Like the best Final Fantasies, Dragon Quest IX and nearly every Legend of Zelda, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a magical experience. The fruit of a team-up between Level 5, the makers of Dragon Quest VIII and IX, Dark Chronicle and Rogue Galaxy, and Studio Ghibli, the creators of Howl’s Moving Castle, Arriety and Spirited Away, it’s a superb Japanese RPG with stunning cartoon graphics. Even if you’re sick to death of Final Fantasy XIII and bored to tears with smartass teens fighting monsters with the aid of over-sized swords, Ni No Kuni is worthy of your time and money. This isn’t your ordinary Japanese RPG by any means.
A Different RPG
For a start, there are no smartass teens, angsty melodrama or over-sized swords to be seen. Instead we get the story of an ordinary small town boy, Oliver, tragically bereaved, and handed a chance to bring back his dead mother if only he can save a fantasy world from darkness first. There are parallels with other games and other stories, not least Michael Ende’s The NeverEnding Story and Stephen King’s The Talisman, but this is very much Studio Ghibli’s vision. The two worlds parallel each other, so that characters in one have analogous characters in the other, and the fantasy world isn’t one of dragons, orcs and goblins, but one of whimsical creatures, feline monarchs, snarky sages and creepy, inhuman evil forces. Level 5 has taken this approach before in its previous RPGs, but the alliance with Studio Ghibli has opened up a new vein of bizarre imagination.
Meanwhile, Ni No Kuni isn’t afraid to mess around with the established ways of doing things. Fighting, for example, is a peculiar blend of turn-based-combat, real-time combat and Pokémon, where you issue orders to your character but watch as they’re carried out in real time, while moving your hero with the left analogue stick so that they can scoop up health and magic points as they fall onto the battlefield as your enemies are wounded or felled. Your hero doesn’t even need to fight the battle personally, and can instead deploy familiars: miniature monsters either summoned from your heart or converted to your cause after defeat.
For what looks like a kid’s game, Ni No Kuni isn’t lacking in depth, and familiars play a huge part in that. While your character levels up in the usual way, increasing in strength and resilience, your familiars level up too. In fact, they don’t even have to fight to level up as long as they are active in your current party. As well as equipping them with weapons, magic charms and armour, you can watch them level and help them metamorphose into new and stronger forms. You can treat them with snacks to boost their abilities, and pair them with different heroes to work out which combination works the best. Add in the ability to collect and store new familiars as you make progress and the ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ vibe couldn’t be stronger.
While that’s going on your hero is accruing new spells and magical powers, some of which find use in combat, some of which find use in moving obstacles or solving simple puzzles. A recurring theme is that many of the people of the fantasy world have had their hearts broken by the evil forces attacking the land, and Ni No Kuni has you fixing this by collecting positive emotions like enthusiasm or courage from one inhabitant and donating them to another.
And though the main thrust of the story has you wandering the land, recruiting friends, battling evil and learning new powers, there’s also a neat sideline in just helping out the locals, with jobs handed out by billboards and service bureaus, and tasks that run from finding missing kids and jewellery to putting a spring back in the step of the poor broken-hearted. You’ll also find yourself travelling between Oliver’s world and the fantasy one, fixing the angry, despairing and distraught in one to fix their broken-hearted twins in the other. Like a great children’s story, Ni No Kuni celebrates brave and good behaviour without forcing any morals down your throat. It’s a feel-good game in nearly every way.
This is a fantastic game, jammed with unusual characters and intriguing situations, and featuring a great story told with warmth and humour. The English translation is a work of near-genius, transforming a strange fairy champion into a boisterous Welsh sprite and naming beasts and major characters with a dry British wit. The locations show Ghibli’s typical unorthodox imagination, and the cartoon graphics look gorgeous in HD.
All the same, we have a few bones to pick with Ni No Kuni. It earns points by not having wandering monsters, as you can see all the beasties wandering around, then loses them by giving most monsters a hair-trigger alert then having them pursue you remorselessly. Every trip across the beautiful-looking but slightly featureless world map becomes a grind of easily-won battles. And though there are some dungeons packed with puzzles or opportunities for spells, the majority are simple crawls towards a boss battle, battling beasties all the way and heading off occasionally to find a treasure chest. It’s a shame that a game distinguished by such great visual design is sometimes let down by some lacklustre level design.
Still, it’s a shame but not a disaster. The best bits of Ni No Kuni are so good that they tug you through the more mundane sections, and the lure of new areas, new familiars and new powers keeps you coming back for more. Most of all, this is the kind of story where you just have to know how it all pans out. Every now and then you might struggle with a boss battle or find yourself tiring of the current challenge, but there’s never a time when you want to stop. Oliver’s tale, with all its depth and exuberant imagination, is all you need to pull you through.
We’ve had some disappointing Japanese RPGs in the last few years, from big budget duds like Final Fantasy XIII to a list of underwhelming niche titles. Ni No Kuni is an exception. Its story avoids the usual clichés, the Studio Ghibli art is irresistible, the soundtrack is fantastic and the gameplay is often smart and inventive. There are periods where the drag and grind of the genre creeps in, but these aren’t as long or as severe as in other games.
Not everyone will like the cartoon style, the quirky creature design or the nature of the action, but like Studio Ghibli’s best films this game can resonate with a wide audience. Younger gamers will love the story and the can-do attitude, while older ones will appreciate the depth of gameplay and the sense of exploration. It might not be perfect, but this is a brilliant Japanese RPG.