I have great memories of the JRPG heyday. The NES, SNES, PS1, and their contemporaneous handhelds were absolute goldmines of fantastic JRPGs, and growing up I happily devoured as many as I could get. However, while subsequent generations certainly had their share of excellent games in the genre, I feel like things tailed off slightly by the time we hit the PS3. Sure there were some greats here and there, largely it felt like the magic was waning; so, when a game like Ni no Kuni came out, it was like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise largely barren space of mainstream major release JRPGs. That environment and context can make an audience much more amenable to a game, and makes it easier to look past faults, but was Ni no Kuni any good, or was it simply helped by its situation?
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Switch)
Released Nov 2011 | Developed: Level-5 | Published: Namco Bandai
Genre: Action-RPG, JRPG | HLTB: 45 hours
The first and most striking detail which players will notice about Ni no Kuni is the involvement of Studio Ghibli. Ni no Kuni features traditional animated sequences worked on by both Level-5 and Studio Ghibli, while the 3D graphics are clearly built to replicate them. Plenty of JRPGs have anime-esque visuals but the end result of the collaboration between Level-5 and Studio Ghibli is one of the prettiest and visually stunning games in the genre; Ghibli are, after all, known masters of their art and their influence on Ni no Kuni has produced something truly magnificent.
The towns in Ni no Kuni in particular evoke a sense of soothing nostalgia in me. Take the starting city of Ding Dong Dell, for example; as you walk through the gates you find yourself among narrow streets with houses crowding above you and townsfolk chattering around you. The scene is a pastoral heaven, straight out of Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbour Totoro. Another favourite of mine is Hamelin; situated underground for protection against the harsh environment, it is a city of mobile tall-houses, mounted on wheels so the city can be manipulated at will. It’s a shame that the same creativity wasn’t extended to the dungeons which are serviceable but uninspiring; there’s a trend in many JRPGs towards dungeons which are trails of corridors, and Ni no Kuni falls into this trap. While they’re pretty, and it’s a staggeringly minor issue, it’s still a tiny shame.
At the risk of making this review too negative from the outset, minor issues are definitely part of the Ni no Kuni experience. Take the combat, for instance. One of my great frustrations is unnecessary randomness in RPGs; I can accept an amount of RNG of course, and any RPG fan will tell you that praying to the random number gods is a key part of the JRPG process. Still, usually we’re talking about random encounters, or hoping for a critical hit. Ni no Kuni however uses randomness in other ways. For example, glittering golden glims allow characters to unlock their most powerful attack but drop at random in fights so planning out to use a well-timed limit break to turn the tide of a tough fight is impossible.
Combat is conducted in pseudo real-time. Encounters flag up on the overworld so you have a modicum of control over when you get into fights, and blessedly many enemies will leg it from you if you’re overleveled, cutting the number of conflicts down. Once you’re in combat you can freely select and control any one of your three party members. I am delighted that No no Kuni eschews the traditional triad of RPG party members; Oliver is a mage, and he is joined by the thief Swaine, and Esther, a kind of hybrid of bard and animal tamer who uses her music to supplicate the monsters of the world into fighting for the trio.
Esther’s ability to tame monsters is one of the most important facets to combat in Ni no Kuni’s world. Because your party aren’t really fighters, instead they recruit monsters and turn them into familiars, creatures to summon to fight for them. Veterans of Pokemon will find something similar here; each monster you recruit can level up independently of your characters, and as they hit specific level thresholds they unlock the ability to metamorphose into newer, more powerful forms. Each monster has an elemental alignment which affects how much damage they deal and can take when paired up against others, and as they level up they can learn special attacks that have their own suite of elemental alignments.
However, taming familiars happens entirely at random and if you want a specific one you have to grind encounters until the RNG decides that one will be recruitable this time. This becomes especially annoying when you come across the recurring sidequests involving a researcher who wants you to recruit specific monsters from each region. When your creatures evolve they return to level 1, albeit with better base stats than their previous form, meaning that the need to grind in Ni no Kuni is huge. That said, Ni no Kuni isn’t the hardest game in the world. Most encounters breeze by; on top of that, boss fights are often epic in scale but typically fall into a repetitive routine of attacking until they’re ready to use a special attack, and in response your creature defends. Once you get the hang of this simple pattern, most bosses are conquered without much trouble.
One area where I have a lot of love for Ni no Kuni is the plot. The game follows a young lad called Oliver, who lives in Motorville, a kind of bright analogue to ‘50s Detroit. After an accident his mother tragically dies and Oliver slips into a deep depression… what, you thought this was going to be a cheery Ghibli story? In the midst of his grief, Oliver’s stuffed doll comes to life, introducing himself as Mr. Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies, and he beseeches Oliver to fulfill a task: he’s from a world parallel to Oliver’s, and for years it has been under the tyrannical rule of Shadar, the Dark Djinn. However, Oliver has the potential to be a sage of incredible power, and so only he can enter the Other World and save it.
It might all sound a bit like wishful thinking, but therein lies its strength. That fairytale narrative of a young child, lost and struggling in their own world, who stumbles across a fanciful land of magic and mystery where they’re the hero destined to save all life is not unfamiliar to Ghibli; heck, you can probably rattle of a few examples right here and now. Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and My Neighbour Totoro all share a similar form and ideal behind them, and it’s exactly as compelling here. Oliver’s grief is an all-too-real one, and it’s tempting to read the story logically, seeing a child sink into fantasy escapism because the world they live in is too miserable and bleak to contemplate right now, until such time as they’ve saved their fantasy world and healed themselves in the process. The effect is heightened by characters we meet in the Other World having “soulmates”, people in Oliver’s world they are identical to, and often helping a person in one world in turn saves them in the other. Still, like any good fairytale, Ni no Kuni wants us to commit to the fantasy, to indulge in it along with Oliver, rather than view it with the cold and cynical dispassion of an adult.
This release, the Wrath of the White Witch, was originally built off a DS game named Dominion of the Dark Djinn. This one is a kind of remake plus expansion; the general gist of the plot is kept intact but the scope and world are widened, and Oliver has more in-depth interactions with the land and its inhabitants than in the DS original. Additionally, Wrath of the White Witch doesn’t end at the same place; instead it features a longer story that carries on after the finale of the original. This is somewhat jarring to see during play, as we undergo what is quite clearly a grand finale, only for the game to carry on for a slightly rushed, really-final act. I’m reminded of a favourite JRPG of mine, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, which also featured that kind of switcheroo, although in that game’s case it was pulled off with a little more aplomb. I can’t fault Ni no Kuni from borrowing from a game that good though, even if it doesn’t quite manage it with the same style.
That sense of borrowing from other sources seems endemic to Ni no Kuni, in fact. The discerning reader might have already drawn parallels between the combat system and other monster gathering games, such as Pokemon, but not quite done as well given Ni no Kuni’s reliance on randomness, while the corridor-heavy dungeon design and chirpy kind-of-real time combat recalls the Tales of games to me. It’s not necessarily a problem of course, but more a curious thing of note. It begs the question somewhat of whether Ni no Kuni really has much in the way of original ideas, and as a secondary query to that, does that especially matter to you as a player? When I first played it I couldn’t help but notice it all over the place, and it really took me out of the experience. However, this time through I found I let that wash over me and I let myself soak in the game a little more.
A key mechanic which you’ll spend much of your time dealing with is the fixing of broken hearts. Part of Shadar’s masterplan to subjugate the Other World is to cast spells which leave people “brokenhearted” – that’s no metaphor here, though; these people literally have entire emotional spectrums excised from them. I love that there’s a distinction made between the various emotions a person can be missing and how both the absence and over-abundance affects them, from kindness to restraint; for example, a father missing kindness makes for a harrowing scene as he abuses his family, while a researcher you can meet with too much enthusiasm works himself to death. The process of fixing people involves a lot of tracking back and forth finding characters who have too much of an emotion, skimming a bit for yourself with a spell, and then trekking back to the person who needs it. It’s a wonderful idea but like a lot of Ni no Kuni it suffers from being incredibly slowly paced. Worse still, it’s very flaggy – you often can’t simply go to the person you need even if it’s obvious, but instead must follow the preset path laid out by the game. It really bugs me that you can’t cast the spells to take and give pieces of heart without talking to the people involved; again, that’s the game’s flagginess coming to the fore.
In fact, this is something peculiar to JRPGs, this refusal to let the player solve puzzles or think for themselves. While I appreciate that the game is designed so that adults and children alike can enjoy it, and I’ve nothing against a game guiding its player, excessive hand-holding can feel patronising. One moment in particular emphasises this for me: early on in the game Oliver acquires an alchemical cauldron, but it’s sealed shut and requires magic words to open. The words are laid out in his magical handbook, the Wizard’s Companion, which has a very clearly demarcated Alchemy section so players should naturally know to look in there. The game however spells it out in dialogue a couple times to make sure. While I can appreciate ensuring no-one gets stuck, the Companion is an integral part of the game and it would’ve been nice to be able to make the connection myself for once.
Before I conclude, I want to make a note of the music here. The soundtrack was chiefly composed by longtime Ghibli alumnus Joe Hisaishi, and he brings a level of polish and professionalism to the score that you would expect from someone of his level. However, game music and film score are subtly different beasts, and while Hisaishi is undoubtedly a sublime composer, I can’t help but feel at times Ni no Kuni is scored too much like it’s a film. Consider the gentle movement of One Fine Morning. It’s light, subtle, charming, designed to be a beautiful underscore to accentuate a quiet moment as the game opens. That it is a gorgeous piece of music is not in question, but it feels suited to a filmic setting; contrast it to the composition of more experienced game musicians such as Shimomura or Uematsu and you can immediately hear a difference in the approach to melody and the need to impact the listener with something memorable and evocative all at once. Hisaishi’s work is stunning but it lacks that same underlying principle; this particularly comes to the fore in the generic dungeon theme, which fails to impart the sense of tension and lack of safety that should come with exploring a dungeon because it’s too soft and calm.
In Loving Memory of Allie is another good example. While it’s got the beginnings of a melody, a more seasoned game composer might have established a clear and omnipresent theme attached to the character and utilised it. Instead Hisaishi seems to go instead for an emotional underscore designed to complement the scenes for the listener – you might, very fairly, think “well that’s not a bad thing” and I’d agree! I enjoy a lot of Ni no Kuni’s score, but I think the difference in approach is worth commenting on and examining. My favourite example of Hisaishi creating good music that isn’t really meant for a game is the Battle theme. The greatest JRPG battle themes are immediately powerful, with an instant melody and impact; you want them to convey the urgency and terror of the situation straight away. However this theme meanders; it ebbs and flows, getting quieter before slowly rising to a moderate volume, and there’s maybe the start of a great theme around 80 seconds in but it’s not the focus. And yet, it’s definitely a listenable piece of music, but not one which gets the blood pumping ready for another fight.
Where does all that leave us with Ni no Kuni, then? It’s a game content to nick things from other, better games but it doesn’t spoil or cheapen the end result. Though it rides altogether far too much on the draw of its presentation and the Ghibli name, it’s more than just a competent game underneath. It’s a game where the simplicity of its story is part of its appeal, with a childlike sense of wonder and fantasy underpinning everything. At its best it invites us to escape along with Oliver into its nonsense, and hopefully by then you won’t mind the otherwise serviceable-but-uninspiring gameplay.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.