Gather round young gamers and let an old man tell you a tale. There was a time (maybe 15+ years ago) when the JRPG was a common sight in the wilds of console gaming here in the west. When I was (a lot) younger, the PS1 was in its prime and a new entry into this classic genre seemed to come out every week. These were not run of the mill clones of one another either. Some of the genres greatest games graced us during this golden era. Titles like Final Fantasy VII – IX, Wild Arms, Legend of Legia and Breath of Fire 3 (to name a few) were forces of nature and not only served to keep JRPG fans happy, but also were bringing in a new audience almost daily.
So what happened? Somewhere along the way, the JRPG slowed down here in the west. Fans seem to have to dig deeper and deeper to find new, modern entries for their collection and the masses seem more interested in other genres, like FPS or Action Adventure. The commercial success and inflation of the industry seems to have left little room for this genre to succeed as it once did and popcorn gaming is where the majority seem to gravitate. Luckily for hardcore fans, a game has come along that has the power to not only remind us of the golden era for this beloved genre, but also could very well have the power to convert the uninterested and the non-believers. This game is Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and it is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Much like a campfire tale that you have never heard before, Ni No Kuni has both the power to enchant and surprise whilst still creating a feeling of nostalgia and familiarity for fans of the genre. The tale is that of a young boy named Oliver who, with the help of the trusty Mr. Drippy (lord of the fairies), must travel between our world and another to defeat an ancient evil and earn the chance to save someone very special to him. I have kept this synopsis as basic as I can in order to avoid spoilers but don’t be fooled, this story is one of the best ever told in games. It’s a sweeping epic packed with original ideas and refreshing characters set against the backdrop of an enchanting world. Even if you’re not a fan of JRPGs or fantasy in general, after an hour of play you will find it hard not to get completely wrapped up in this tale.
Story is not the only thing that immediately impresses about Ni No Kuni. Graphically you would be hard pressed to find anything that accomplishes what it sets out as well as Wrath of the White Witch does. The visual style is that of a living anime and whether you are running around the world or watching one of the beautifully produced cut-scenes, there is never a weak point visually. You really feel like there is no disconnect between playing and watching sequences or fighting a battle and traversing the world map. The visual experience is one that permeates every pixel of Ni No Kuni and the game’s looks also stands as one of the best realised in recent memory.
This level of quality is also found in the game’s other elements. The combat system sits somewhere between Pokemon and the well-known Tales franchise. Put simply, Oliver can catch familiars, small creatures that inhabit the world he finds himself in. These creatures can be used to battle enemies in a part turn based part real time battle system. Oliver himself is also able to cast spells and attack but strategy must be employed when fighting most enemies making the player choose who to use with careful consideration. It is a system with depth and satisfaction that, like all good battle systems, is easy to learn and difficult to master but never a chore.
As well as battling, you will also spend a lot of time exploring the world, completing side quests and venturing into unknown dungeons and areas. The over-world map for each area is reminiscent of those from and older era of JRPGs. Although the world is split up in to many of these instead of having one massive world map, it never feels limiting. The inclusion of enemies appearing as you travel is a welcome one rather than just random battles popping up out of nowhere. This gives you the opportunity to avoid confrontation if you want or need to. There are also methods of travel that are unlocked later on which make the whole system feel fluid and enjoyable.
The design here is again top notch and the visuals don’t let up. Whether you are in a town, a dungeon or traveling across a dangerous plain you always feel like you are part of a greater world that continuously tempts you to keep exploring.
When it comes to levelling up, Oliver and his familiars gain EXP from battle as standard; however his little companions can also bolster their stats by eating treats. This increases their chosen stat and affinity with Oliver allowing for more powerful attacks and responsive helpers. However, players must also balance this element of the game as over feeding your familiars can have adverse effects.
This is a very basic overview of all the game’s systems and they all carry an incredible amount of depth. This in turn means that the game teaches you everything slowly to avoid confusion. It is around 6-10 hours before everything is completely opened up, and while many see this as a flaw, it is hard to see how it could have been handled differently.
This game’s incredible concept, design and execution is the product of two incredible talents coming together to make a partnership that should be re-kindled at every opportunity. For Ni No Kuni, RPG veteran developer Level 5 (Dragon Quest VIII-IX, Rogue Galaxy, Dark Cloud series etc) has joined forces with Classic Anime film company Studio Ghibli (Sprited Away, Howls Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky etc) to create something truly special. Level 5 has brought an interesting and innovative game system to the table and world while characters and animations have been handled by Ghibli, making Ni No Kuni feel like something truly unique.
Another area where Wrath of the White Witch excels is the sound design. The voice acting is all top notch and players are even able to play the game entirely in Japanese (with Subtitles) if they so desire. As you travel around, the music is epic and strangely catchy, with some of the highest production value ever heard in the medium.
To put it lightly, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is one of the best games I have played in years. From the moving story and characters to the amazing visual style and game design, there is little to complain about here. It is a staple JRPG that everyone should try, even if they have stayed away from the genre in the past. And for those who remember the JRPG golden era, prepare yourself for something special that undoubtedly ranks among the best the genre has to offer.