Every once in a while a video-game comes along that attempts to bring together different types of media. Such is the case with Ni No Kuni: Wrath of The White Witch – a joint effort between Level 5 and Studio Ghibli. Many say video-games are not art but will this anime inspired effort change their minds?
The protagonist of this peculiar tale is a thirteen year old boy named Oliver. He finds himself in another world after a series of peculiar events. Turns out that he is a wizard and is possibly the saviour of this magical land. This world may seem peaceful but there are plenty of monsters lurking about.
Fortunately the combat mechanics make it easy to fight all of these monsters. It’s possible to walk around freely when in battle. Oliver and his companions have many combat abilities at their disposal. Each is presented at a different time and so it’s easier to eventually make use of them all correctly.
One of the main tools when it comes to fighting off enemies is magic. Oliver is obviously new to his wizard duties, but he is certainly a quick learner. He is soon filling up his wizard’s companion book with all kinds of spells. What is so fascinating about this is the fact that the use of spells isn’t reserved to combat. Spells have many other uses. In fact, players are encouraged to try and find out which spell will come in handy during certain situations. Casting a spell will use up magic points, so it’s wise to think carefully before casting spells recklessly. Specially since each type of monster is weaker to certain spells.
Spells are particularly useful when it comes to fighting off some of the bosses Oliver is pitted against. These menacing foes will literally take a good ten minutes or more to defeat. Casting spells is obviously a handy way to deal damage whilst minimising the risk of being hit by physical attacks. But magic points will eventually run out and that is where the superb defend system kicks in.
Using items to replenish magic and health points is a good strategy. But in Ni No Kuni, defending from enemy attacks at the right moment is also important.Visual prompts will warn players when a monster is about to strike. Defending just before an enemy is about to attack results in only taking a small amount of damage.
This also results in green and blue orbs appearing, which characters can pick up to recover a small amount of health or magic. There are other ways to achieve this by attacking the enemy at just the right moment and knocking it back. It’s certainly refreshing to see a defence system where the player is rewarded for using it properly. Anyone can press the defence button, but it takes some skill to do it with right timing.
Oliver and his companions can also resort to physical attacks, but it’s best to leave this to the familiars. Familiars are little creatures that characters either earn in battle or via story progression. These creatures are reminiscent of the mighty Pokemon, since they can level up(as do characters) and it’s even possible to make them evolve.
However, each is directly controlled by the player when put in battle. It’s fantastic to see how well these creatures do when it comes to battle. Each has different attributes that make them better for certain situations, such as physical combat or healing. It’s even possible to give them custom names.
Familiars are definitely an integral part of the combat experience, since they can learn new moves quickly and it’s possible to give them new equipment. It’s literally like having up to three extra companions per character that will faithfully follow them everywhere. The only catch is that familiars will run out of stamina so it’s a good idea to swap between them and characters often. It’s a fair trade off since it encourages players to try different strategies and adapt to increasingly tougher battles.
Those that really want to make the most of the combat mechanics can also assign strategic commands to other characters. Perhaps the only minor criticism is that sometimes AI controlled characters don’t feel as useful. Particularly during tough boss battles. All of these battle options means there is a fair amount of menu scrolling. Most of it is done in real time, which is quite tricky, but feels like a worthy challenge since it means having to think quickly on the spot.
There is a surprising amount of different types of enemies to defeat with unique abilities and appearance. It’s interesting since each enemy type will behave differently. Oliver also faces giant bosses that become increasingly more difficult to defeat. Fortunately there is a special yellow sphere that is dropped at certain points in battle. It makes it possible for a character to perform a special power-up move, that can potentially help improve the chances of surviving a tougher monster encounter.
It’s easy to say that the combat mechanics are some of the best found in a role playing video-game. It pretty much allows the player to learn how to make the best of each ability, and adapt it to a particular play style. In a way it feels very similar to the Tales of combat system, but there is a lot more focus on giving the player freedom to decide what to do in battle.
There are other wonderful abilities that Oliver gains along the journey. These are found in the many locations that Oliver gets to explore throughout the journey. Avoiding monsters in these locations is not so easy, and sometimes even becomes frustrating since they will eventually become too weak, because Oliver and his companions have levelled up. It doesn’t feel like there is much to earn from defeating these enemies, in terms of levelling experience. Fortunately, there are tools that make it easier to avoid monsters. One of the main ways to getting these tools is by helping others. Weak enemies will also start avoiding Oliver when revising locations at a later point in the story.
Ni No Kuni cleverly disguises typical role playing quests as acts of kindness. Help a stranger in a time of need or get rid of pesky monsters outside towns to earn stamps in a card. Earn enough stamps to fill a card and trade it for a special item. It shows how committed Level 5 is to offering an experience that isn’t just the typical role playing video-game. The amount of side quests that pop up is very impressive, and they all feel relatively different.
These side quests are a welcome addition, but even just playing through the main story will require a large amount of time. It’s difficult to not spend many hours at once progressing through the story. Objectives are clearly marked so the player never lost. It’s also fascinating to witness the amount of new ideas that get added with progression. What is so impressive is that there is barely a moment where it feels like these ideas are tacked on, or stop it from being a pleasant experience. In fact, ideas such as puzzles that make clever use of the PlayStation 3 pad or spells Oliver learns, are a welcome break from all the fighting.
Perhaps some of the best moments in Ni No Kuni come from interacting with other non-playable characters. In Ni No Kuni, other characters aren’t treated as tools to make towns and other places seem lively. Each character has a life and Oliver gets the chance to help them. Each character has a soul mate of sorts in Oliver’s world. There are times when Oliver must switch between worlds to interact with this soul mate and eventually find out what is wrong with both characters.
These characters are missing a certain piece of their heart. It’s then up to Oliver to find out which one, and use a spell to take it from someone else who has plenty of it, by putting it safely inside a special locket and giving it to the person in need. These heart pieces are abstract representations of feelings such as courage or kindness. Some of the outcomes are rather moving and prove that there is still much to explore when it comes to video-games design.
It’s impossible to review Ni No Kuni without mentioning the magical land of the other world. Oliver’s adventure takes him to various inspiring locations that are filled with colour. It’s a stark difference from the quiet town of Motorville where Oliver lives. Anyone that had the pleasure of viewing one of the many Studio Ghibli films is in for a treat. Not that it is necessary to have viewed any Studio Ghibli films, since the world of Ni No Kuni is accessible to anyone.
It even manages to make typical role playing locations, such as a volcano and desert, feel unique. At times it feels like it’s an interactive anime film that the player is a part of. Perhaps its because of the freedom that the player is given when it come to exploring these areas. It will take ages to fully explore every nook and cranny in each area.
The story also contains plenty of wonderfully bizarre and quirky moments that make Ni No Kuni a charming experience. These tend to happen in some of the real time animated cut-scenes. Some of these will most likely raise a smile. The dialogue between characters is endearing and will certainly make the player curious about their fates. It’s characters like the Welsh fairy Drippy that will make Ni No Kuni an unforgettable experience. All of this ties in neatly with Oliver’s noble quest to save what is most dear to him and this magical world that he finds himself in.
The soundtrack for Ni No Kuni is subtle and feels more like it’s there to encourage the player on this epic journey. Each of the music tracks fits in perfectly with the area or event that it’s being played. For example, the music track for a faltering forest that was once ripe with fruit is delicate. It’s impressive to just sit back and listen to the various music tracks and what they represent.
Perhaps it feels like Ni No Kuni might overwhelm less experienced players with information. However, it has plenty of tools, such as the wizard’s companion book, to ensure it is accessible to any kind of player. All information is easily available, under various pause menu options, for anyone that requires it. There’s even an easy difficulty and Drippy is always eager to help with newly acquired abilities. Saving is also easily done from within the star menu, or by activating save points within dungeon areas. Tidy mun!
Traditional Japanese role playing video-games have become a rare commodity in the West. Perhaps that is what makes Ni No Kuni such a special treat – and rightly so. Oliver’s journey into another magical world is inspiring and proof that there is still life in old school Japanese role playing adventures.
Ni No Kuni is truly a magical collaboration between Level 5/Studio Ghibli, and a clear sign as to why Namco Bandai is still so well known for the role playing video-games it publishes. Oliver’s journey is one that will remain on the minds of many and a real treat that every Playstation 3 owner needs to experience.