Though Studio Ghibli’s involvement only went so far as composing the music and a few animated cutscenes, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch feels like a classic Ghibli film. The enchanting world and charming characters, its heartwarming tale of loss and acceptance; it feels like a product of the studio’s talent. But Level 5 – known more recently for their work on the Professor Layton series – handled did all the work, the developer capturing the Ghibli essence exquisitely. Through an embarrassment of content, a fun, lively battle system and Pokemon-esque monster collection element, and a fantastic story, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch delivers a traditional Japanese-style role-playing game at its finest.
Ni no Kuni follows Oliver, a young boy who travels to another world in search of a way to revive his fallen mother, who passed away following an unfortunate accident from which she rescued Oliver from. Overcome with grief, he locks himself away from the world, spending his days forever lamenting his loss. Meanwhile, in another world, a mysterious, shadowy witch watches Oliver from afar, plotting his demise, for he’s destined to defeat her.
Whilst Oliver begins another one of his sobbing fits, a lantern-nosed fairy named Drippy (who is just the best) appears before him. He offers Oliver a trip to his world, where the boy is to become a wizard and take on an evil warlock by the name of Shadar. He roams the world breaking the populaces hearts (stealing their essence, in other words), placing the land in a state of near-constant disarray. If Oliver accepts this quest, he could potentially save his mother, which is just the motivation he needed.
The story is lengthy and enjoyable. Charming characters and clever, word-play- and pun-heavy writing entertain, quality voice acting a delight – albeit an unfortunately rare one. Most of the story is told through pure text and canned animations. Front-loaded voice work and cutscenes leaves the rest of the game very quiet boring on the story progression front, seldom invoking voice save for the odd animated scene. Shame, too, as the acting is excellent, characters like Drippy especially just not the same without that brilliant voice work.
A gorgeous, well-realized world serving as a fantastic backdrop. Kingdoms ruled by felines and bovines alike, set around lush forests and acrid deserts, detail the eccentric, endearing nature of the world. Ni no Kuni adapts the Ghibli aesthetic perfectly, only enhancing the appeal of this fairy tale inspired locale.
The world is open to you almost from the very beginning. From the second you touch down, you’re dropped to the overworld to move about as you please. Though it isn’t populated with many activities at first (unless you consider fighting monsters exclusively a good time), side-quests appear early on, letting you take on bounties and errands as soon as you reach the first town. Bounties allow you to tackle tough monsters for cash, weaponry, and consumables, while errands deal – for the most part – in fetch quests and repairing broken hearts. Both grant handsome rewards for completion, neither ever requiring you to go far out of your way to finish.
Each one you complete awards stamps. Get enough and you’ll fill out a stamp card that can be traded in at the nearest Swift Solutions – the hub for errands and bounties – for special abilities. For instance: increasing the amount of experience earned from battle, lowering magic point cost for spells and skills, or improving the chances of earing rare items. They’re exceptionally useful and incentivize completion of the side-content marvelously. Both because it streamlines the grind of leveling up and gathering crafting materials.
As a wizard, Oliver has a wide range of tools at his disposal. Spells for rudimentary puzzle solving, a cauldron for crafting items, weapons, armor, and accessories, and a massive guidebook, “The Wizard’s Companion,” detailing everything you’d ever want to know about everything regarding the world and its history. Sloppy design, however, makes navigating the book a pain.
All the chapters are lain before you in the opening menu for The Wizard’s Companion. Selecting one takes you to an overview of that chapter’s pages, which you can zoom in on for readability. Its pages are filled with lore that fleshes out the world splendidly, making the process of recovering lost sheets far more enjoyable. But because jumping between pages is difficult due to not being numbered anywhere but the corners of the pages themselves.
Say you need to find a specific alchemy recipe on page 72. You’d have to enter the alchemy chapter and thumb through each page, paying close attention to their number, until you find the right one, because the developers neglected to place the numbers in a more visible spot. It’s like they were still working under the assumption that every player would have a hard copy of the book in hand to save them the trouble in the first place. There’s only once instance in which you have to look through the book for story reasons, thankfully, but a good number of side-quests thrive upon it, making matters far more vexing than they need be.
Your party does battle not by involving themselves, but by sending out familiars to fight for them. Familiars are like Pokemon: You capture them through combat and them train them into proper warriors. Each familiar starts at level one (or thereabout) upon collection. You then level them up to a certain point where they can undergo metamorphosis, where they evolve into a stronger form, at which point you level them up again to go through metamorphosis once more, and so on. Up to 12 can be carried at a time, three being assigned to each party member. Amassing a strong, varied is ideally what you want, due to various factors as their astral sign, various strengths and weakness, and what have you.
Astral signs are the game’s rock-paper-scissors system. Four in all (sun, moon, star, and planet; sun beats moon, moon beats star, star beats planet, and planet beats sun), when used correctly, your familiars receive a significant boost in damage and defense against a foe of an opposing sign. Bosses are exempt from this, of course. But as you move deeper into the game, they become steadily more important since you’ll need every advantage you can get.
Ni no Kuni’s challenge is uneven. For greater part of its tale, difficulty remains low, enemies and bosses alike fall with ease. Occasionally, however, it jumps unexpectedly before returning to its usual leisurely self, prompting a leveling session or two. That’s mostly avoided if you don’t spend too much time experimenting with different familiars, though. The first few you receive will carry you through to the end if strengthened enough. Which is ultimately a problem, since it discourages seeking out new monsters. All you really need a full team for is to cover a few bases in the event you need a skill or elemental defense you’re main creature lacks.
Ni no Kuni is a beautiful game. Its clean, crisp visuals lend a breathtaking quality to the world. From quiet, lush forests and blazing dunes to spooky hillside graveyards populated by ghosts and walking skeletons, the scenery keeps up a constant sense of wonderment. A sweeping, elegant soundtrack assists, the orchestra lending that extra touch of energy to exploration and battle. It keeps up a jovial attitude, the more dramatic pieces carrying undertones of bounce and excitement even in sinister locales and during melancholic events.
After the credits have rolled, the game coming to a close, a whole new batch of content unlocks. The already fleshed-out world unravels even more secrets – additional lore and background on key characters, mostly – ensuring continued play. Shame that it’s all locked away, but any reason to keep spending time with Ni no Kuni is definitely worthwhile.