There is certainly a lot of talent involved in the creation of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, with prestigious JRPG developer, Level 5 (Dragon Quest IX, White Knight Chronicles), working alongside the award-winning anime creator, Studio Ghibli (Howl's Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro). Add the internationally acclaimed composer and regular Ghibli collaborator, Joe Hisaishi, into the mix and you have the icing on an already delicious cake.
Ni no Kuni is the story of Oliver, a young boy from the fictitious town of Motorville who, as any fan of the JRPG genre will be unsurprised to find out, is destined to save the world. However, the manner in which Oliver finds himself in this situation is a little more emotional than often seen in a typical JRPG opening.
At the beginning of his adventure, our young hero loses his mother, Alicia, who falls ill while rescuing him from a childhood adventure gone wrong. Afterwards, the young boy's grief awakens a certain Mr Drippy, a creature from another world who was cursed and imprisoned inside one of Oliver's toys. When the tears of the young boy break the spell, his adventure begins in earnest.
As can be expected from the talent behind Studio Ghibli, the story is a well written and emotional piece in which the player will become quickly invested. It's also extremely fun and intelligent, with a brilliant sense of humour that will keep you laughing all the way through; although the silliness never detracts from the deep themes of loss, hope and redemption.
While you will meet many interesting and unusual individuals during the course of your adventure, the character of Mr Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies (no typo there, 'Lord High Lord'), is the undoubted highlight of the show. Drippy is consistently hilarious throughout the adventure with his enthusiastic attitude, amusing quips and strangely appropriate broad Welsh accent. Even his non-spoken, text-based dialogue is written with the twang of an accent. He also says "tidy" a lot.
Upon his awakening Drippy reveals Oliver's destiny as the potential savour of his world, Ni no Kuni, which exists in another dimension from mundane reality. He also reveals that people in the mundane world have another version of themselves in the parallel realm and that an alternative version of Oliver's mother exists in the this other dimension. As these 'soul mates' are inextricably linked between the worlds, Oliver agrees to take the quest in the hope that by rescuing his mother's other half, the sage Alicia, this may bring his mother back in his own world.
Of course, Ni no Kuni is a dangerous place and a young boy would have little chance of defeating the evil that besets the land without a little assistance. With that in mind, Drippy gifts Oliver with a copy of a 340+ page book called The Wizard's Companion and uses it to teach him a few magic spells. Our fledgling wizard is now ready to take on whatever gets in his way on his quest.
As good as the plot is - and it is good - it is not the story, but the art direction that really steals the show in Ni no Kuni. Level-5s cel-shaded graphics blend seamlessly with the hand-drawn animated cinematics created by the Studio Ghibli team. It really crosses the line between videogame and anime movie, blending the two mediums together into a creation that transcends the sum of its parts to become something unique.
From icy tundras to dusty deserts, from swamps to lush forests; the environments throughout the game are deep and detailed. Extremely bright and vivid colours bring the world to life and even though many of the environments offer only limited exploration, the background scenery has an impressive visual sense of depth. Despite being so colourful, the level of detail in the games environments, particularly in the foliage, does create the sense of a realistic, living world; albeit one a more alive than we are used to.
The characters themselves are even more vibrant than the world they inhabit, with large blocks of colour and clean black lines. This really makes them stand out against the backdrops to enjoy their rightful places on centre stage where the action is. Between the vibrant backgrounds and the even-more vibrant characters in the foreground there is enough colour and candy to make your eyes bleed... in a good way.
All of this is accompanied by an impressive and varied musical score that accompanies the on-screen action perfectly; from ambient background music to epic orchestral pieces, the music of Ni no Kuni is as an integral a part of the artistic creation as the visual eye-candy. Combined with an outstanding cast of voice actors delivering entertaining (and well-translated) dialogue, the sound direction of the game is beyond excellent.
You may have noticed I mentioned a rough page count when referring to Oliver's copy of The Wizard's Companion earlier. Well, I know the rough word count because every single one of those pages is lovingly recreated in a digital copy of the book accessible from the pause menu. Inside the book you'll find details of spells, items, weapons, creatures, areas and more; but you'll have to work for this information, as various pages are obscured initially and must be uncovered during the course of play. The fact that this has been included serves to give an impression of the sheer attention to detail that has gone into this huge world.
Fans of the traditional turn-based structure of JRPG battle systems will likely be thrown at first by the games semi-real time action. During battle the player will control either Oliver or one of their 'familiars', small fighting creatures that can be collected, levelled up and evolved (à la Pokémon). Oliver will also meet some companions along the way, who will join the battles along with familiars of their own.
During combat, a character or their controlled familiar can be moved freely around the battlefield, which is useful to aim your attacks at an enemy's weak spot or to pick up the various health or mana orbs that are dropped during the course of the fight. The player can also select between various abilities, the standard being 'attack' and 'defend', as well as a choice of magic spells, items to use or a familiar's special move.
Although the combat is sort-of real time, each selected action works on a timer; so it takes a few seconds to initialise an attack and a defensive stance is held for a certain time. Any action can be aborted before it is completed, but quitting an action early triggers a 'cool down' time which must be waited out before the ability can be used again.
Oliver can equip up to three familiars at once and switching between them is necessary to avoid exhausting them. His companions also have up to three familiars apiece, so a total of nine can be selected for any single battle. It's a system outside of the comfort zone of much of its target audience, but fortunately it is gradually introduced, supported by tutorials and kept to a reasonable learning curve.
Another departure from the traditional JRPG staple is the levelling system. While a leveling system is evident in the game, character leveling it is an automatic affair with no player control in terms of stat increases. It's largely the same when it comes to familiars, although this aspect at least has some player input in the food items that can be fed to your pets to increase certain stats. Of course, choice largely comes down to which of the (many) available familiars a player chooses to rely on, train and evolve.
The game progresses in a largely linear fashion as you move through the story, but players will find a number of side missions available as distractions or can just have fun wandering around on the games large and attractive game map searching for items and battling monsters. There is a lot of game in this package, with the main quest likely to take around 30 hours to complete and even more if you get distracted along the way.
Ni no Kuni is a fantastic achievement and demonstrative of what a collaboration between two distinctly different Japanese media giants can achieve. It dances the fine line between game and art well, although arguably it's artistic credentials slightly outweigh the calibre of its gameplay. Nevertheless, Ni no Kuni should be experienced by all fans of the JRPG genre and anyone who has ever enjoyed a Studio Ghibli movie is bound to find some enjoyment from the well written story and excellent art direction to be found in the title.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Reviewed on PlayStation 3)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Ni no Kuni is a fantastic achievement and demonstrative of what a collaboration between two distinctly different Japanese media giants can achieve.