Publisher: Namco Bandai
One of the things that I love most about Level-5 as a developer is that they are remarkably reliable in giving me exactly what I expect with each and every release. Whether that’s an RPG like this title, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, or the Nintendo published Professor Layton series, when I see their familiar studio logo pop up prior to the title screen on any game, I know I’m going to get some sort of enjoyment out of the experience. And pairing Level-5 with Studio Ghibli, famed Japanese animation studio responsible for titles like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, just adds to that overall feeling of quality that typically exudes from their titles. It’s sort of like comfort food in video game form, in that it might not be a new or wildly unexpected offering, but will feel familiar, satisfying, and enjoyable from start to finish.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch puts you into the diminutive shoes of Oliver, a young boy who by all accounts is absolutely normal in every sense of the word. He lives in small industrial village called Motorville, which feels like a Japanese interpretation of 1950’s Americana. He resides with his mother, widowed apparently, and is friends with a local inventor boy that manages to get him into more trouble than he’d ever find on his own. There’s really little remarkable about this young man from the onset of the game, but like most RPG’s, the unassuming hero is generally the kid that saves the world, and in that regard Oliver is also no different.
When tragedy strikes, Oliver awakens a fairy trapped in the body of a doll named Drippy. This Drippy, given an excellent voice-over by way of a Welsh accent provided by Steffan Rhodri, is also the Lord High Lord of the Fairies. Together the two set off on an adventure to save another world which is under siege by an evil dark Djinn named Shadar that has broken the hearts of various people, turning them into listless husks of their former selves.
There’s not a lot about Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch that’s remarkable on the surface level, at least outside of the outstanding visuals, soundtrack, and voice work. In fact, the gameplay, especially the combat, is sort of tepid. Your normal, run of the mill battles generally consist of picking a familiar, usually a previously captured monster, and sending it out to mash a normal attack against another monster until you win, racking in the necessary experience and gold to take on a stronger foe down the road. There’s some freedom of movement in place that isn’t nearly as useful as it seems, and a counter system that’s all but impossible to pull off reliably, and generally only works by accident.
The monster gathering and leveling system, which resembles popular Nintendo franchise Pokémon to a certain degree, but also feels akin to Final Fantasy XIII-2’s party system, is fun until you realize that leveling these newly acquired beasts is entirely reliant on grinding out battle after battle. Considering that those battles are rarely engaging or entertaining, it can really start to bog down your enjoyment of the experience if you let it.
But I still found myself drawn to Ni no Kuni and its heartfelt tale of Oliver, a boy out of place and time that desperately wants to help his newfound friends, but also wants to bring back the one person that he loves the most. There’s a serious hook laid into the plot of the game that has you guessing at every step of the way, trying to figure out if Oliver’s entire in-game experience is just a grief coping mechanism, or if he (and you by extension), are actually encountering and experiencing all these bizarre, fantasy fueled events. There’s enough emotional attachment here that will see you through the game from beginning to end, despite the mundane combat system or lack of innovating gameplay mechanics.
And I feel like a lot of the credit goes to the involvement of Studio Ghibli in this regard. If you’re a fan of this work, and there’s a good chance that most reading this review will be, you know that they’re an animation studio that often pulls no punches when it comes to realistic and downright depressing character arcs. Not to say that Ni no Kuni isn’t upbeat, in fact one of its charming attributes is that it’s so damn earnest at every step of the way. But there’s an underlying sadness that fuels Oliver’s journey that I thought was really quite touching, and makes this a stand-out RPG experience to kick off 2013. Mechanically it could be a better game, sure, but it’s still definitely a game worth playing.