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Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
4.25
Book Name: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Publisher(s): Level 5 and Studio Ghibli
Formatt: Playstation 3
Genre(s): Fantasy / RPG
Release Date: January 22, 2013 (US) February 1, 2013 (EU)

As Ni no Kuni (cover)it happens in literature, in videogames a good piece of work isn’t necessarily one that presents new or completely original elements, but one that can take pre-existing tropes, mechanics and systems, and show them in a refreshing way. This is what happens with Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch a game released in January of 2013 for the Playstation 3. This games does an excellent job presenting alternative views to the Hero’s Journey, the coming of age story and even the magical girl genre of Japanese anime.

The first thing you will notice is how pretty the graphics are. The game’s creators took the use of cel-shading* to staggering new heights, to the point where there it’s difficult to distinguish between a fully animated cutscene and one animated using the game’s graphic engine. Those familiar with Japanese anime might see some similarities between the game’s visual style and that of films like Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke or My Neighbor Totoro. This isn’t a coincidence. To produce this game Level 5, the game’s creators, joined forces with Ghibli, one of Japan’s most renowned animation studios.

Ghibli’s influence can be seen not only in the art, but also in the incredibly fluid animation: playing this game feels like being immersed in an animated movie. From the stunning landscapes to the polished animations of each of the game’s many creatures, you can feel the work that was put in it, work that makes an excellent use of the PS3’s capabilities. Just like God of War and God of War 2 showed us the full power of the Playstation 2 console at the end of its life cycle, so does Ni No Kuni show us the amazing results we can get by using the full power of the PS3.

Ni no Kuni Gameplay

Studio Ghibli was also involved in the game’s music. Composed by Joe Hisaishi, the same man responsible for the soundtrack of Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, it’s been a very long time since I’ve been so impressed in this area: from battle to the world-map to the different cities’ themes, they always catch the emotion each situation evokes.

The plot seems to be just as childlike as its art, at least at the beginning. Oliver is a boy that lives in Motorville, a nice, quiet town in what seems like a generic version of the fifties’ America. After a friend’s attempt to build a car ends in the death of his mother, Oliver locks himself in his room, crying his heart out. After a few days, his tears bring his plush doll Mr. Drippy to life, who reveals himself as King of the Fairies, exiled from his world by the Dark Djinn, Shadar. The fact that Oliver broke his curse reveals him as the Sage of Ages, destined to put an end to Shadar’s evil.

As the game advances, however, it takes many turns towards darkness. Shadar’s influence is subtle: instead of relying on violence, he breaks the hearts of those who might oppose him, causing a severe lack in one emotion. It’s up to Oliver to fix these brokenhearted people, taking a bit of the missing emotion from people with an excess of it and using it to mend their hearts. This will not only serve to progress through the game, but also as one of the many flavors of side quests.

Ni no Kuni - gameplay2

As the game advances, Oliver will receive new spells and powers, both from the main plot and side quests. In a welcome twist from other RPG’s, many of these are useful outside of battle, allowing him to detect nearby chests, teleport between locations or, best of all, hide his presence from roaming monsters.

The playability is incredibly satisfying. The controls, menu and interface are similar to most other games of the genre, taking to heart the phrase “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. Unfortunately, just as they took the best practices related to playability, they took the worst when it came to the artificial intelligence of your sidekicks. In Ni No Kuni, you can only control one character, though you can switch the one you’re controlling and even give broad instructions to the others. This would be well and good if not for the fact that, like most games with minions not under your direct control, they are absolutely useless: they will use their most powerful spells against regular enemies–leaving you dry when you get to the bosses– or use elemental
attacks to which your enemy is resistant, or… I think you get the idea.

Ni no Kuni GameplayThis flaw in the combat system makes grinding (spending time killing enemies in order to earn money or experience points) an absolute necessity. In order to ease the frustration that this causes, I will give you one tip: once you’re level 25 and get the boat, Google “Ni No Kuni Toko farming” and follow the instructions. Trust me, it will save you a world of trouble. Another tip: save often! The game has an annoying habit of throwing boss battles out of the blue, especially during its first half, which can be extremely frustrating.

Given Studio Ghibli’s reputation, I expected a beautifully animated game, yet I got much, much more. It was a genuine surprise to find that the same care and effort had been put into every other aspect of the game–excepting the AI, of course–, turning a nice game into a bona fide masterpiece. I would especially recommend it to fans of role playing games and Japanese anime.

*According to tvtropes.org, cel-shading is “a style of computer rendering that imitates the look of hand-drawn artwork and animation”.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar William Tasker says:

    I’ve been going back-and-forth on buying this game for a while and this review has won me over. I’m a big fan of cel-shaded graphics (eg Dragon Quest VIII, Borderlands etc.) but I was afraid the story would be a bit too cliched, as this seems to not be a problem, and it’s pretty cheap on Amazon, I’ll be picking this up.

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