Role Playing Games are mostly, if not near entirely, about story. A developers goal is to inthrall you in a world you want to lose yourself in. A world that absorbs you and won’t let you go. A world where you’re given the freedom to explore while granted a reason to press on. As the genre has struggled forward into the current generation, it’s lost a lot of tradition on the way. Final Fantasy XIII, in some eyes, might as well just be Final Fantasy by name alone – the RPG we used to know and love nearly no longer exists. But with Level-5’s Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch it seems that the genre has reverted back to how it once was – and that’s not a bad thing at all.
This is, of course, partially due to anime masters, Studio Ghibli, and their input on the project. Not only do they craft a world for Oliver, Drippy and his companions to explore, but they also weave a story that captures the imagination and sense of childish wonder on show. This comes as no surprise when you take a look at their entire back catalogue, nearly every film they’ve produced visualises a world through the eyes of a child. However, this tale is as deeply depressing as it is uplifting and amusing.
Oliver’s journey starts when his quaint life in the perfect 1930w town of Motorville is disrupted by the death of his mother. It’s here his tears bring to life his childhood doll named Drippy, who is the Lord High Lord of the Fairies in the world of Ni no Kuni. The wonderfully Welsh Drippy then whisks him away to this parallel world in search of the woman who might just be able to bring back his mother.
This isn’t some creepy zombie resurrection though – after all this is Studio Ghibli. No, Oliver can save his mother thanks to everyone in the ‘real world’ is inexplicably linked to an identical twin in the world of Ni no Kuni. These “Soulmate” connections rear their heads regularly as a mechanic that nicely weaves itself into gameplay. You’re required to traverse the gateway between worlds to locate a lost cat so you can find Ding Dong Dell’s lost Meowjesty. Another time you’ll be tasked to free the heart of a young girl by finding her soulmate who’s locked away in a house. This isn’t the only reason why Oliver has made the jump to the land of Ni no Kuni though. Drippy see’s potential in him and so he can use his pure heart to free the world from the evil grip of the dark and powerful Shadar. Therefore, your journey takes you across the vast and varied landscapes as you explore arid deserts, roaring volcanoes and frozen tundras, intent on become a powerful wizard to save your mother and the world.
As you can tell, it’s all very much as you’d expect from a JRPG on the surface. You’ve got an emotionally lost and orphaned boy on a quest to save the world, whilst also trying to replace the hole in his heart. You’ve got towns filled to the brim with NPCs and myriads of side quests. There’s even a cast of utterly crazy and creative characters and creatures you’ll meet along the way. But Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch manages to be so much more than “just” your standard JRPG. It’s so much more than anyone could have really expected – no matter how much it was hyped up. So, just what makes Ni No Kuni so special then? It’s the same thing thats been found in all classic JRPGs, it’s the same thing that makes open world titles like Grand Theft Auto great and, more recently, what’s made Far Cry 3 utterly brilliant: attention to detail.
The entire game world may be wrapped in Studio Ghibli’s unmistakeable art style, which is perfectly realised in a wonderful cel-shaded effect. But what makes it so joyous to explore and play around in, is the fantastic localisation effort that Namco Bandai and Level-5 had implemented. Characters regional accents and brilliant voice over work bring characters to life. Drippy’s Welsh charm isn’t just found in his voice, it’s in everything he says. It may be stereotypical with slight overuse of ‘tidy’, but it’s the onomatopoeic spellings and amusing chummy nicknames that mean you can’t help but hear voice actor Steffan Rhodri’s voice making all those witty quips and generally being a right riot to explore the world with.
That’s not all though, its the little nods to real world pop-culture and everyday life that really pushes exploration it into a category of its own. I can’t explain why exactly, but one moment in a dusty desert town I couldn’t help but laugh when Drippy suggested making a “Babanas Shakemilk” – essentially a banana milkshake. It was something so simple, but the way Drippy expressed himself just made that moment for me. You’ll see when you get there, it’s hard not to laugh. Which is what Ni No Kuni does so well, it creates a journey that even the steeliest of hearts can’t help but warm to. Your cynicism just melts away and a smile grows upon your face as you pick up on more and more of the smaller features – such as a crow shopkeeper who continually makes puns around birds, or cat people who purr out the letter ‘r’.
Of course, this isn’t what Level-5 have spent their time slaving over, what they’ve managed to do is craft a game that, while not wholly original in terms of gameplay, has been made entirely their own. Combat starts out feeling very much like a merging of a Tales of game, Final Fantasy XII and Pokémon. But as you begin to gain new team members and learn how to time attacks properly – such as hitting attack when it flashes blue to deliver a parry and counter attack – battles begin to venture into the action RPG realm as you move freely around the arena firing spells and attacks at your opponent.
You aren’t alone in battle, though. A Pokémon-esque familiar joins you on the battlefield to deliver big blows and take a beating for you – although it uses up your health. You’ll need to nurture them with treats to buff their stats to power them up from their base stats. As their level climbs from experience gained in battle, they’ll evolve into new and more powerful creatures for you to use. Which is an impressive event in unto itself as you’re eager to see what creation comes forth next.
The parallels with Nintendo’s monster battler are rather obvious, but thrown into this new battleground against huge and unrelenting bosses the dynamic shifts more onto management, as each familiar can only last in battle for around a minute before needing to be switched out. This doesn’t cause any problems as you usually find yourself switching between them, Oliver and your companions regularly to best your opponent with a wide array of moves as numbers fly from their heads – just like any RPG worth its weight should proudly show.
In this day and age of big-budget video games where hype surrounds nearly every product as they all shout louder and louder over one another to be heard, far too many titles fail to hit the expectations they promise. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch may not be entirely original in its premise, but thanks to Studio Ghibli’s input and Level-5’s wonderful gameplay implementations, it manages to weave a truly magical and beautiful journey that just has to be experienced by all. It may not be utterly perfect, but it more than lives up to expectations. In fact the only crime here is the criminal shame that it just won’t hit more than cult RPG appeal.
Audio/Visual – 5/5: Fantastic soundtrack and english localisation, with utterly gorgeous visuals to complete the package.
Gameplay – 5/5: A wonderful mix of genres and gameplay that harks back to the age of the classic RPG while bringing in a modern twist.
Innovation – 4/5: Cherry picks ideas from some great RPGs and places its own spin upon it, but while fresh, it doesn’t feel revolutionary.
Value – 5/5: Hours and hours of content before you even begin to fathom the length of the story.
Final Score: 5/5