Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Developer: Level 5 Release Date: January 22, 2013
Publisher: Namco Bandai ESRB Rating: E10
Platforms: PS3 MSRP: $59.99

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Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch may have suffered from an ignoble launch fiasco, but the game itself shouldn’t be penalized for poor handling. How does the title fare of it’s own accord? Is it just another mediocre Japanese RPG, or is it out of this world?

In Ni no Kuni, you play as young Oliver from Motorville, a town that looks like 1950’s Detroit. However, Oliver is not just a normal boy: he is the destined savior of another world. When the White Witch identifies Oliver as the one who might someday stop her reign, she tries to off him before he ever comes to her world. Alicia, Oliver’s mother, however, manages to save him at the cost of her own life. After some coercing by Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies, Oliver heads to the other world with the hope that he might somehow save his mother. You see, every person in Oliver’s world has a soulmate in the other world, and Oliver hopes that by saving his mom’s soulmate in the other world, he might save his mother, too. The other world, known as “Ni no Kuni”, or “The Another World”, has suffered at the hand of Shadar for sometime, with many of its residents becoming “brokenhearted” after Shadar steals part of their hearts. Many of the game’s quests center on restoring these broken hearts by finding someone with an overabundance of one quality (enthusiasm, ambition, etc.) and giving it to a person who now lacks that quality.

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Most of the story’s twists are fairly predictable, as the game follows many of the classic storytelling tropes, but it is still well-told and often feels like you are watching a Studio Ghibli movie. Along the way, Oliver will join forces with a young girl named Esther, a scruffy man named Swaine, and one more character right near the end whom I don’t want to spoil. Much of the character development time is spent on Oliver, his mother, and their ties to this other world. Esther and Swaine both get some backstory as the game goes along, but neither  receive enough individual attention to really build a deep connection with them.

As the story progresses, your party will jump between Motorville and the Another World, saving people on both sides from their brokenhearted fates. The majority of your time will be spent in Ni no Kuni, exploring all corners of the map while fighting and recruiting familiars. The game offers a list of all the dunngeon areas as you explore them, including map and treasure hunting completion percentages, so you’ll know when you’ve found everything in an area. Most of the dungeons are not particularly large, but these checklists will still keep you from aimlessly wandering too much. There are only a few times in the game where you’ll need to grind a few levels to keep up with the difficulty spikes, especially if you keep up with the errands that are available. Between the fetch quests (and there are a lot of them) and bounty hunts, there are plenty of extras to help flesh out the gameplay. Each quest has its own reward, be it equipment, money, alchemical formulae, or new magic spells for Oliver. These quests also provide you with stamps which can be used to buy bonuses such as running faster on the world map or increased XP from fighting.

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Most of the basic battles can be tackled just by spamming the attack command, and that can get a little boring. Boss fights and bounty hunts are where the battle system shines. Ni no Kuni uses a real-time system where your characters run around the field using the analog sticks, and you select your attack using the directional pad. It is a little awkward at first having to jump between the two, but after a few battles, it’s actually a fairly simple system to use. Depending on the character or familiar you control, you can also defend against or evade attacks at the push of a button, but each have their own timing. These become invaluable when the boss inevitably unleashes their attacks which hit everyone. It creates a more engaging dynamic where you actually have to pay attention to what the enemies are doing and not just spam attack and heal spells.

The battle system, while enjoyable (at least in the more difficult battles), does suffer from a case of dumb AI teammates. While controlling one of your party members (or their familiars), you have the option to set tactics to “guide” the other two computer-controlled members, but these seem to be more of a suggestion than a command. Even when I set the party to not use abilities, they still managed to run through their MP in the most basic of battles. As a result, you will often find yourself either running around with next to no MP or running out of MP-restoring items. This is especially problematic because the enemies on the world map respawn at a pretty fast rate. There are unlockable merit awards which improve walking speed and allow you to sneak up on enemies more effectively, but before that, it seems like the you will be fighting every enemy within a mile radius. The AI seems to acquit itself a little better in the boss battles, where using abilities is warranted, but I still found that it wasn’t so good at covering healing duty. As a result, I often found myself playing the healer for the big battles and letting the AI do the majority of the damage.

Despite some gameplay flaws, two things that are undeniably fantastic about Ni no Kuni are the art and music. The cel-shaded graphics mesh perfectly with Studio Ghibli’s animated cutscenes, making it feel like you’re playing through a Miyazaki movie. I only wish there were more of these cutscenes. The character designs are great, and they even figured out how to make skeletons look cute. The game covers all the major geographies (caves, tundra, forests, deserts, etc.), and they all look great as well, both on the world map and within dungeons. The graphics team devoted so much effort to detail that even the desert expanse around Al Mamoon doesn’t look like a big, flat sandbox; instead it has enough dunes, rocks and landmarks that you could easily navigate without the minimap.

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All the music, composed by Joe Hisaishi, flows so well with the game. At no point does the score get irritating or repetitive, even when traversing the world map for a while. The English voice cast is also quite good, though some people might get a little annoyed by how heavy Mr. Drippy’s brogue is (it even carries into the text-based dialogue a la Dragon Quest VIII). The Japanese voices get the job done as well, but I feel like you get a little something extra from the English voice cast.

If you are fortunate enough to get your hands on the Wizard’s Edition for a reasonable price someday, you’ll also get to enjoy the physical copy of the Wizard’s Companion, Oliver’s book of spells, familiars, and alchemical information. The book contains all 340 pages found in the in-game version, and it can come in handy when you need to look something up quickly and don’t want to dig around in the electronic version. While the electronic version lets you skip around quickly, the page turning function is noticeably slower than flipping through the physical book. The cute little Drippy plushie is also a nice addition, though the two-song soundtrack will leave fans of Joe Hisaishi’s music wanting.

Overall, Ni no Kuni makes for a great Studio Ghibli movie, but it does have some minor issues as a game. The gameplay could use some basic improvements, but these flaws are not enough of a hindrance to avoid Wrath of the White Witch. Most traditional JRPG fans will love it, and the story and battle systems are simple and forgiving enough that it makes for a good introduction for new gamers.

Story: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Graphics: ★★★★★★★★★★
Gameplay: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Audio: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Balance/Difficulty: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Intangibles: ★★★★★★★★★★
Overall: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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