Tackling a game like Ni no Kuni for review can be a very daunting task. Having to grind out so much content on a deadline is a little more than intimidating, especially for someone who doesn’t review a lot of games in this genre. Of course, one of the best things about reviewing games is when something like Ni no Kuni comes across your desk, and you discover an absolute gem you might otherwise have ignored. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is probably the one of the best JRPGs I have played this generation. Level-5 has done an amazing job of crafting a compelling world, while at the same time fusing it with a charming narrative that feels top-tier from beginning to end.
It is hard to describe what makes Ni no Kuni so magical without talking about the story. You play as Oliver, a good-natured boy from the town of Motorville who simply seems to enjoy just being a kid. I admit that when the opening cut scene proclaimed he would be ‘the one’ to save the world, I rolled my eyes at the tired plot device. But after getting to know the characters and world, things instantly became more interesting. Right off the bat, the game delivers compelling reasons for Oliver to embark on his quest, and even things that sound ridiculous on paper come to life within the world.
A lot of what makes the story of Ni no Kuni work is its presentation. Studio Ghibli is behind the visual style, and it shows. The anime cut scenes are absolutely stunning, and Level-5 has used the aesthetic to create a believable world that is full of magic. My best comparison is that of a Disney movie. Every single environment reeks of style, and the colors dance off the screen. I continued to marvel at the visual design even after 30+ hours of game time. It looks that good. In addition, the voice work is absolutely stellar. Oliver portrays the pure-hearted soul perfectly, while characters like your lantern nose-ring-wearing fairy companion, Mr. Drippy, are absolutely enthralling. Level-5 and Namco Bandai have done an outstanding job at choosing voice actors for this game. Aficionados that usually switch language tracks owe it to themselves to keep it in English for this one.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the characters, and that is just one piece of this amazing package. Ni no Kuni is so chock full of mechanics and systems that listing them in bullet points would likely scare away the average gamer. Thankfully, Level-5 has done a masterful job of introducing new systems and increasing complexity at a smart pace. Each new feature gets an extensive tutorial, and each mechanic makes sense within the game world. It is often hard to balance between cramming content, and progressing the narrative, but Level-5 has nailed it with Wrath of the White Witch.
On the surface, the combat system seems fairly standard. Enemies can be seen on the overworld map, and running into them delivers the transition into battle. From here, you gain control of Oliver and can move around the battlefield at will. You have a radial menu for attacks, spells and provisions, and you will also see health and magic pickups spill during combat. Things change up once you encounter the first addition to the combat system: familiars.
This is where the game takes on a Pokemon-esque style of monster capturing and raising. Familiars are creatures you can use in battle, and they each have their own stats, advantages and even elemental features. As they level up, they gain new slots for special attacks (known as “tricks”), and you can even feed them treats to increase their familiarity with you, as well as their stats. Continuing with the monster-raising theme, you can also morph them using their elemental gem once they reach a specific level. This increases their abilities and strengths, but the downside is their level starts over from the beginning. Once you gain more party members, they will also have their own familiars, and the game eventually introduces the ability to capture enemies during battle, but this happens later on, after you’re given enough time to be comfortable with everything that has already been shared with you.
One of the first items you will obtain on your journey is the Wizard’s Companion. This book contains spells, alchemy recipes and so much more to aid you on your journey. You can even read it in its entirety from the menu, which is daunting to say the least. There is an enormous amount of information to be found in here, including the alternate alphabet. Level-5 has done an amazing job at crafting the universe, and you can get lost in it if you care to. The Companion will teach you all you need to know about magic, but some of the spell pages are missing at the outset. These will slowly be added over time, as new characters usually thank you by teaching you a new bit of magic for solving their problems. There is even a puzzle that requires you to thumb through the book looking for a password.
Much like any other JRPG, you will traverse from area to area using the world map, and eventually other forms of travel. Areas mostly consist of towns where you can obtain side quests (known as errands) and dungeons where you will accomplish tasks and progress the story. Errands are definitely a unique take on the side quest mentality. Instead of offering up traditional XP, you now have a Merit Card, which earns stamps for completing errands. Fill it up with ten stamps, and you can trade it in for special rewards including more experience in battle and faster movement in the overworld. It is an interesting dynamic that actually made me want to focus on these tasks. Some of them are downright simplistic, while others fall down the rabbit hole of being overly ridiculous and tedious. Thankfully, none of them ever feel intrusive, and collecting the stamps for the Merit Card is one amazingly addictive meta game.
One of the most prominent mechanics in the game involves Oliver’s locket. Early on, he obtains this item and learns that, by using his magic abilities, he can give and take emotions from people in order to help those in need. The main antagonist, Shadar, has cast the world in shadow by stealing pieces of people’s hearts. This causes them to lumber around almost like zombies at times, as they lack things like courage and enthusiasm to do anything. When you near someone who has an excess of one of these emotions, your locket glows green. Oliver can then perform a spell from his Wizard’s Companion, and store that emotion in his locket. This becomes a regular mechanic and theme throughout the game.
It seems that Ni no Kuni is rarely at a loss for new mechanics, and describing them all would require a review as long as the Wizard’s Companion. There is so much to see and do, and I think experiencing a lot of it for yourself is a necessity. That said, no game is without its faults. One of the biggest problems I found is that grinding is necessary. Sure, most JRPGs have you going back and forth leveling characters for battles, but Ni no Kuni takes it to new levels. What makes it more frustrating is that until you upgrade your speed, enemies will run if they are no match for your skill. Another huge drawback for me is the difficulty spike for boss battles. Often you will find yourself plowing through a dungeon only to reach the boss, and have them wipe your party in a heartbeat. It is easy to lose in these battles and continuing costs 10% of your money. I advise that you save often and simply reload.
I cannot stress how much enjoyment Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has delivered. From the compelling narrative to the incredible visual design to the incredibly deep, and well-paced mechanics, this is a game with which every JRPG fan will likely fall in love. Even if you are a casual fan of the genre, this would be one I would recommend checking out if you have a PS3. It truly is the best JRPG I have played this gen, and should be remembered as one of the greats for years to come. If 2013 continues down this path, we are in for a wonderful swan song for the current generation of consoles.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.