Following the success of its sequel Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, Wrath of the White Witch is making a return of Studio Ghibli’s and Level 5’s partnership for the Switch, PS4 and PC featuring remastered graphics and overall quality improvements. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was actually the second of the Ni no Kuni projects started in 2008. Following the originally released Japanese only version titled Ni no Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn for the Nintendo DS, Wrath of the White Witch was the only one to be released in the West late in 2013 and as much as PY has ranted about it, I’m only getting to it now.
A title I’ve been colloquially calling “Ghibli Pokemon”, Ni no Kuni is a story about a young boy named Oliver who explores a fantasy world of magic, monsters, and adventure. After Oliver witnesses his mothers death, he breaks a curse on a doll by crying on it, revealing itself to be Drippy, the “Lord High Lord” of the fairies. He decides that young Oliver is what the fairies refer to as the “pure-hearted one”, who will save the parallel world that Drippy is from from a great evil that is plaguing the kingdom, brought about by Shadar. Turns out Shadar is stealing pieces of peoples hearts, causing them to have negative personality shifts. Drippy mentions that everyone in the other world has a soulmate in Oliver’s world, and by saving the soulmate of his mother, it may be possible to bring his mother back to life in Motorville, the town that Oliver resides in. So off Oliver goes to a new world, to try and cleanse Shadar’s influence
While normally in my reviews I would end here for the general plot and move onto some of the gameplay mechanics, but there are a few thing I want to point out about Ni no Kuni that I both loved and hated at the same time. One of my biggest gripes with any sort of fictional or fantasy setting is how “good” everyone except the villains tend to be. Everyone is absolutely willing to help, and the hero is a constant pinnacle of righteousness and goodness. Here’s the thing though: Oliver didn’t want to save the other world until Drippy said he could bring his mother back, and only then did Oliver say he would help the other world.
The whole reason for Oliver going to the other world isn’t actually to save it, it’s to get his mother back: a fact he seems to consistently leave out when talking to anyone who wants to know what his goals are. More than once Oliver will say something to motivate someone to help him in his quest to defeat Shadar, only to be rebuked for his lack of forethought or knowledge about the character’s circumstances. Unfortunately, the game flops back and forth between telling Oliver off for thinking that common platitudes and stock emotional motivation speeches will work, and deciding to let his stock “everything works out with friendship and enthusiasm”. Another similar point to this is that upon going to the other world, my first thought was “what about Oliver’s clothes being odd in comparison to the other worlders?” promptly followed by the game calling Oliver out on his “weird clothes”.
In terms of gameplay, Ni no Kuni has a lot of traditional RPG elements. You have you overarching world map that you roam about, with monster icons that you walk into to start battles, cities are sprawling with those in need and bounty monster hunt requests to take. While Oliver is granted magic via his new wand and his “Wizard’s Compendium” that Drippy gives him, you also have familiars that will assist you in battle. This is the reason I refer to the game as Ghibli Pokemon, as the game is animated by Ghibli, but has a monster collection system similar to Pokemon, complete with evolution paths. Now that I’ve mentioned the monster collecting, let’s talk a bit about combat.
Combat in Ni no Kuni ranges between pathetically easy and infuriatingly difficult at times, sometimes even for the same fight, although most notably with bosses. In battle, you and your allies have up to three minions, or familiars, as well as themselves to fight as. You can swap between the currently fighting member of a character mostly at will, although only one will be on screen to perform actions per character at any given time. Each monster, or human, has their own set of action commands available. As an example, Oliver can cast spells, use items, attack, defend, or attempt to flee. The first familiar you get can attack, defend, and use skills, or tricks as they call them. As your creatures level they will learn new moves, and as you progress through the game Oliver will learn new spells.
Actual combat uses an interesting but often times frustrating combination of active and turn-based battle. It’s active in the sense that, as long as you aren’t locked into an attack animation, you have free reign to run around the battle field, and yes this causes enemies attacks to miss, provided they aren’t sure hit moves. These moves are chosen, and then have a cooldown timer, or in the case of normal attacking, have a time limit to how long it lasts. To add an extra layer of complication, the monsters have a limited stamina bar, prompting you to swap them in and out as their stamina depletes and refills. Additionally, health and magic is shared amongst all monsters in your individual character party. Not cumulative, but determined by the humans health and magic. Swapping out doesn’t heal anything, just sends out a different creature to take damage on the same health bar and use the same magic gauge.
This is an interesting concept that falls flat at some critical points, but was still a joy to play around more often than not. You learn fairly early on that most bosses will have a move that will hit your party unless you can flinch them out of it, and the general idea is to defend during that time frame. Flinching is not all that reliable, as it can only be used in some certain situations, or when the enemy is about to attack and needs to be timed properly. While guarding is generally the way to go, if you’re locked into an attack animation or your current minion on the field doesn’t have the defend option, you’re basically taking the equivalent to a haymaker to the face. Also, while allies are fairly competent, they are by no means even remotely “smart”. They basically only either go all out, or super conservative.
At least, I couldn’t really get them to do much else. Unfortunately this means they also don’t often guard the big attacks, or react fast enough to if the minion out can’t defend. So you get blasted, time to heal! Except bosses don’t care, because they can spam these big moves all they want. I had a few boss fight that I just restarted after about five minutes of continuously trying to heal partner from large move damage. Second attempt, sometimes I didn’t even see the wide area attack. Moving while selecting battle options does feel a little clunky, but thankfully you can use the shoulder buttons to select options, so it isn’t all that awful. My biggest complaint about the battle system is about the standard attack command. I would have much preferred if you stayed in “normal attack mode” until you cancelled or chose another move, as a lot of the time I found myself just mashing the “A” button” while roaming the world map so I could finish battles that happened to crop up.
Unfortunately this means you probably aren’t paying attention to the combat at this point, which means “catching” monsters becomes more difficult, as you basically just have a set chance of having a monster stand back up dazed after beating it, and one of your party members has the ability to tame the monsters. Useful for getting those creatures that you can one-shot, not so much for the sanity of those trying to “catch ‘em all”, as it were. To compound on this, although in a bit more of a split feeling sense, if you get too powerful monsters start running away from you. Great for avoiding unnecessary fight on the world or dungeon *cough cough* dangerous place maps, but really annoying if you need to farm items for a quest, or just really want a certain creature on your team.
At least you’ll be able to see a great view as you explore the other world, as you get Ghibli animation and drawings at it’s finest. What’s Ghibli animation you may ask? Well first: shame on you, and second: still shame on you. A well known worldwide Japanese animation studio is behind the art and animation of Ni no Kuni, and it certainly adds a flair and for me, a bit of childhood nostalgia. Granted most characters have eyes that look a little dead at times, but there’s a lot of facial changes, even in minor characters. As you progress through the game, you’ll help people by borrowing personality aspects from others who have an abundance of the trait you’re looking for, enthusiasm or kindness, let’s say, and you’ll give these traits to people who have been cursed and no longer have these traits. When you do, I noticed that the characters facial expressions actually change between before and after giving them the personality traits. Maybe a minor detail, but it’s these minor details that really make you appreciate what’s gone into making the game.
Speaking of works of art, the soundtrack is one heck of a piece of work. Something just gets me with symphonic music, and I’m pretty sure the entire Ni no Kuni soundtrack is performed by a symphony, which means I couldn’t get behind it more. Sure I love my chiptune boss themes and my electric guitar battle ballads, but sometimes you really just can’t go wroth with that orchestral sound you get out of tracks like this.
While not particularly horrendous offenders, there are some aspects that were a little aggravating in the game in addition to what I’ve mentioned. First and foremost is how slow it feels to physically walk on the world map. Even with a walking speed boost you can get from cashing in on side-quests, it still feels like a slog to get from point A to point B on foot, particularly of note if you have to travel to different places for side-quests and the enemies just won’t leave you alone. Back to the topic of monster raising and evolving them, going through with an evolution resets the monster level to 1. While this is all well and dandy for those who want the most of anything out of their creatures so they can get the bonus stat increases from the higher level “reset” on evolution, this also means that your minion is now “weak”, at least for a period of time, until you regain some of those levels. It would also be nice if the game gave you a bit more info on the type of creature you evolve into for the second evolution, as there is a split and you may not know offhand what role the new creature should play in your party.
My last nitpick is about the arse-hat fairy following you around. First off, he’s a right blooming dick half the time. No really, when talking to someone he almost always has either something snarky to say, or just calls them a daft sod, or something akin to that. Fun fact about the British dialect/slang he throws out, depending on region it’s used in, it could be seen as more or less offensive in a variety of cases. But I digress, while I do enjoy the nose-lantern fairy and his antics, what I can’t stand is in battle some of the time. Drippy can throw out these little orbs for you, which can also be obtained by flinching enemies, but will restore MP and health if you pick them up. The sodding little bugger can throw them outside the battle area though, and let me tell you, it isn’t that pleasant to be in the low health zone only to see Drippy fling a large health orb out of bounds. I swear he did it on purpose.
Overall, Ni no Kuni sits in a really weird zone with me. While I enjoyed seeing a lot of the lampshading of common tropes and how they were deconstructed, they also got played straight. Combat was an interesting take on an “active turn-based” system, but felt clunky a lot of the time, and was something I started to actively try and avoid when I could help it, or if the enemies around weren’t giving good resources. The story, while both typical yet fresh in presentation, had a lot of points I sat there ripping holes in the actions of the characters or events that were happening. The monsters are cute, but don’t present much of a sense of urgency or danger because of that, though the bosses are a little better in that regard. The soundtrack and artstyle are wonderful put together and really match the tone and feel of the game.
Editor’s Note: Having played and loved it on the PS3, I have just picked it up for the Switch since I wanted Richard to finally have the chance to experience this. Now? Now he needs to play the second! – PY