Often associated with the Professor Layton series in the US, Level-5 Studios has done far more work in Japan than Nintendo’s simple and addictive riddle-based RPG. With the Studio Ghibli collaborated Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, the company intends to establish itself as a major contender for gamers’ attention outside of Nintendo’s shadow. With Studio Ghibli’s pedigree comprised of many children’s anime titles like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, the assumption would be that Ni no Kuni’s target audience is made up of those who still have curfews and bedtimes. However, the reality is that many Studio Ghibli anime appeal to adults as well and Ni no Kuni is no different.
In Ni no Kuni, players follow Oliver, a boy from a small town called Motorville. Tragically, his mother passed away one night due to her weak heart and left Oliver all by himself. However, as Oliver cried away at home, his tears brought a stuffed animal to life, which claimed to be a fairy named Drippy from another world and asked Oliver to go to the other magical world where he could be of use and save the people there from a powerful witch. Understandably, Oliver was skeptical at first, but Drippy proposes the possibility of saving his mother by saving her doppelganger in the other world. With this, he starts on his quest to become a powerful wizard, traveling across vast lands and between worlds throughout the way. In addition to the normal story quests, the game has a variety of side quests available, which further flesh out the world and gives players hours of side quests to pad the already lengthy game.
The story is fit for children, indulging in some common themes like the importance of purity and creating a mostly straightforward world where everything is black and white, free of the political intrigue and conspiracies that teenager and adult oriented stories have. However, like any good children’s anime or movie, its appeal reaches far beyond and is able to capture the imagination of others. For gamers who want to blow through Ni no Kuni and experience the more shallow aspects of the story, they will be able to do so. However, the title is mindful of more hardcore gamers who want to experience the title in its entirety, including an entire wizard’s compendium that details the lore in a tone appropriate of wizards. The compendium can be flipped slowly for traditionally reading, or fledgling wizards can zoom into specific portions of pages until it magically goes into the corresponding portion in more detail.
Visually, the worlds that Ni no Kuni creates are wonderfully imaginative and the influence from Studio Ghibli can easily be seen. The assumption may be that the Studio Ghibli name was tagged on and its animation style used as a simple marketing ploy, but everything from the actual graphical style to the world’s designs and the game’s themes are reminiscent of the nature loving, quaint, and magical world designs in many Studio Ghibli anime. The atmosphere of this magical world is further enhanced by the game’s impressive draw distance on the world map, which dwarfs Oliver and pans out to a vast world full of nature and wonder. Satisfyingly for both casual fans and hardcore anime enthusiasts, the game includes both English and Japanese voiceovers.
Recalling the recent trend of JRPGs, Ni no Kuni starts battles off when players encounter enemies in levels and either sneaks up on them from behind or faces them head on. In battles, the game provides a vast array of possibilities, allowing players to duke it out as the titular characters or their respective familiars. With familiars and their owners all having different strengths and weaknesses, team building is actually quite important and every one of the three slots for familiars count.
Upon first impression, it may seem that the title’s familiar recruiting mechanic will mirror that of Pokemon, but that is hardly the case. There is no guaranteed way to ensure that monsters will join, but they will randomly feel compelled to join and players will have to serenade monsters before a time limit is up. The random nature of this is somewhat bothersome, especially considering that some of the game’s quests require certain familiars to be caught. However, once players have a full team of familiars, the game’s customization and creature building really begins to take off, with full sets of equipment and other foods that enhance monsters’ stats available throughout, it is a micromanager’s dream. After familiars level up enough, they can also metamorphosis into more powerful forms, though their levels and stats reset and players will once again have to grind it out to get them back to fighting strength, a process which becomes more tedious as the game progresses.
During actual battles, players have to be as active as possible to survive, even during grinding sessions. Positioning actually matters, meaning that players will have to move around in order to stay safe from enemy attacks and they will have to stay alert. Boss fights are even more of an adrenaline rush, featuring big attacks that will likely cripple a team unless defended against. It’s pretty easy to watch for and the rewards are fitting, but AI allies are a source of frustration due to their inability to defend against these attacks despite how telegraphed they are. Most boss battles are spent healing and upkeeping allies due to sheer AI stupidity.
Level-5 has managed to create a wonderful world for players, where the animation style and themes of Studio Ghibli are in full effect. However, the title breaks free from being a simple children’s game with its complex mechanics, in-depth lore, and difficult battles. Some of the game’s mechanics may be spotty, but JRPG fans looking for a deep game to tide them over till the next big Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest should look no further.
- Beautifully created world and lore
- Voice tracks in both English and Japanese
- Battles are never boring, though lots of grinding required
- Catching familiars is too random
- AI allies can be brain dead at times
Available on: PS3; Publisher: Namco Bandai; Developer: Level-5; Players: 1; Released: January 22, 2013; ESRB: Everyone; MSRP: $59.99; Official Site
Note: A promotional code was provided to Denkiphile for review purposes by the publisher.