'Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch' from Namco Bandai.
'Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch' from Namco Bandai.
What do you get if you combined a legendary animation studio with a respected video game developer? You get Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Which. A collected effort with Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli ('Spirited Away', 'Princess Mononoke') and Level 5 (Dragon Quest VIII and the Professor Layton series), Ni No Kuni provides a comfortably-paced, story-centric role playing game that provides for an excellent gameplay experience.
As the story begins, players are introduced to Oliver. He's a happy 13 year old boy who lives at home with his single mom. Not soon after, however, tragedy strikes and his mom is lost. Crying for three days straight, his innocent tears bring to life a doll his mother had made for him. The doll turns out to be Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Faeries (no, really, that's what he calls himself). Drippy tells Oliver of his own magical land and the strife that's consumed it, finally stating that his mother has a double in this other land ("Ni No Kuni" literally means "Second Country") and, should they save her from her peril, there is a chance Oliver's mother could come back to him. Without considering what it would be like to have a (presumably) zombie for a mom, Oliver gathers himself and sets off on an adventure to defeat the Dark Djinn Shadar and save his mother's double (and the land itself). It's a tale that is as charming and fun as it is genuinely interesting.
Gameplay begins simply enough. Initially, Oliver only explores his native Motortown, interacting with the locals. Once he meets Drippy and magically travels to the Lord High Lord of the Faeries' realm, however, things expand to include combat (initially just with Oliver then soon with others), magic, alchemy, and more. New mechanics and gameplay elements are introduced over time. Alchemy, for example, doesn't make an appearance until almost four hours in. This allows the player ample time to get a firm grasp of (if not nearly master) each aspect of Ni No Kuni's gameplay before introducing the next.
Combat is by far the most important and commonly used of all of the main components, save for simple navigation. Battles are active, yet turn-based. While initially players just go at it as Oliver, he'll soon learn to call forth familiars to do the fighting for him. Each of the player's eventual three active characters have three familiar slots each, and each familiar can be hot-swapped mid-battle for another (or the controlled character himself). Characters not being actively controlled by the player are instead controlled by the AI, but, like Square-Enix's Final Fantasy XII and it's "Gambit" system, players can dictate tactics to party members and even switch party leads mid-battle.
With all that's involved when battling, it's a bit surprising that it all flows as well as it does. It would be perfect, actually, if it weren't for the in-battle menu system. It's not that it's wholly bad, it simply could have been laid out better. A minor nuisance most of the time, it only really rears its ugly head during times when quick menu navigation is critical (boss battles come to mind).
Outside of combat mechanics, Oliver (as previously mentioned) has a good amount of magic at his disposal. While many of these spells are good for combat, many are for the exclusive use of out-of-combat circumstances. The most important of these are the Take/Give Heart spells. Part of the trouble Drippy's world is in is due to Shadar stealing parts of people's hearts, leaving them "brokenhearted". The Brokenhearted are afflicted with a serious character flaw, be it a lack of courage, restraint, or a number of other possibilities. With Take Heart, Oliver is able to take a piece of somebody's heart who has said aspect to spare. Give Heart gives that aspect to the Brokenhearted to make them whole again. The process itself is a little slow as far as animations and such is concerned; and it seems a bit silly as a whole, but it works for the innocence of the story and is tolerable because of it.
Ni No Kuni's Alchemy mechanic is easily the least appealing of the bunch. It's useful in the fact that Oliver can manufacture potions, quest items, and other odds and ends through the combination of different synth materials. It actually seems like a stripped-down version of the alchemy found in rival developer Gust's niche Atelier games. All-in-all, this is one aspect of gameplay that Level 5 could have omitted from Ni No Kuni without anybody missing it.
During play, Ni No Kuni features cell-shaded visuals. There are many who simply are not fans of this art style due to its lack of visual depth and oft-simplicity. Thanks to help from Studio Ghibli, Ni No Kuni actually pulls it because it meshes to well with the game's hand-animated sequences, allowing for the studio's iconic art style to shine through.
Clean, charming visuals are only part of Ni No Kuni's overall presentation package. The game is also (mostly) voiced with the same quality as one would expect from any of Miyazaki's animated features. Voice overs are available in both English and Japanese with subtitles available for both. The soundtrack, too, impresses. Ni No Kuni's original score was done by Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi is also the one responsible for scoring most of Studio Ghibli's features, including the 1984 film 'Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind' and, more recently, 'Ponyo' (2008).
In short, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is the JRPG that both lovers and haters of the genre should find quite enjoyable. While not perfect, it is still exceptionally good. Fans of Miyazaki's work will likely find this game especially pleasant.
(Namco Bandai supplied a copy of this game for review.)
Version tested: PS3