For several years now, gamers have been eagerly awaiting a JRPG that will not only stand the test of time, but also recapture their childhood. This generation, the genre really has been on the downturn, with very few series standing out. Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy franchise has practically become a punch line, and aside from Atlus and their Persona series, no other big names have stepped up to the plate and delivered a credible JRPG this gen. Up-and-coming developers like Mistwalker and Monolith Soft are doing their best with The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles respectively, but they were critically acclaimed, poorly sold Wii titles. Luckily, a plucky little developer named Level-5 teamed up with the “Disney” of Japan, Studio Ghibli, and created a title that has done what no other JRPG I’ve played this generation has been able to do: make me care about JRPGs again!
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a very likable, simple game. Co-created by video game developer Level-5 (Dark Cloud, Professor Layton) and famed animation studio Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), Ni no Kuni is a story of wonder, friendship, fantasy, and growing up. Following in the vein of typical Ghilbli films, Ni no Kuni is all about discovery and learning the ways of the world and life, with various lessons and morals throughout. But in the same way Toy Story and classic other Pixar films are timeless, so is Ni no Kuni. It’s a game with a story that is pretty much there in front of you the whole time, never making you worry too much about your move; it’s all very cut and dry. But that’s where it shines – in its simplicity!
Unlike nearly every other JRPG to release this gen with their over-the-top, absolutely too convoluted stories, Ni no Kuni harkens back to the 8- and 16-bit days, with a story that would make recent Square-Enix titles weep with envy. All the characters have their own small stories and ideals, but you will not get bogged down in needless philosophical meandering. It’s quite a relief to see what Ni no Kuni has done, and we truly hope future games in the genre follow its lead and take us back to a simpler time. Not to spoil too much of the plot, but from start to finish, you’ll be treated with a tale that, while lacking originality, makes up for it with great characterization and brisk pacing that never wastes a moment.
Oh, the characters! The characters certainly need some discussion, as not only are they some of the best in the genre, but ooze that Ghibli charm. Oliver, Esther, and Swaine are three of the best protagonists to enter into the JRPG foray, especially Oliver. This is his story to save his mother and the world, after all! Oliver is the epitome of childhood, summed up by his wonder, his honesty, his naivety, and his sheer willpower to do what is right. His friends and cohorts are perfect parallels to him and help his quest shine with even more radiance. But, like I’ve said, the characters are straightforward. Aside from maybe Swaine, each of them is practically the same by the end as he was from the start. They grow and learn, but their best attributes of being strong and doing the right thing never falter.
Of course, in this day and age, it’s hard to really get behind characters if they’re poorly portrayed, but once again, the developers have you covered. Ni no Kuni offers up one of the best voice casts for its variety of characters, and never once are you groaning or asking for this character to “shut up.” They’re all cast perfectly, and each voice actor delivers a performance worthy of your attention. Subtle, patient, and believable performances are what Ni no Kuni offers, and each actor delivers each line with the utmost perfect delivery. While the game does jump around animated and voiced scenes, to basic voiced cut scenes, to dialog box conversations a bit too much for our taste, it’s never aggravating, because the script is solid. Studio Ghibli’s anime visuals are few and far between, especially by end-game time, but their touch on the rest of the game more than makes up for the lack of animated cut scenes.
Ni no Kuni is a gorgeous game, and absolutely impressive! Cel-shaded games are (thankfully) no longer looked at as childish. It has a timeless art style, meaning that years from now, when we’re on PS4 and Xbox 720, we can go right back to it, and it’s not going to look horrendous. A lot of the current-gen games nowadays aren’t going to be so lucky, but Ni no Kuni will, and it was a smart move. Everything moves a smooth rate; a combination of thin and thick lines help show off small touches on the characters, their emotions, their clothing, everything. One of our favorite aspects is going to Yule, a land of perpetual snow, and seeing our heroes shiver and shake in the snow until they’ve gotten more adequate attire. It’s small instances like that, and the weapons that you actually equip aren’t stagnant the entire game, save for your familiars. Each new wand or gun you get is reflected in each battle, and throughout the game.
As for the battles and themselves, this is where Ni no Kuni’s either going to shine for you or be just another ho-hum battle system. Each character has the capability of wielding three familiars, creatures found throughout the world with varying abilities, looks, and attacks. You’re more than able to fight on your own and switch between your other two characters, but battles will take longer, so your familiars are what are really essential to progress. You’ll move across the world encountering, battling, and trying to capture all 300+ familiars to help your party grow. You’re able to feed, equip, and ready them for any occurrence you may face, as well as level them up and teach them new tricks. And unlike Pokemon, loyalty isn’t always the best option in Ni no Kuni. The familiars you gain early on may very well be pushed aside for better, more capable creatures found in your 40+ hour journey. We were able to keep most of the first few we got and made our way through the game fine enough, but we couldn’t help but think that a different setup may have helped in some battles by the endgame.
The collection aspect is not as robust as the Pokemon series, but it works for what it is. Instead of having the ability to capture any and all beings you see, it’s a bit grinding to try to do so. If you see a creature you want, you will have to work for it, sometimes spending hours getting the creature(s) you want the most. With such a variety at your disposable though, it’ll be interesting to see what teams people will assemble and use throughout their quest. Just don’t expect your familiars to change too drastically when they undergo metamorphosis, as their size rarely changes. Most of the creatures in the same genus are color-copies of one another; they’re mostly only affiliated with a certain element to differentiate from their previous form. Still, the creativity of some of the creatures, and especially the bosses, really shines. There are some utterly fantastically creative beings to try your hand at adding to your team.
The right team can make all the difference, especially during a few of the boss fights. Ni no Kuni’s not an overly difficult game, mind you, but there were a few times on our part where a few missteps resulted in a game over. But worry not, all it costs you is 10% of your bank and any items you used, but you resume right where you left off, ready for round two, three, or seven! As previously stated, it’s a standard 40+ hour fare, even with a modicum of side quests and such thrown in to help your stats and bank grow. Naturally, there’s still a few post-game options like a coliseum mode, a casino, and several bounty hunts and errands you may still complete for the world’s inhabitants, so your 40 hour save should easily reach 60+. There has been no mention of DLC for Ni no Kuni, so don’t expect anything more from the story already presented, but that’s okay, because the story at hand is more than enough for your time and money.
Ni no Kuni’s simplicity is what keeps it from being a ten for us, but we commend its ability to be a throwback to older JRPGs. And, quite frankly, it’s doing the genre a favor, instead of helping it fade into obscurity even more. If you’re expecting a Final Fantasy game, think again: Ni no Kuni feels more like a Dragon Quest title – light-hearted, cutesy characters that grow and develop into well-rounded beings while on an epic fantasy tale that will have you coming back for more every time. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch may very well be the last great JRPG for this gen, and for any PS3 JRPG gamer, it’s essential for your collection shelf.