Over the years, the once mighty Japanese RPGs began to slowly depreciate as more action-driven Western RPGs appeared on the market. Originally released in Japan for the Nintendo 3DS in 2010, animated filmmaker Studio Ghibli and RPG developer Level-5’s Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is one of the rare JRPGs of this console generation that manages to emulate the nostalgia felt playing an old-school RPGs from the 16-bit era.
Similar to many of Studio Ghibli’s animated movies, Ni No Kuni, Japanese for “Second Country,” deals with motley character’s perception of the world and how their life can change in an instant. This visually stunning adventure places you in the shoes of Oliver, a young boy who suffers a traumatic event and with the help of his childhood toy, Mr. Drippy the King of the Fairies, embarks on a journey to a parallel world to become a mage and put an end to the corrupting influence of the dark Djinn Shadar. Alternating back and forth between two worlds, Oliver meets an assortment of familiar faces in a bizarre new land populated by talking cats, culinary Genies and ageless wizards. Unlike similar titles in the genre, you will actually care about the main protagonist and the brilliant cast of characters he encounters. The story’s unexpectedly heavy and at times passé, but you’ll find yourself unknowingly smile all the way through.
On the presentation front, every character, creature, town and landscape you come across is imaginative and charming. The gorgeous worlds you traverse are huge, with tons of detail and plenty of hidden towns, caves, and items sprinkled throughout. Enemies are also visible and nearly impossible to avoid, making your trip sometimes feel overwhelming. Studio Ghibli is a true master in their field, with the game touting adorable and stunning cutscenes. Characters and enemies are brought to life with bright colors and very unique design choices. Rounding off the experience is a well voiced cast that brings each character and scene to life. A masterful score written by renowned Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi and beautifully played out by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra is full of varied and memorable tunes that you’ll be humming them for days.
As with all JRPGs, combat takes center stage to progression and developer Level-5 have smartly drawn influence from two popular franchises in this department. Mixing Pokèmon‘s creature-capturing with the Tales of series’ real-time 3D battle system, fights are quick and strategically deep affairs. Oliver is free to roam around the battlefield and can cast spells or use melee actions against his foes–from a menu–but the main focus is the ‘Familiar’ system. Oliver will capture ‘Familiars’ (Small monsters) throughout his journey, whom can be upgraded with different equipment and leveled up independently. Oliver and his party members can bring three ‘Familiars’ for battle while sharing their Health and Mana. Developing a strategy to switch between a defensive ‘Familiar’ and one with more offensive stats becomes crucial if you wish to survive some of the more difficult battle.
Leveling up your ‘Familiars’ is done by feeding them different types of food with various attributes tied to categories like attack or magic defense. Each ‘Familiar’ is limited to 10 stats upgrades, so you have to pick and choose wisely the areas you wish to improve. Be prepared to spend a lot of time grinding your characters in order to get your party to a level where boss battles are not impossible to pass. After enough leveling, you will have the opportunity to evolve your ‘Familiar’ into a stronger form. In the final stage of evolution, you will be giving a choice as to how you want to continue to train. One might focus on defense while the other attack and both learn different skills. With the ability to acquire nearly a hundred ‘Familiars’ from 14 different classes, each outfitted with special abilities, attributes, and affinities that govern their effectiveness in battle, the replay value of Ni No Kuni is greatly increased.
My major gripe with the battle system was that the window to defend passes way too quickly. It is extremely frustrating having to defend your character and also order your questionable AI party member to defend themselves at the same time. The lack of control is annoying during the regular enemy encounters throughout Ni no Kuni, but it’s a serious hindrance in more apparent during difficult boss battles. Boss encounters are built around a primary strategy of avoiding major attacks by defending or evading. As with all other actions, defending requires flipping through a menu and selecting it in real time; therefore bosses have build-up to their major attacks to give you time to select.
Though the main quest is linear, there are plenty of side quests waiting off the beaten track to take part in. You’ll engage in the standard fetch quests, as well “Hunt” missions entrusting you with taking down specific enemies or a mini-boss. But the most interesting ones are where Oliver has to help the broken-hearted, individuals whose personalities are “off-balance.” Helping them mend their broken hearts or overcome their fears will earn you incentives and rewards. Gathering stamps of approval from the people you assist are placed onto Merit Cards. Earn enough stamps and you can unlock special rewards like a boost to experience points, or improvements to core skills like ‘Familiar’ capturing abilities and increasing your walking speed on the world map. It’s a clever system that makes the side quest content feel like it’s adding something of value to your experience. These boosts are very helpful and make completing these quests more of a necessity than an option.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an refreshing and unique experience that brings together a solid story and characters with gorgeous visuals and an engaging Pokèmon capturing mechanic. Its quality goes far beyond its endearing story and stunning design however, with progression judged so expertly that you can’t help but be drawn into the world. In the end, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch redeemed my faith in the JRPG genre.