Outside the clout of the Pokémon series, Japanese RPGs sustain a quiet release in the West to a humble audience and modest sales. You’ll find your Tales game here, your Disgaea there, but no JRPG has released with as much fanfare as Level 5’s latest title, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Coupled with Studio Ghibli’s reputable animation, the game serves as a gorgeous love letter to JRPGs of yore, filled with every mechanic you’ve come to expect from the genre, and with that its most significant issue: it’s locked down in ye olde claustrophobic conventions and functions of the 90s. But the game’s premise is what changes the pace of the typical JRPG trifles you’ve come to expect, coated in a heartbreaking primer and a heartwarming finish.
So let’s not beat around the bush; this game is famous for its good looks, and its arduous localization project (at least for us in the West), though the two-year difference between Japan’s release of the game and ours was well worth the wait. You’ve never seen a game as brilliantly localized as this one, lending side mission titles as pop culture references, excellently characterized dialogue and all the — daft, yet endearing — puns for the names of familiars, the Pokémon-like monsters you catch to use in combat scenarios. However some of the trite and kitschy “save the world through virtue” speeches do manage to squeeze themselves through. Along with the overly sentimental monologues you’ll also have to endure the traditional gasps and chokes followed by an exclamation of a character’s name. The localization may not be perfect, but it’s the best you’ll get, and furthermore the fully realized characters, who carry a gamut of emotion and depth conveyed through exceptional voice acting, are more than enough reason to overlook faults in the writing and immerse yourself in the fairytale the game offers. Though the most disappointing facet of the writing lies with the protagonist, Oliver, who is the lynchpin of this enchanting tale, but suffers from one-dimensional voice acting and platitudinous dialogue.
Oliver’s a simple kid living a perfect depiction of your nowhere whistle-stop: he plays outside, dreams of driving a car and involves himself in general childlike mischief. After suffering a tragic loss, Oliver’s stuffed fairy, Mr. Drippy, comes to life and takes him to another world where his journey of growth and camaraderie flourishes in somewhat of a wizard’s coming of age narrative, set in a whimsical realm. Despite being a young boy with a mouthful of pedestrian text, Oliver’s maturation is perceptible, as he’s shaped by the obstacles of the bizarre sphere he finds himself in, the friendships he builds, and how he learns to persevere through the emotional and physical tribulations that are forced upon him.
This harlequin dimension of Ni No Kuni is magical in every meaning of the word. There are the essential elemental sceneries like “the forest level” or “the fire level,” but what really stands out are the unique kingdoms with their rich politics and histories, each domain harbouring their own enthralling secrets. Every inch of this game is peppered with that Studio Ghibli flavour, from a nursery rhyme kingdom ruled by a tabby cat, to an industrial and communist city hellbent on efficiency and rigid laws. But what brings colour to these vibrant domains are the citizens that inhabit them, and the ordeals that they suffer.
Of course, this is a JRPG, so expect plenty of bounty boards that ask you to complete side quests, but don’t expect any variety. Besides bounty hunts, Ni No Kuni offers little in terms of ancillary gameplay beyond fetch quests. The game does, however, offer an interesting premise for a certain grouping of side quests, in which the villainous wizard Shadar went about breaking people’s hearts, and you’re tasked with mending them. A broken heart in Ni No Kuni entails the dearth of some sort of positive emotion, such as confidence or kindness. So naturally you have to find to an NPC with too much of the given emotion, and use magic to take some it and heal the dispirited. The most compelling aspect of these quests are their initial and concluding interactions with broken-hearted characters, which compose some of the game’s warmest insights and cheeky banter. Having said that, these interactions do get quite repetitive as they are mere fetch quests with a veneer of charm, and recurring characters battle similar issues ad nauseam which takes away from otherwise nuanced dialogue — saving the same marriage five times does get old.
Now when you’re done helping overindulgent soldiers and finding lost possessions for unfortunate souls you could turn to the main quest, traversing the lushest of vistas and exploring the dampest of dungeons. The level design of these areas tout a degree of exploration and treasure to pillage, but you’ll spend more time engaging in combat by means of random encounters and boss battles. These encounters are a hybrid of turn-based and real-time combat, which let you take control of Oliver, his friends and his familiars, with a cool down meter that dictates the frequency at which you may use the myriad of options bestowed upon you. With these combat and provision limitations comes a great deal of strategy to be honed; impeccable timing and multitasking becomes a necessity for later engagements. However when assuming control of a character (human or familiar) in combat there are restraints that leave much to be desired. You have absolute control of your avatar’s movement, though to attack and defend you’re forced to shuffle through a list of moves in real-time whilst avoiding and preparing for incoming attacks. This adds an awkward level of agitation, teasing real-time combat but forcing the player to adhere to the interface of turn-based combat.
A further hinderance to the combat design are the familiars themselves. Grinding is a constant in Ni No Kuni, some areas being near inaccessible for a long while because of the strength of enemies in random encounters. Catching familiars is a mere game of chance; wild familiars randomly choose an interest in you upon defeating them. A newly caught familiar starts off at a low-level and has to ascend its way back to relevance. Unfortunately the same applies to familiars you’ve evolved to a stronger state, impelling you to grind even further since their level resets to one, and drops most of the stats you’ve accumulated.
A fan of JRPGs will absolutely love Ni No Kuni with its dozens of hours of gameplay and hundreds of pieces of equipment to find and craft. After all, it’s a standard JRPG with a fresh coat of paint. You may even enjoy the cacophony that is its gameplay. But anyone looking for any new goods in the department will be out of luck. The layer of charm and whimsy may create enough momentum to carry you through the game but if you don’t already enjoy JRPGs, chances are this game won’t sway your opinion. For some, the game may suffice on aesthetics alone; the writing being quite enchanting for the most part. Coupled with beautiful level design and a wonderfully harmonious soundtrack, Ni No Kuni conjures an unrivalled trek through a fairytale odyssey.