Game: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Format: PlayStation 3
Developer: Level 5
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Childlike is a word that beyond Nintendo’s output has almost become a dirty word for gamers of all the ages, shaped by a popular and misguided notion that bloody violence and shades of grey are hallmarks of maturity, where games with anthropomorphic creatures and primary colours are all a bit embarrassing for adults, or even for the twelve year old tugging on his mother’s blouse to buy him Call of Duty.
Me? I think that if videogames are to be accepted more widely in the mainstream and to expand creatively, more people need to fully embrace their ability to enchant and make you feel like a kid again, move away from the dreariness and malice a bit more, and bring to wider attention the heart and effortless charm games can possess, and Ni No Kuni’s tendency to make me grin like an idiot.
In a creative partnership that was simply meant to happen, Japanese animation wonder Studio Ghibli worked with Level 5 on this game. Studio Ghibli has always possessed the remarkable ability to transport you to places you may find yourself sucked into without warning; worlds so far from reality and yet credible in how they’re detailed. It’s a trait that videogames can be particularly good at portraying.
Ghibli make natural bedfellows with RPG artisans Level 5, with their penchant for whimsical characters, verdant countrysides, and their considerable experience in RPG design; the perfect genre for Studio Ghibli’s talent for escapism to unfurl.
Ni No Kuni’s story about an unassuming boy in a fictional American suburb becoming a wizard and stepping into a world of myth and magic, with the goal of bringing his mother back to life is earnest in the purest sense, and is a story that captures you emotively from the beginning in one fell swoop.
With there being two worlds in Ni No Kuni, it displays a stark contrast between the 1950s apple pie America where Oliver hails, with its picket fences and underlying human casualty – and the fantasy land where fountains spew milk, dragons roam the skies and people are more concerned with avoiding monsters while travelling to a neighbouring town than domestic affairs.
In spite of the wet dream of creative gatherings, Ni No Kuni doesn’t aim for the misty dreamscapes of Spirited Away or Nausicaä – but for an RPG that is comforting and familiar, with towns, villages, forests and dungeons of clear-cut themes spread apart in a likely structure.
Level 5 have crafted a down to earth experience, and one that extends to the outstanding writing and sense of humour. Overtly Welsh sidekick Mr. Drippy is a scream with his self-awareness almost striving to speak for the player, and the unlikely Welsh idioms the diminutive boyo brings to the proper grand scenes, ent’it. (I’m very sorry.)
Immediately apparent above all else is the mouth-watering artwork and animation. The real time visuals are staggeringly close to a Ghibli flick in real-time 3D, and Studio Ghibli’s smattering of bewitching animated cut-scenes almost feel like comparison shots, and a testament to Level 5’s technical and artistic prowess. Joe Hisaishi provides the earthy, emotive soundtrack to be expected from Studio Ghibli – though the overblown battle music can grate.
Towns and other locations are framed with lavish colour and spectacle. Controller in hand, it’s like stepping through flowing, untouched concept art. Structures jump at you, protruding their spires and rooftops in a manner that aches for your attention; understated, pristine characters crafted by Level 5 and Ghibli move in that mesmerising Ghibli fashion where every component of their designs appear to be crafted specifically with how they will move in mind. Witnessing Oliver’s crimson cape flutter about is something that you will be seeing every time you push the left stick, but it is never less mesmerising to watch.
Ni No Kuni is a dopamine injecting, almost unabating visual feast, that like many other cel-shaded games will never age a day, and flatters the Playstation 3 like almost no other game on the console.
For those who enjoyed the breed of JRPGs on the SNES and Playstation this game will be something of a nostalgia trip. The painterly overworld reminisces the old fashioned JRPG in that awkward way that people tower over trees, and traversing continents on foot takes minutes, but it also brings with it a tangible feel for adventure in a world riddled with secrets, things to collect and battles to survive, and the empowerment that comes with better means of transportation.
Monsters or ‘familiars’ can be spotted on the field and jumped for the advantage – though they are very difficult to avoid, particularly in enclosed spaces. Fights are a judicious mix of the old and the new. While each enemy encounter places you in an arena where you’re free to move within its confines actions are selected from a menu, but timing and movement enables you to evade and block attacks. Player agency rises above raw numbers in deciding the victor and results in a system that is seldom repetitive fight after fight.
The very same ‘familiars’ you’ll be facing can be tamed and bolster Oliver’s party into a squad. Each species of monster has unique traits and given that each of up to three party members can hold three familiars at a time, balancing your line-up is crucial so you’re not caught short with spells and abilities. Nurturing them with treats to boost their stats and evolving them is the order of the day. With hundreds of the lovingly animated familiars to capture the scope for customisation is enormous.
Ni No Kuni demands that you play resourcefully and can punish you in even run of the mill encounters. Items that restore your magic power are precious, and reckless play may lead to finding yourself with a stretch of monsters ahead with few means to keep everyone alive and dangerous. Don’t expect a gentle game that befits the aesthetic.
As many contemporary RPGs have been increasingly streamlined, it’s refreshing to find Ni No Kuni’s journey take so much out of its leads, where the inns and save points genuinely offer a sense of safe haven. Rather than mollycoddle, Level 5 have seen fit not to insult the player’s intelligence, while presenting a learning curve that doesn’t leave you spare for options from the very beginning while adding new elements and mechanics at a comfortable, satisfying pace.
Problematically, menus in battle are a little on the sluggish side. Far too often did I find myself on the brunt of a special attack because I couldn’t select the defend command quickly enough, even with a considerable gap in which to react. Early in the game, Oliver’s party members can be more of a burden than help, as they exhaust all of their MP with little regard and refuse to block or evade attacks.
I found myself allowing my party members to die during boss encounters, as maintaining them was doing little more than delaying the inevitable – that is until you’re gifted with the option for ‘all-out-defense’ some 15-20 hours into the game which will have your comrades (unreliably) defend on command, and this is when the game truly comes into its stride. With three party members and nine ‘familiars’ to pool from in battle Ni No Kuni exhibits the most engaging, busy and satisfying combat in the genre since Grandia – where miserable deaths can be avenged with adaptation and consideration of your many options, as opposed to grinding your way to an anticlimactic overkill.
Level 5 do express a kinder side where being it is impossible to lose track of where your next destination is, even if they’re not willing to hold your hand in getting you there. Side-quests and points of interest are usually marked on the map. There are fetch quests that wouldn’t be unfamiliar for anyone that has touched an MMO but there are some standout cases that ask of more unique challenges. They’re hit and miss as far as creativity goes, but the rewards are suitable recompense, with boots that allow you to run faster across the world map and the ability to jump for no reason other than for the sheer joy of catching some air.
Trite it may be, the human heart is at the centre of Oliver’s endeavours. Throughout the game he will need to restore feelings back into people’s ‘broken’ hearts, of which were taken by a terrible wizard. This element narrowly avoids cloying territory in thanks to the sharp, good-natured writing that paints characters of surprising depth.
Oliver, the at first reluctant hero is as initially confused and clumsy as a thirteen year old boy should be in his situation and his development throughout is convincing and his predicament immediately worthy of empathy.
But for me, the real stand-out of Oliver’s ragtag bunch is a middle aged man who completes your party a third though the game. He is not a character I expected for a central role in a game with Studio Ghibli’s involvement. Hard-nosed, cynical, worldly and a thief – he counterbalances the naivety of Oliver entirely. His scraggly face has sagged with his cruel fate, and stubble protrudes angrily from his chin; it is the face of a man who has stopped caring. His demeanour and character conflicts with his fairytale world and reveals an absorbing narrative with bite, that isn’t afraid to delve into dark matters.
The Good: A visual and aural treat, charming narrative that is suitable for all ages, excellent dialogue localisation.
The Bad: Menus can be a bit tough to navigate in battle.
Overall: 4.5 out of 5
Ni No Kuni is an irresistibly vibrant forty hour helping of wondrous spectacle, surprises, humour and worthy accomplishment.