark djinn Shadar. Oliver’s world, a 1950’s looking America, and Drippy’s share an unseen bond in that people in one world are linked to people in the other by their spirit. Oliver’s mom in this other world was a powerful sage, and by defeating Shadar, Oliver hopes to uncover what happened to his mother’s spirit-sister and hopefully save his mom in the process. The story unfolds over roughly 50 hours of gameplay with Oliver becoming a wizard himself and visiting every corner of this other world making friends and toppling enemies while uncovering the mysteries of the past. It’s very rewarding, and I was quite happy with how the major parts of the story resolved itself, though a lot of the plot is resolved before the game’s final act which made the last parts of the game less impactful. It’s a minor complaint, but the story could have been tied together a little better.
The thing that will stand out strongest to individuals playing Ni no Kuni for the first time are unquestionably the visuals. This game looks just like a Studio Ghibli film brought to a video game console. When I first heard about the game I was more than a little intrigued as I am a big fan of Ghibli’s films. This game exceeded my lofty expectations and really pushes the artistic merit of gaming. It also pushes the power of the PS3 and it shows. Some textures are slow to populate and there’s definitely numerous instances of pop-in especially on the over world, but this is all easily forgiven considering just how superb the game looks. The color palette is varied though slightly muted which actually adds a great deal of charm and gives the game an old feel. Ghibli opted for near pastel shades over more striking primary colors in many places, but where they go bright it really shows. The vegetation in several spots really pops and gives the environment a lush quality. The water effects are some of the most natural I’ve ever seen, and the special effects are suitable and effective without being over-the-top. The character designs are mostly kept simple, and in the case of the many creatures, perhaps too simple. The main cast looks great though, and I really liked the look of the White Witch herself and her astral cloak that has a life all its own. Further adding to the presentation is some excellent voice acting by a mostly British cast and a truly wonderful score from the master Joe Hisaishi. Ni no Kuni is easily on my short list of favorite video game scores and it’s absolutely feature film quality.
All of the bells and whistles though would be for naught if the gameplay didn’t stack up, and thankfully it does. Ni no Kuni, as I said earlier, is a mix of old and new concepts for the JRPG genre. Oliver and his companions still have hit points and magic points and get stronger through participating in battles and gaining experience points. As they level up they learn new skills and gain better base stats like strength, dexterity, and so on. The battles take place in “dungeons” and on a world map where enemies are visible and some will attack and some will run away. Where Ni no Kuni tries to incorporate some of the elements of modern JRPGs is with the battle system. It’s not a turn-based battle, making it similar to Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade. The party is limited to three members during the game, with the player controlling only one at a time. When controlling Oliver or one of his companions, the player is free to move around the battle field and position the character to attack up close or from far away and can switch at any time to one of the other characters. Where Level-5 looks to separate Ni no Kuni from a game like Xenoblade is with the familiar system. Taking a page out of Pokémon, Oliver is able to capture the monsters he encounters and use them as familiars. These familiars basically do the fighting for Oliver, and each character can enter battle with up to three familiars. These familiars share hit points and mana with their human overlords, but level-up independently and are able to evolve at certain points. Each familiar can evolve twice, with the second evolution presenting a choice for the player to make which usually takes on the form of picking a water type vs a fire type evolution or something similar. The familiars interject some variety to the mix and helps to keep the playing experience unique for each individual who picks up the game. Level-5 also did a good job of making several viable familiars lessening the occurrence of over-powered creatures likely to dominate every gamer’s party.
The battle system has its own quirks that everyone has to get used to, and the choice to go with a live battle system means the A.I. is going to be controlling two of the party’s characters at all times. Naturally, this is less than ideal and Ni no Kuni’s artificial intelligence is pretty limited. Each character can be set to behave a certain way, but there’s still no way to tell the A.I. to forego using mana on weak enemies or to focus on fire spells because the enemy is vulnerable to it over some other elemental property. Often times I found myself using the setting that commands my partners to not use any special abilities, or else they’d blow through all of their mana after just a handful of enemy encounters. There’s also no way to select the tactics when out of battle, which is an oversight that should be corrected in a sequel. Another annoyance for me were the more theatrical attacks. Certain spells and such trigger special animations during battle and these are fine when initiated by the player, but when initiated by the A.I. it becomes annoying because it cancels any commands I had issued which can be deadly if it was a healing item or spell I had pulled up. There’s also the whole taming of new familiars, which definitely could use some tweaking. It’s one thing to make it hard to catch the elite creatures in the game, but just about every familiar is overly difficult to tame and that’s because it’s all predicated on chance. Sometimes when beating an enemy, instead of dying, they’ll get little hearts over their heads prompting the player to initiate a series of commands that will make the creature a new familiar for the party. The chance of most any creature going into this state is usually less than 10%. There are quests in the game that require Oliver to tame certain creatures and these were my most hated tasks due to how random the whole system is. Outside of battle, navigating the world is pretty seamless but there are unpolished aspects. The game doesn’t let you get ahead of it at any time. If you know you have to cast a certain spell on a certain individual or object you can’t just walk up and do it, you have to engage it first so that Drippy can tell Oliver he needs to cast Give Heart or some other spell. The game has a tendency to think everyone playing it is pretty slow, or just stupid, and overly explains how to do certain things. The thing I found most annoying though are these special treasure chests spread all over the world that can only be opened by having one of the characters shoot them. That doesn’t bother me, but the fact that the party has to be standing on a specific spot to do it drove me nuts. The chest could be perfectly visible from where I had Oliver positioned, but because it wasn’t the exact spot the game wanted to be at, I couldn’t interact with the chest. Each one of these chests was a piece of trial and error as I slowly moved Oliver around until an exclamation point popped up over his head.
The battle system is not perfect but it’s far from broken and it contains enough depth to remain interesting. It does take getting used to though, which makes Ni no Kuni the rare game where the beginning is more difficult than the end. Especially because early on the player will only have Oliver and one or two familiars at his or her disposal. With such limited options, it basically means most battles will require proper defense to make it through. During battle, a well-timed attack can stop an enemy dead in its tracks. It also can cause a special gold “glim” to appear, which when obtained, triggers an ultimate attack or special move. What the game doesn’t convey properly early on is that well-timed defense is actually a better strategy for getting these glims to appear, and for the first couple of boss fights, these gold glims are tide-turners. Later on in the game Oliver and his familiars will have access to a wide range of spells and abilities capable of striking from a distance making these super moves less important, but early it can be a challenge to topple a boss character. After that though, the game is basically as hard or as easy as the player wants to make it. As is typical of the genre, the world map opens up gradually as the game progresses by giving the player new modes of transportation to utilize, starting with sea and then ultimately air travel. Once the seas open up though, the player can find some tucked-away areas where certain enemies frequent that grant boatloads of experience points. If at any point a player finds the game too hard, they can simply go off and level-grind their way through it. Spend enough time leveling-up, and the game becomes a breeze. Even without doing so, the game is far from difficult. Once the main campaign is bested, some more difficult challenges await but a Ruby Weapon you will not find.
Ultimately, what separates Ni no Kuni from its peers is the story and presentation. The tale of a heart-broken young boy just trying to save his mother against all odds is touching and sobering. In a world of fantastic creatures and unbelievable happenings, it’s a grounded premise that anyone can relate to. The general presentation for the rest of the game is truly unparalleled. Other games possess greater raw processing power and more detailed texture maps, but as far as artistic presentation goes I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed or been more impressed by any other game’s visuals than Ni no Kuni’s. It’s beautiful, and I often found myself getting lost in the scenery more than once. The battle system took time to grow on me, and there’s no doubt I would have preferred a more traditional turn-based approach, but it does possess its own charms and once I felt comfortable with it the game opened up for me. The game is designed to entertain gamers of all ages, meaning it does have to cater to younger gamers at times. It probably holds your hand too tight, with the same explanation for what the Veil spell does popping up every time it’s cast, but such annoyances are minor quibbles of an otherwise excellent game. The game is a true JRPG, a genre that may finally be making a comeback, which means it has all of the charms and all of the annoyances inherent in the genre. There are tons of fetch-quests to go on, the story unfolds in a strictly linear fashion, and there’s probably way more text in this game than anyone cares to read, but it’s also a grand tale that unfolds in a satisfying manner with lots to see and explore. If this is a genre you’ve always loved, then Ni no Kuni is a game that should not be missed. And if you’re new to it, Ni no Kuni is a great place to start.