It’s strange to play a game that feels so refreshingly different whilst also being oddly familiar. It’s like meeting a stranger who somehow knows everything about you, knows just what jokes to make, knows what things you like and most of all knows just how to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. ‘Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch’ is that stranger and after playing 25+ hours of this game I’ll never be afraid of ‘stranger danger’ again. ‘Ni no Kuni’ is the collaboration between developers Level 5 and the beloved anime maestros Studio Ghibli and it’s this reason that ‘Ni no Kuni’ seems to resonate with me so strongly. The Studio Ghibli films (such as ‘Spirited Away’ and Princess Mononoke’) already had a way of filling even the most cynical and jaded hearts with flutters of childish whimsy and even though ‘Ni no Kuni’ is a different medium and an original story, Ghibli’s mastery of imagination is no less potent here. I could honestly keep going on with flowery adjectives for the rest of this review because as tedious as that is, I can’t think of any way to truly convey how much beauty this game exudes. But fear not, I’ll temporarily put those adjectives to one side and explain the game itself (WARNING: Adjectives may still appear throughout the review)
The story itself is classic Studio Ghibli. Told through a combination of cel shaded graphics and a more classic Ghibli style animation that often looks hand drawn (in a good way, not a child’s drawing on a fridge way) the story should seem pretty familiar at the outset. We meet Oliver, an ordinary, sweet and innocent little boy who lives in ‘Motorville’, a 1950′s style town where everybody seems obsessed with American muscle cars. Of course it isn’t long before the peace and quiet of this normal world is shattered and with the help of Mr Drippy, the ‘Lord High Lord of the Fairies’ (which is a fancy title for a guy who looks like a potato with a lantern for a nose) Oliver travels to a new world to follow his destiny of becoming a great wizard and saving all worlds from the terrible fate of ‘broken heartedness’.
At a glance, it seems like a story we’ve seen before. A young boy escapes a boring life and through magic discovers his fate is to save the world. It’s not the overall narrative that shines though, rather the way it all unfolds. Through the vibrant animation, environments of sprawling hills and plains and bustling towns filled with perfectly rendered cartoon NPCs, the game excels in how it delivers it’s minute by minute story telling. The characters all bring the world to life and there is always something unexpected around the corner. In an industry filled with fast paced action games trying to emulate Michael Bay movies, ‘Ni no Kuni’ stands out as a well illustrated story book that keeps you hanging on every word and itching to know what the next chapter holds.
The story is mostly experienced through cut scenes, which themselves are split up into scenes with voice acting and scenes with text. This is nothing new for a lot of Japanese games but still, it can sometimes be a shame when you go from an engaging and well acted cut scene to walls of text and you do find yourself button tapping your way through the dialogue at times. The scenes with voice work tend to be reserved for the main storyline but for the games many, many side quests you’d best get your reading glasses ready. These side quests mostly take the form of tasks for townspeople, needing to restore missing pieces of heart and sort of logic puzzles that require use of a specific spell to unlock. The latter of those side quests are the most enjoyable. You see, throughout the game as you become a greater wizard you unlock all sorts of spells. Not only are there spells you can use in combat but there are also spells with unique uses, like ‘Quicken Growth’ to speed the growth of plants or ‘Levitate’ which lets you raise things or yourself. It’s always cool to unlock new spells and they really throw a lot of different spells at you in one go. These spells play a role in puzzles not too dissimilar from the masks in ‘Majora’s Mask’ where you come across a specific problem and only one spell can solve said problem.
The only downside to these side quests is that, well, they’re a bit easy. Every time you come across an NPC with a problem, Mr Drippy your fairy companion can’t help but overtly hint EXACTLY what kind of spell you could use. It does take a little bit of the fun out of solving what could have been a really refreshing departure from the never-ending fetch quests that seem to make up the bulk of side quests in every other RPG that’s out there but still, the quest’s themselves are fun and you get a kick out of just helping the many crazy characters of the land. You also get rewarded with stamps and every time you fill up a stamp card, you can use that card to unlock a new ability for Oliver, kind of like a Starbucks loyalty card except instead of a free drink you gain the ability to ‘jump’. Maybe Starbucks should offer that as a service too.
On the subject of the games difficulty, it seems to straddle a slippery slope. The pacing of the story is quite slow at first and you can’t help but feel like you’re just being herded down a very linear path. This isn’t helped by the fact that you always have a very obvious ‘star’ icon acting as a way point for where you’re meant to go. When you’re already on a straight path with no side quests, having a giant icon reminding you of that is salting the wound a little bit. It took me 5 hours to discover I could actually turn this ‘guide icon’ off at the main menu so once I’d done that and reached my first town, things opened up a little bit more. I suppose you could blame user error on my part for not knowing you could toggle the icon but at no point did the game tell me that, I had to discover it for myself.
At the other end of the difficulty spectrum, we have the combat. Now admittedly I’m not the biggest fan of turn based combat but I’ve played enough Pokemon, Paper Mario and Final Fantasy to recognise when it’s done well. The way they approach combat in ‘Ni no Kuni’ is sort of a blend between turn based and real action. You’re still choosing attack, defense and items but the action never really stops so you’re making these decisions on the fly while strafing and avoiding enemies. It’s actually a lot of fun and can make every battle feel a lot more intense. The difficulty comes in that there are MANY different features to this combat and the game really takes it’s time in giving you these features. From basic attacks to using familiars (which are Pokemon type animals you can train, collect and evolve to fight for you) to using allies, every time you adjust to the combat they throw something else in there and by the end of it, you just feel like you should have had most of it from the beginning. I mean I was about 15 hours in before the game ‘allowed’ me to use a one button tap for defense.
This leads me to the games biggest problem and the only thing that has made me want to rage quit, the A.I. Your teammates absolutely suck. Even though you get the ability to dish out tactics and specify what you want everyone doing, every time you look over at them they are using the worst possible attack and just getting their asses handed to them. You have to adjust to jumping frantically between allies just to save them from themselves and with the fast paced combat this can be very infuriating. This is where traditional turn based combat or even multiplayer would come in handy because the combat can become more about fast paced, health management than it is about the actual combat. That said, there were times when it just seemed to work. Every now and then everyone would attack with appropriate weapons and keep healing each other or just had the basic sense to ‘defend’. Still, more intuitive AI would definitely not go astray and it’s a shame that something like this has to get in the way of an otherwise rewarding experience.
The greatest feature of this game for me though, by far, is the wonderful score composed by Joe Hisaishi. Many people would be familiar with his great work in the numerous Studio Ghibli film’s he’s worked on and his work is no less stellar here. In fact I’d go so far as to say that these are some of his best themes. From the moment you hit the main title you get hit in the face by an epic number that immediately tells you you’re in for a high fantasy treat. There are also the many sweeping, overworld themes that really make you feel like you’re on some large-scale Tolkien style journey every time you travel from one place to another. In fact, this feature alone made me not care so much that you don’t unlock a fast travel feature till nearly 3/4 of the way through the game, because traveling through beautiful environments with great, atmospheric music in the background was just such a joy. I also attribute this music to the fact that whenever I walk away from the game, the music and visuals stay with me. Even now I can’t wait to get home and get back to my new, colourful ‘happy place’. It all adds to that distinct feel that every Studio Ghibli film has and with the music and visuals, the game manages to sustain that joyous flight of imagination of the films, only instead of only lasting an hour or two, it lasts for 40 hours or more.
So all in all, this game definitely has a lot to offer. It’s not without it’s faults and this is a classic JRPG, no doubt, so if you’ve never liked Japanese RPG’s before you may have a lot of the same issues here. But if you own a PS3 and are a Studio Ghibli fan then you simply owe it to yourself to try this game out because really, it’s the closest you’ll ever get to being on an adventure like this yourself.
Ben O’Brien hosts a weekly radio show on 2rrr 88.5fm called ‘Big Head Mode’. You can stream the show every friday, at 9pm on www.2rrr.org.au and you can follow the show on facebook for updates, news and gaming reviews at www.facebook.com/bigheadmode2rrr