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Review (PS3): Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch - Patience With RewardBy: Kyle Enz | Feb 01, 2013
Imagine combining elements from Final Fantasy, Dark Cloud, and Pokemon into one grand RPG. Elements from all three of those mentioned titles create a brilliant, if occasionally marred marriage in Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. An epic, “old-school” rpg from the combined efforts of Level 5 and the famed Studio Ghibli. But no marriage is perfect, and thus Ni No Kuni does suffer from occasional problems associated with being an “old-school” experience.
The opening hours of Ni No Kuni are a slow burn. How slow you might ask? Well, imagine the pace of the medication handout line at a nursing home. Yep, it's that slow. To give you a better example: I didn't receive my first party member until almost eight hours into the main story and rounding out my party took about ten hours. If you want to fast travel between locations, you are looking at the twenty-hour haul before you gain that ability. At fifteen hours into this game, I still felt that I was in tutorial mode. Messages and hints were still regularly popping up as well as the introduction of new gameplay mechanics and elements. I don't mention any of this as a negative, more simply I'm pointing out that RPG's have evolved from this style of slow-burn, and Ni No Kuni goes the route of being “old-school” with all of the pitfalls of being “old-school”.
The story and setting are some of the best that the genre has to offer. You play as Oliver, a young boy whom will be the savior of not only his world, but “The Another World” (that’s what Ni No Kuni stands for, if you were wondering). After losing his mother to a heart-attack, he is quickly visited by Mr. Drippy, a fairy from The Another World. Lord High Lord of the Fairies, to be precise. Through a long-winded explanation, the story is set up.
Oliver is destined to be the savior of these two worlds, and to stop the tyranny and reign of the evil white witch. Sound a bit familiar? While the story is a strong element of this game, it isn't the most original story, that's for sure. People are tied between our world and the another world by their souls, known as “soul-mates”. So for example, if Pedro the cat is having a problem in the another world, he is probably having a problem in the real world. Thus, you have to mend whatever their heart problem is. This could be various elements such as courage, belief, restraint, or a number of different elements that you have to take from other characters between worlds.
Using your magical abilities as a young wizard, you then store that element in your necklace and unleash it upon the person that has the ailment. Some of my favorite parts of the story involve hunting down three stones to upgrade your wand. Visiting these almost temple-like locations took me back to the Nintendo 64 days of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the greatest ways possible.
This then presents the next big thing about Ni No Kuni: familiars. Level 5 and Studio Ghibli must love Pokemon, because that's basically what this game is all about. This is straight up Pokemon with a twist: you can also control the trainers. You actually can't catch other familiars until you receive that second party member, nearly eight hours into the game as I previously mentioned. Esther has the ability to use a harp that tames and captures the familiars but you don't have control over which familiars you capture, rather when one falls in battle, you might get lucky enough for them to hang around for a brief moment of time with hearts illuminating from their body, which indicates you can tame them. After plucking a few strings on her harp, Esther is then able to capture them.
Being that you don't have control over what familiars you can capture, this leads to some of the games more frustrating problems. This isn't like the simplicity of throwing out a pokeball in Pokemon just to capture the creature, which would make much more sense here. Each Familiar can be “evolved” three times, called “Metamorphoses” here, the annoyance between this and Pokemon is as frustrating as the capturing ability: each Familiar will start over at level 1 once evolved. Say you have a pretty decent Familiar in the level 30-35 range and you decide to evolve, well guess what, you are looking at a level 1 familiar again. Thankfully I was able to combat this by finding a pretty great place to experience boost in the game, relieving this problem, but still, it's inexcusable to make the game this much of a drudge at times.
The most important part of Ni No Kuni is combat, and it presents the most double-edged sword part of this package. While parts of the combat work wonders, other parts of it either fail miserably, or just confuse me as a player. Unlike other classic role playing adventures such as Final Fantasy, enemies here appear on screen before they attack. This part of the game resembles Dark Cloud, as you can attempt to get away from a battle, unlike the random battle generator from all of those classic squaresoft RPG's of the 90's. Combat is a reminiscent hybrid between Final Fantasy XII and Pokemon. You will either engage in battle yourself, something I highly recommend you avoid until later parts of the game, or you will throw out one of the three Familiars you are carrying.
You then have active control over your familiar in battle, but the main problem is, while you can also control the other two party members and their familiars, if you aren't controlling them, they will do their own thing. Doing their own thing can go one of two ways: they will either burn through all of their magic in a single battle, or they will attempt to battle the other creatures themselves, not using their familiars. This leads to the most frustrating aspect of the game for me, as many times over when I would get into an area with enemies a few levels above my own, more often then not I would find myself alive while my party members were dead after a long battle. While yes, you can switch to them during the battle, you will always have the other two you aren't controlling at the given time doing their own thing. Later on in the game, you get an ability to choose their tactics, but this also doesn't work as well as you would hope. Then the game will baffle me with a simple and easy idea, like allowing your fallen comrades to gain the experience of whatever battle you just ended.
This is the major problem in Ni No Kuni, the developers can't seem to find the sweet spot balance between hardcore and casual RPG. At one minute you feel like the game is just way too easy, while in the next you might find yourself being punished by a challenging boss battle. It's disappointing because it's hard for me to recommend the game to a certain group of people because casual RPG enthusiasts will be crushed at difficult battles, while hardcore RPG players will find the initial hours such a bore that it could turn them off to the experience completely.
At twenty hours in, you receive perhaps the best ability the game gives you: a Dragon to ride around the entirety of the map. This opens up the entire overworld for full exploration, other than a few places that are covered in ominous fog or mist until you proceed further into the story. And riding that dragon? It controls better then when that feature was added to Skyrim a few months ago. So it's an added bonus here that I fully enjoyed but I have to throw out there that you only get this new ability an hour after you unlock the ability to fast travel to locations you have already unlocked So the pacing is once again confusing to me.
Also in helping to give Ni No Kuni its own voice is a fantastic soundtrack, thanks to frequent Studio Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi. His soundtrack gives the game more of an “epic” feel, especially every time I was just wandering around on the over world map.
The game's story will take you anywhere between 35 and 40 hours, which is standard fare for an RPG. From there on, the game is opened up to the seemingly endless amount of side-quests and treasure chests to be found. You could easily spend another 40 hours grinding through all of those side-quests and collectibles for the true achievement/trophy enthusiast. There's enough content here to keep you going for a good month or two, that's for sure and while the story wraps itself up in the way that you would expect, it is nice to have a classic-style RPG open to explore once the story is completed.
Despite some of the negative things I've pointed out here, I had a blast with Ni No Kuni. From the stunning cutscenes, gorgeous graphics, to the addicting if at times frustrating combat system, I haven't felt this attached to an RPG since my 90's Squaresoft days. While it is true that not everything in Ni No Kuni always works, enough of it works at the end of everything that most people will find themselves enjoying this experience. Just jump in heeding the warnings I gave you; with patience comes reward.
Developer(s)Level 5, Studio Ghibli
SeriesNi No Kuni
Release Date(s)January 22nd, 2013
Genre(s)Role Playing Game
Mode(s)Single - Player