Namco’s new RPG, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, is a celebration of Anime and Japanese role-playing games like no other. The largest anime convention in North America, Anime Expo in Los Angeles, Calif. isn’t until July, but Ni No Kuni is an event unto itself.
Developer Level 5, best known for its work on the Professor Layton series, Dragon Quest VIII, and Dark Cloud, has teamed up with the world’s best known anime filmmakers. Studio Ghibli is responsible for the Academy Award winning Spirited Away and other well known films like Princess Mononoke, Ponyo, and Grave of the Fireflies.
The first thing you need to know about Ni no Kuni is that it’s a throwback JRPG and a really huge one at that. Except for the level of quality in its presentation, there is little groundbreaking in this game. Unfortunately, due to the amount of content, the game isn’t able to maintain that quality throughout the game. There is some great animation and well-done voice work, but that is only offered at key moments. That means there is an awful lot of reading, which along with classic JRPG mechanics is bound to turn many gamers off.
If you’ve watched any amount of anime at all, you’ve most likely seen a Studio Ghibli film or one that was heavily influenced by it. Something like the anime version of Pixar, many of their titles are family-friendly. Ni no Kuni fits that bill perfectly.
The premise for the game is something like the movie The Neverending Story’s combined with Harry Potter. Set in the town of Motorville that looks like an anime version of a Norman Rockwell painting, players take the role of a young boy named Oliver. Oliver lives in a house with his mother and is well known around the village.
Ni no Kuni gets things moving along pretty quickly and an accident could have put a tragic end to the story pretty quickly. There is some magic in this world though and with some intervention, Oliver and this tale avoid an early conclusion. Instead of Oliver dying, the consequences of his careless actions are paid for by his mother. His grief and tears specifically, bring to life an old toy that offers hope to save his mother’s life. There is another dimension, named Ni no Kuni tied tightly with this one which may offer a solution for Oliver and desperately needs his help regardless.
This parallel dimension mechanic isn’t new. It’s been used in The Legend of Zelda games since the Super Nintendo and as recently as the latest Devil May Cry. Bioware’s throwback western RPG Dragon Age: Origins also had a similar concept called “The Fade.” In Ni no Kuni, the ability to travel back and forth is one of the first gifts given to young Oliver. Except for this aspect, the game feels an awful lot like the latest home console version of Dragon Quest. The rest of the mechanics will all feel very familiar for JRPG veterans.
Part-sandbox, part-dungeon crawler Ni no Kuni has a main over world that can be travelled freely. Eventually fast travel is unlocked to save time, but a fair amount of grinding is needed to be able to progress. The locations are varied, some are simple pathways that must be crawled and other locations like towns are free to explore and interact with.
Unlike the over world, saving your progress is very limited in these areas. These interactions often lead to side quests, of which there is a near-endless supply. Most of the side quests require the mending of broken hearts. These simple descriptions like broken hearts and even the elementary names that fill the bestiary will put off some players since they seemingly remind players that the game is intended for a less sophisticated audience.
The world of Ni no Kuni is filled with monsters looking to put the beat down on you and your group. You can see the monsters and try to avoid them or try to sneak up behind them for a surprise attack. The combat is a hybridized turn-based system where each character has timer and cool downs, but can move around the battle arena freely. Your character has hit points and magic points and when you die, you can pay a 10% of your accumulated wealth as a fee to continue from where you fell.
Where things are a little different in the game is the use of familiars. Familiars in Ni no Kuni are something like Pokémon. You collect them and can have them fight for you. They, like Pokémon, also have elemental bases that offer varying skills and levels of effectiveness against enemies. You and these familiars can be switched in real time during the battle along with the other members of your party and their familiars. The characters and these familiars will accumulate experience whether they are used or not because the damage your familiar takes is yours. It will take awhile to master combat and thanks to poor ally A.I., working with others in your group is really more work than it should be.
Ni no Kuni as a whole is a great game, but it’s certainly not a game for everyone. The huge amount of reading, grinding and turn-based combat make it an instant no for many gamers. Though there is an audience for classic RPGs, the dated gameplay is unlikely to win over many new fans. There is also the voice of the game, which at many times indicates that it’s geared for grade-schoolers.
While the whole game certainly isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, Ni no Kuni at times, feels an awful lot like playing a Disney movie. That’s not always a bad thing though and at its best moments the game is beautiful piece of art.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Content Descriptors.