Developer: Level-5, Studio Ghibli / Publisher: Level-5, Namco Bandai / Played On: PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Alcohol and Tobacco Reference, Comic Mischief, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Simulated Gambling]
Studio Ghibli has the ability to create beautiful works of art time and time again. It builds worlds conjured from fertile imagination, and inspiring characters that impart a childlike innocence and sense of wonder. When Level-5, creators of Dragon Quest VIII and the Professor Layton series, partnered with Studio Ghibli to construct an interactive world for fans, we rejoiced and waited anxiously for a U.S. release.
Was it worth the wait? Yes. Yes it was.
Fans of classic JRPG’s will immediately adore Ni no Kuni, as it plays out as a love letter to a genre less revered in the game industry these past couple of years. With a wonderful narrative, extensive battle system, and an overworld view map, the developers embraced what made JRPG’s enthralling and delivered a great game.
Oliver, a resident of the town of Motorville, is a simple boy who loves cars and whose fate—unknowingly—is to save the world. One day tragedy strikes as he falls in a river. His mother jumps in to save him, unfortunately at the cost of her own life. Grief stricken, fate unites Oliver with Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Faeries. Drippy comes from another world, a place where everyone there has a soulmate parallel to people in Oliver’s world. He explains that there may be a way to revive his mother if they find her soulmate, and off they traipse to Ni no Kuni to bring Oliver closer to his destiny.
Despite the classic “save the world” trope weaved in early on, the story centers on Oliver’s struggles as a child trying to reunite with someone he holds dear. He’s courageous but cautious, strong yet naive, requiring a motivational nudge from Drippy every now and then. With each enemy Oliver fights in the pursuit of his mother, you sincerely care for him; I found my eagerness to see the journey through stemmed from my desire to protect his fragile character.
As you traverse the world of Ni no Kuni, you marvel at the gorgeous environments. Every new location is more remarkable than the last, from the luscious forest that conceals Castaway Cove to the eccentric island all faeries call home. The simple yet stunning anime visuals bestow a traditional look not often found in role-playing games today. The world is so beautifully drawn that it feels like you’re exploring a Studio Ghibli feature film. An exceptional voice cast and splendid original score complement the visuals, although Ghibli fans will prefer the original audio.
To progress in your journey, you have to battle (adorable) creatures known as Familiars using Familiars of your own. Immediately, you may start making similarities to Pokemon as certain Familiars are more effective against other types of Familiars depending on their sign. They are also “metamorphable”, as in they can transform into stronger versions of themselves. Once you acquire another party member you can capture Familiars you defeat in battle, with up to 400 creatures to collect. That is not to say Oliver or any of the other party members can’t battle Familiar themselves.
One key difference from Pokemon is how Familiars share health and magic with their masters; so should Oliver’s Familiar die, he dies. Familiars can only battle for so long, therefore forming a well-rounded team is key. You can equip weapons and shields to your Familiars, and improve their abilities by giving them treats. The happier the Familiar, the better the fighter.
Despite being a turn-based, action RPG, gameplay can be quite chaotic. You can administer orders or choose to run around to evade and gather glims, orbs that restore health and magic. Magic is a must in tough battles, though it’s seldom replenished fast enough. Even random encounters can be dangerous and your combat strategy plays an important role in survival. Should you fail to defend, or defend too early–as there is a cooldown period for each action–it can mean the difference between little health lost and death.
Speaking of death, there is a considerable punishment for it. Should you choose to continue (if you failed to save at a good spot, often the case), you will lose a percentage of your money, an unfavorable feature bearing in mind how little money you earn in the first place. My advice is to save often when roaming the plains and run for safety if an encounter seems hopeless.
With other party members you can instruct them how to perform in battle, though the available tactical options are not quite as effective as they need to be. The AI works well in combat, but only when you supply the right Familiars and equipment to that character; it may take some trial and error to reveal the combinations that work best. Some level grinding is involved, but considering how enjoyable the battling can be it doesn’t detract from the experience.
Outside of battle, you have many sidequests. Some consist of simple fetch and bounty quests, but the more (emotionally) rewarding “errands” are the ones where you help the broken-hearted. Often times you find a rude peddler or a captain lacking the will to sail. This is when you find others bursting with kindness and courage. You take the enthusiasts’ overflowing passion and give it to the people in need. Restoring life is the theme of Ni no Kuni, and one of the most lovable aspects of the experience.
Completing errands expand the customization options well beyond awarded weapons and money, as you also have the ability to tailor battle conditions (e.g. more glims conjured during encounters) and craft your own items. It’s remarkable how many layers there are to Ni no Kuni; you could spend hours trying to master the simplest mechanics to optimize your playthrough. The Ni no Kuni world is also incredibly deep and inviting, providing fans so much to explore if they choose.
Ni no Kuni attempts to breathe some life into the classic JRPG genre, and it accomplishes this on many fronts. It reminds us to take a step back and remember what made Tales of Destiny and Final Fantasy staples of our adolescence. Given Studio Ghibli’s success with hand drawn animation (despite the popularity of CGI), it fits that this game is an homage to the traditional. With a heart-warming protagonist, beautifully illustrated world, and addicting gameplay, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is another masterpiece of which Level-5 and Studio Ghibli can be rightly proud.
+ Fantastic world and characters
+ Addicting and multi-layered gameplay
+ Astounding visuals; you feel part of a Studio Ghibli film
9 / 10