Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch – The PS3 Attitude Review
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is born from a captivating idea. What if you could take one of the best animation studios the world has ever seen and combine it with a veteran video-game developer with a glowing resume to create a ‘perfect storm’ of gaming excellence?
As with many ‘fantasy line-ups’, the reality is that the creative forces can end up clashing, producing a result that is far less whole than the two halves it came from. Is this the case with Ni No Kuni, or has the creation of this ‘Second Country’ given us a gem worthy of our time and energy?
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch tells the story of Oliver, a thirteen-year-old boy who lives in a small town called Motorville. Oliver is a fairly typical boy. He loves gadgets and mechanics; he’s effectively an engineer in the making. He likes to hang out with his friend Philip and together they’ve been working on creating a car. It turns out that this car is the catalyst for a fundamental shift in Oliver’s life.
On their first test drive, the car crashes into the river and it is Oliver’s mother, Alicia, that saves him from drowning. Unfortunately, Alicia does not survive the rescue and Oliver is left without a mother. His tears cause his doll, a gift from his mother, to come alive and reveal itself as a fairy named Drippy, a character not unlike Dobbie from the Harry Potter tales only with 50% less mischief and 100% more Welsh accent. Tidy!
This is not the first parallel you’ll notice with the world of Harry Potter or the many stories those books have been said to draw on, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, but we won’t dwell on that in this review. All we’ll say for now is this. Dead parents. Check. Teenage boy unwittingly evolving into a wizard. Check. Small and mischievous companion with a funny accent. Double-check. You’ll find all the other references as you keep playing; trust us on that.
Drippy explains to Oliver that everyone in this world has a link with a character in his world, and that by saving his mother in the parallel universe he may be able to save her in this world too. After a short period of orientation whereby we learn how to get around and cast our first spell, Drippy leads us into his alternate universe for the first time.
We are sure many of our readers will know Studio Ghibli, but for the uninitiated we’ll do our best to paint a picture for you.
We first became aware of Studio Ghibli back in 1998 with the release of the English version of Kiki’s Delivery Service. The artwork, style of animation, story-telling, humour, pathos, characters and that ‘je ne sais quoi’ you can’t define combined perfectly to create a movie we’ll not forget.
In 2002, you couldn’t avoid the fact that Studio Ghibli had gone main-stream with their incredible animated movie, Spirited Away, taking every award available, including the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards. Since then, we’ve hunted down every Ghibli movie, never once disappointed.
The real surprise is that it has taken this long for Ghibli to team up with any developer to bring their gift to the world of videogames. And no, we’re not counting the PlayStation 2 title, Magic Pengel: The Quest for Color, since they really only provided some character graphics and not much more. That wasn’t a Studio Ghibli game in any real sense. With Level 5, it appears Ghibli could not have chosen a better partner to bring their world alive.
To illustrate the story, Ni No Kuni regularly flips between the 3D world Level 5 have created using their game engine and the 2D animation provided by Ghibli. The transition is seamless, never jarring in the slightest, and shows that these two powerhouse creative companies worked hard to ensure that the experience reflected both their expertise.
There are other collaborators that bring everything together too. The score is composed by Joe Hisaishi, who has produced many a soundtrack for Ghibli movies in the past, but it is the performance by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra that moves you from the outset. We hear a two-disc western release of the score will be released in March this year, and we’ll be first in line to get a copy. The music is that good. That powerful.
The other element that draws you into the story is the localised script. The game was originally released back in November 2011 to Japanese audiences. The localisation process has been a lengthy affair, and we’re glad they took so much time over it. It is the subtle things you notice first. Whether it be the various catchphrases and idioms of the overly-Welsh Drippy or the injection of word-play when visiting the differently-themed stores and shops, the words that appear on the screen constantly surprise and delight.
Along with a smattering of popular culture references (on meeting the Spice Seller for the first time, he announces that ‘People of the world, should spice up their lives’!) Ni No Kuni takes what can be a tedious element in many an RPG and turns it into an art form of its own.
But this game is not all about great graphics, awesome music and clever scripting. The gameplay is, frankly, sublime.
The pace at which Ni No Kuni introduces you to the many and various game mechanics is perfect too. Be aware though, this is not a game for very young video gamers, no matter how cute it looks. We don’t state this because the story contains content they shouldn’t be seeing or hearing; far from it. No, the issue is that once you get past the first six or seven hours of gameplay, there is so much going on that we fear you’ll need to be of a certain age to understand and process everything.
You also need to have endurance to play Ni No Kuni. Be prepared to sink a lot of hours into this game. However, at no point did we feel there was any grinding or padding involved; the evolution of Oliver’s character from a teary-eyed wimp to all-powerful mage is masterfully paced and never once feels like you’re being asked to just play the game for playing’s sake. Even the side-quests feel right and add to the story rather than feeling as though they are just tacked on for game longevity.
While many of the staples of JRPG are here – roaming across a vast map, battling creatures along the way, visiting towns and dungeons and awe-inspiring boss battles – the choices made by Level 5 help Ni No Kuni to stand head and shoulders alongside some of the best the genre has to offer.
The battle system, for example, is extremely fluid and while it begins simply with Oliver facing his foes with the help of little characters called ‘familiars’, it soon becomes a complex tactical battle with several main characters and familiars fighting in real time against progressively deadlier opponents. Unlike many turn-based systems, Ni No Kuni’s battle system is in constant flow, making even the simplest battles enjoyable and exciting.
It isn’t all about what you do on the field of battle either. There are an amazing array of collectables, spells, badges, jewellery and even treats for you, your friends and your familiars to use that all combine to level-up characters and companions which in turn create a highly flexible game system. You can swap familiars with other characters to find out if they work better under your command, a concept that becomes important to grasp as you progress through the quest.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is not just a superb game, faultlessly combining the best of Level 5’s back catalogue with the beautiful art, story-telling and captivating characters Studio Ghibli have created. It is a real example of how to take the best that two creative companies can offer and cherry-pick the elements that really work well with each other.
While for many the Ghibli name itself will be enough to slam their Pounds, Dollars or Euros into the hands of their favourite game retailer, we’re going to urge those who think this might be a children’s game to go get a copy. What you’re buying is one of the best, most wonderfully constructed and well-paced RPGs we have ever seen, and we know you won’t be disappointed.
It isn’t often we come across a game that we consider absolutely flawless. Ni No Kuni is that game.