Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has all the makings of a cult classic. It’s a gorgeous and fun role-playing game that will appeal the most to long-term fans of the genre, despite its refreshing take on the JRPG structure. It also marries two significant parts of Japanese pop culture by virtue of the collaboration between developer Level-5 and acclaimed animation company Studio Ghibli; it almost seamlessly blends characteristics of anime and video games not only in visual appearance, but in its storytelling too. As a result, it stands apart from other games in the genre, even before you begin to look closer at its enjoyable, vast gameplay.
Although the plot regularly tackles some challenging themes in emotionally tense scenes, Ni no Kuni is presented in an overall child-friendly, yet completely engrossing, manner. Its age certificate of 12 is inexplicable – the simple dialogue and soft difficulty curve suggests this is designed to allow those aged 10-years old, like our protagonist Oliver, to enjoy the game. The age certificate seems to be an unfortunate misjudgement based on the game’s unexpectedly rough opening, in which Oliver’s mother suffers a heart attack and dies. This leads to a grieving Oliver sobbing while clutching a doll given to him by his mother – which then comes to life and introduces himself as Drippy, Lord of the Fairies with a lantern for a nose-ring. Drippy invites Oliver to another world, telling him he may be able to bring his mother back to life by saving her counterpart in the alternative universe (called her “soul mate”).
Thus begins the game proper, abandoning Oliver’s suburb of Motorville, clearly inspired by post-war America, in favour of a high fantasy land threatened by a dark force identified only as Shadar. Equipped with a wand and an incomplete spell-book called the Wizard’s Compendium, Oliver sets out to save not only his mother but this whole world’s people, many of whom are cursed by broken-heartedness. The game’s art direction remains somewhat true to the appearance of traditional anime: the environments are detailed like the paintings usually used as backdrops for conventional animation, while characters and other animated elements have basic shading and outlines. There’s huge variety in the different cities and cultures you explore in the game, contributing to a realistically diverse world. Jarring, though, are the different sorts of cutscenes: although some are rendered in real-time, others are wonderfully done animations from the experts at Studio Ghibli. While the latter are enjoyable, they come unexpectedly, making the game’s production value feel somewhat inconsistent.
So too is the conspicuous absence of voice acting during certain pieces of dialogue, leaving players with Zelda-like dialogue boxes more than occasionally. Where there is voice acting, you’re given the appreciable option to switch between the English and Japanese voice-overs, but this is also a bit awkward; Drippy, for instance, is given a strong Welsh accent in the English localisation which is transliterated in the English subtitles, but feels out of place when read alongside the Japanese voice work. Some other text feels less than expertly localised, too; enemies encountered in battle often have puns in their name, but while a ram-like foe named “Baatender” earns a smile, the majority are uninspiring, like a flying enemy named “Minor Byrde”. Some of the puns in dialogue aren’t as smooth as they could be, either; while addressing an anthropomorphic cat and monarch as “Your Meowjesty” is somewhat amusing the first time, it quickly gets old. Albeit minor, these are disappointments in what is otherwise a really well polished production.
Thankfully, though, the battle system makes up for the uninspiring monsters: while players are still thrown into an isolated arena upon coming into contact with an enemy, like in most role-playing games, Ni no Kuni cleverly blends the real-time and turn-based schools of battle into a new hybrid system. As the battle begins, you can choose which member of your party you wish to send out first – either a human like Oliver, or an animal companion called a “familiar” – and then freely control them on the field of battle while using context menus to perform actions. This means it’s up to the player to run around the field, dodging attacks and using provisions or casting spells from a safer spot when there’s a lull in the assault. It’s much more exciting than the more typical turn-based battles of games like Pokémon. At any time during the battle, players can switch out their active character or familiar for another, which is vital considering that familiars have limited stamina and can only be deployed for short periods of time. Each human character wields a single familiar; while the players controls one human, the others will be controlled by AI, influenced by the player through the “tactics” menu. Some boss battles demand much strategic thought, preventing players from simply mashing buttons to victory.
Familiars themselves add a fun dynamic to the game as they’re very purpose-driven companions; they have no significance to the story, but are vital to battle, and so add new facets to the gameplay. Just like your human party members, you can change your familiars’ equipment, but you can also feed them snacks through the “Creature Cage” to increase their familiarity as well as their stats. In battle, there’s only one set of vital statistics for each human character; all familiars share the HP and MP values of their controller, meaning the death of one translates to the death of them all. Despite this, each familiar has an independent set of stats like attack, defence, and evasion, meaning it’s important to raise each of your familiars with a degree of attentiveness – because in a fight, none of them are disposable. Recovering your vital statistics in battle largely amounts to chasing balls called “glims”, which are dropped infrequently throughout fights and restore HP and MP.
Outside of battle, there are some other distinct mechanics, especially related to the “broken-heartedness” mentioned earlier. Broken-hearted characters are those who have had a piece of heart stolen from them; these pieces of heart take the form of characteristics like “courage”, “enthusiasm”, and “kindness”. Players can heal these characters by tracking down somebody else with an over-abundance of that characteristic and taking some of it into Oliver’s locket. Then, you can restore the piece of heart from Oliver’s locket to the broken-hearted character to bring them back to normal. Although you often have to undergo complicated measures to heal important broken-hearted characters, you can normally help out a number of random bystanders with relative ease; curing broken-heartedness is the most common of the available side-quests, called “errands”, for which you are rewarded with merit stamps. Merit stamps, which can also be earned through bounty hunts, fill up merit stamps cards, which can then be exchanged for items and game-changing perks at a special store.
Errands and the Creature Cage, while obviously not making up the meat of the game, highlight the vastness of Ni no Kuni: it has more depth than one would guess from a quick glance. Beneath its child-friendly exterior is a huge game – one could probably spend tens of hours on errands and exploration alone. The gameplay becomes more complex at a fairly steady rate, which as well as making the game easier to understand for younger players also serves to keep it from feeling overly formulaic. Unlike many other large-scale RPGs, the game also manages to maintain a polished feel: while Skyrim is bug-ridden and regularly patched, Ni no Kuni suffers only from occasional graphical glitches. Doubtlessly, the QA team shared the attention to detail paid by the developers in crafted such an engaging universe, expanded by the maps, lore pages, and stories unlocked in the Wizard’s Compendium by proceeding through the game. My greatest contention with Ni no Kuni is that this excellent adventure, which will no doubt be loved by RPG fans, is limited to PS3 owners. If I had the power, I’d let everyone play this game.