Ni no Kuni - Wrath of the White Witch - PS3 Review

Enchanting.

That is really the primary adjective I came away with after spending about eighty hours with Level-5's Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for the PlayStation 3.

This is a game I have been watching for a long time. Something about the art just caught my eye way back when Namco Bandai first started to show it off. Now, I had heard of Studio Ghibli in the past, but only for a handful of their most popular works. My oldest daughter was actually a very big fan of the studio, which probably explains why she spent as much time as she did sitting beside me watching me play Ni no Kuni.

Still, while pretty graphics are always welcome, you certainly hope for a lot more out of a game. I feel like Ni no Kuni definitely delivers on that front as well. There is a certain pride and love for this game that just comes through in playing it that helps make Oliver's journey a very memorable one for the gamer. Shades of Harry Potter came to mind as I took on the role of a young boy without a family who finds out he is a wizard. You join Oliver on a journey that is marked both by happy and sad moments as he tries to fight off a darkness that is overtaking a mystical world with mysterious ties to Oliver's own.


Graphics - 10:

I touched on them briefly before, and Studio Ghibli has a well-earned reputation for bringing imagination to life through amazing artwork. Vibrant, colorful and detailed, the worlds Oliver explores are interesting and fluid. The cut scenes are lush with full voice acting and animation as well, though it does feel like the framerate is a bit lower than an actual animated movie during some of these scenes. Not a big deal, but something that did just sort of tug at my eye during some of the more active scenes.


Sound & Music - 10:

There is a pretty wide variety of sound effects for the different spells and quick comments characters make while you wander about the world and participate in both conversations and fights frequently. More than that however, is an excellent musical score that would be right at home in a wide number of fantasy movies or games - but feels especially appropriate given the artwork of the game itself.

On top of the music, I feel the need to call out excellent voice work. Characters are often quite lively (Oliver's sidekick, Drippy, is something else. Not only is he about the strangest-looking fairy ever, but his voice work is right up there as well - which really helps make him distinctive and often, amusing). Apparently there are several language tracks as well, and it does come with a bit of install to get them in place, but the footprint was not terribly large and definitely worth it.


Gameplay - 8:

There are a lots of things going on here in Ni no Kuni, and I will address most of them in the intangibles section, but here in gameplay I like to look at how it all comes together. Ni no Kuni does an excellent job of easing you into things, giving you commands and menu options slowly as you progress through the storyline. Unfortunately some of the leveling and combat mechanics are a bit confusing at first, even with the explanation. Some of the bosses feel somewhat cheap as well. The combat has a turn-based feel to it, while giving you some control over your character movement.

Commands are doled out on a wheel type of interface, and in order to best the boss fights, you need to be able to drop in and out of your commands and defensive stances rather quickly at times. This can be a little problematic if you are locked into an animation that is longer than your enemy's. Also, as you and your familiars advance, you gain more skills. This can actually make combat a bit more difficult because you have to flip through more options while trying to move about the field of battle and constantly worrying that a boss attack is going to flatten you. It would have been nice to have an option where favorite skills were perhaps mapped to a hotkey of some sort.


There is a handy 'talking stone' that gives you tons of information and serves as a reference for just about all of your knowledge needs. Also, the game sets out to make things as easy on the player as possible, giving you a star icon on your map (that you can turn off if you feel that is too much hand-holding) that indicates your next quest objective. You can also spot bounty hunts on the map and quest related characters in town maps by their slowly flashing dots.

Some of the side quests are incredibly vague, star indicator or not. You can plug through the main storyline without much effort, but if you are hoping to get all of the trophies and finish all of the side quests, be prepared to sink in some time. Puzzle design is generally fairly simple - none of them stumped me for very long, but many of them made good use of the spells Oliver learns, making them a bit more organic to the game's world.


Intangibles - 9:

The story was pretty entertaining most of the time. There were bits of cheesy dialog, but also some very well voice acted moments of high and low emotional weight. You cannot impact the story at all, like you can in a game like Dragon Age. While this is a fine choice, it does hurt the game's replay value quite a bit.

There are tons of things to do throughout the game, which I enjoyed for the most part. You can do errands (think mostly fetch quests, or some slay-the-specific-monster quests), bounties (slay the specific bigger-than-average monster), 100 hidden treasures around the world (later the Find Fortune spell is wonderful in helping with this), an alchemy system (some recipes you are given, others can be found in the expansive Wizard's book you carry with you) and an evolution system for your familiars that will remind more than a few people of Pokemon.

Sometimes while you are fighting, you earn the chance to have one of your characters serenade the critter. If she does this, the critter will join your party. You can feed treats to critters to improve their statistics, and if you feed them enough of their favorite treat, their familiarity level will go up. This raises their stat cap further (you can do this several times before you hit a final cap). As your critter levels, it will also get an opportunity to evolutionize into a newer, stronger form - but start over at level one. Repeat the process one more time and you can pick from one of two forms.

These familiar are important, because in combat you rely on them. Oliver has some good spells, but he is very weak physically. Your familiars will do most of the heavy lifting in combat, though they can only remain on the field for a certain length of time. Each party member can have up to three familiars, and you can also just use the character him or herself. They share a life bar though, so you have to be aware of the types of enemies you are fighting. It is generally a good little combat system, though some sort of hotkeys for favorite skills or spells might have been nice.


Overall - 9.25:

In many ways, Ni no Kuni is a by-the-numbers JRPG with turn-based combat, a story you cannot change and a fairly standard party structure with character 'types'. However, additional systems and details like the familiar development, the actual use of spells in puzzles and excellent production values make this title stand out from almost all of the JRPG's I have played in the last couple of years. An easy title to recommend if you like RPG's as both Oliver's worlds and journey are enchanting.


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