Game Review: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch [PS3]
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an incredible experience that truly encompasses the word ‘escapism’. The Japanese-exclusive DS title Ni no Kuni: Shikkoku no Madōshi has brought all of its wonder and excitement to the West with this expanded and revamped PS3 version, and it’s one of the finest titles available for the platform.
The tale follows a young boy, Oliver, who – following the sudden death of his mother – unwittingly lifts a curse on his beloved doll, who turns out to be a male fairy called Drippy (that’s ‘Lord High Lord of the Fairies’ to you). Drippy explains that he comes from a world parallel to our reality, called ‘Ni no Kuni’ (literally, ‘Second Country’). In this other world lives ‘soulmates’ – alternate versions of people (and in some cases, animals) he knows – and with his mother’s soulmate alive but held prisoner in Ni no Kuni, Oliver decides to venture to that other world to rescue her in the hopes that it will revive his own mother. But to do this, he will have to defeat the evil Shadar.
Ni no Kuni is very welcoming to novices of JRPGs, renowned for being lengthy and complicated. Players will be eased into the experience by being given tips and tutorials by Drippy as the game progresses. The ‘Wizard’s Companion’, a magic spellbook available to read in the game, given to Oliver by Drippy (and included in hardback with the Wizard’s Edition) is an ingenious inclusion to the game, for not only does it serve as a highly intriguing account of lore of the world of Ni no Kuni but it also provides a large guide to the game itself (like a game manual disguised as a spellbook). With Drippy and the Wizard’s Companion, players should feel at ease settling into Ni no Kuni and can concentrate on the brilliant tale and exciting gameplay.
In his quest to rescue his mother, Oliver will have to learn to capture and fight with small creatures called ‘familiars’. It’s similar to Pokémon in many respects – you battle wild creatures with your creatures, tame them, name them and make them part of your team’s party. However, there are some key differences – each character and their familiars will share hit point and magic/mana point bars, metamorphosing (evolving) familiars will put them back to level 1 and familiars can only be used for a limited period at a time. Swapping between your character and your other familiars will be mandatory in almost every battle you face. Thus, unlike Pokémon, where you can choose to use only one Pokémon in all your fights for unlimited time, Ni no Kuni has you grow and understand each familiar in your party.
Likewise, the battle system itself also shares qualities with Pokémon – you send one of your character’s familiars out, and you can choose your familiar’s actions from a range of options. However, in Ni no Kuni you also have the freedom to control your characters’ and familiars’ movements in battle, allowing you to really immerse in the fights (particularly the spectacular and challenging boss battles). Once the player adds more characters to their party by working through the story, they have the option to switch between them to use their own special traits and their familiars – Oliver uses magic spells, Esther uses a magical harp to capture familiars etc. If the player dies in a battle, a ‘death fee’ is payable (10% of all your collected money, Guilders) if they choose to hit ‘continue’ rather than ‘quit’, which is a rather hefty punishment when the player has accumulated thousands but the ability to frequently save can make this seem rather redundant (unless the player is roaming around an area where they must save with ‘Waystones’, in which case the player may lose significant levelling progress if they choose to load a previous save).
As he grows as a wizard, Oliver will also use his Wizard’s Companion to solve problems. Whether he needs a bridge, a portal back to his hometown or to restore someone’s broken heart; Oliver will learn spells to fix any issues in the world of Ni no Kuni. This functions as a puzzle element on occasion, although Drippy will often give you a clear hint as to what’s required.
Side quests – errands and bounty hunts – are particularly satisfying in Ni no Kuni, as completing them rewards the player with merit stamps for their merit stamp cards. Once the player has collected a few filled merit stamp cards, they can exchange them for useful prizes such as the ability to run a little faster on the world map or extra restorative ‘glims’ appearing in battle. Not to mention than in completing each quest Oliver will be often also receive useful items and a hefty sum of Guilders, and the player can often incorporate their missions into a grinding session for some extra EXP (when battles are involved).
The involvement of anime powerhouse Studio Ghibli has brought magic and wonder to Ni no Kuni. Every scene feels like a page from a story of your childhood, be it swashbuckling pirates, the deserts of mysterious lands akin to the Arabian Nights or the deep enchanted woodland. And whilst you’re reminiscing, glimmers of previous Studio Ghibli works shine through like references only fans will understand – for example, Marcassin seeming similar to Howl of Howl’s Moving Castle, some familiars look like Ghibli characters (Toko looks like chibi Totoro) and some names are deliberately similar to Ghibli titles (such as the boss Porco Grosso, a reference to the film Porco Rosso). Studio Ghibli deeply touches our inner child, and draws out from us the same sense of curiosity, delight and wonder we felt back when we were youngsters. Ni no Kuni truly is like escaping into a huge extraordinary world, and the art direction is nothing short of stunning, with gorgeous sunsets, sweeping clouds and lush woodland replicating all the magic of a Studio Ghibli film. The traditionally animated cutscenes from Ghibli themselves are incredible pieces of work, and make the player feel as if they’ve stepped into one of the studio’s productions. There is the occasion texture pop in, but the design is just so beautiful that it’s almost entirely forgotten in seconds.
The Japanese voice acting is sterling work, with Drippy’s strong Osaka-ben accent being one of the most fun and interesting performances in the game. However, the English version is definitely hit and miss. Some of the child actors are particularly wooden, spoiling the more emotional scenes, although Drippy’s Western voice counterpart – with a broad Welsh accent – is just as entertaining as his Japanese version.
The music from long-time Studio Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi is simply divine, and is the best work he has created for years. He has revealed that his inspiration for the soundtrack to Ni no Kuni came from Irish folk music, and this element in the score reinforces the feel that Ni no Kuni is like exploring a folk tale, fairytale or fable. It works in perfect harmony with the story and tone of the environment. Its rousing orchestrated notes will have you prepared for battle, ready to explore a wide-open world or bring you close to tears during more heartfelt sequences. It’s one of the best soundtracks ever committed to a video game, and players will never forget its brilliant melodies.
Ni no Kuni is one of the best JRPGs available, and if you own a PS3 you owe it to yourself to play it. Its glorious presentation, immersive storytelling and enthralling gameplay make it an absolute joy and an addictive experience that will stay with players long afterwards. It’s an absolutely unforgettable achievement in gaming that will stay in the hearts of gamers for a very long time.