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Review: Ni No Kuni

Review: Ni No Kuni


Console: PlayStation 3
Players: Single
Release Date: 1st February 2013
Developers: Level-5
Publishers: Level-5
Genre: Roleplay, Fantasy
Price: €55.99

JRPGS have often suffered the problem of having a small appeal and a niche audience. It can be a difficult genre to get into. From the outside it can look daunting, have weird and “out there” stories, esoteric control systems or just managing numbers popping up on the screen. Level 5 attempts to circumvent this by teaming up with anime masters Studio Ghibli to bring us Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. The name Studio Ghibli instantly gives this game a broader appeal than it could ever achieve on its own. It’s a valiant attempt to introduce new blood into a waning demographic. Combining the amazing talent that brought us Spirited Away and Totoro with the guys who created Professor Layton, Dark Cloud and some of the Dragon Quest Games, It’s a win win situation right? Let’s see…

On Average Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, is pretty by the numbers, but it looks good doing it. The hand drawn animation by Studio Ghibli is of course beyond reproach, while this exact style doesn’t carry over the main gameplay, it still looks good. Ni No Kuni delivers a cell shaded Anime style with simple polygons covered in creative textures. Graphically it doesn’t push the PS3 to its limits and if you told me this was a Wii game or maybe even a PS2 game I’d believe you. But it’s not about power, it’s about style and charm and Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has it in spades.

The story of Ni No Kuni is a fairly simple one and nothing we really haven’t seen before if you’ve played a few JRPGS. You are Oliver a young boy whose mother dies and his resulting tears break the curse placed on Drippy the Lord High Lord of the Fairies. Once free, Drippy tells Oliver that he is the “Pure Hearted One”, and that he must travel to another world to save them from the Dark Djinn and have a chance at restoring his mother to life. Soon after he starts to learn magic spells, finds a talking tree etc, the usual stuff.

Mechanically it’s also fairly simple. You run around small to medium sized maps, you always have a direction indicator for where to head next, almost to the point that it discourages exploration. There are lots of townspeople, some human, some not, that will fill you in on the goings on or give you quests and errands. The Combat too is fairly simple but interesting and can be quite fun at times, feeling like a cross between active time battles and a real time action combat like Dark Cloud, you can fight as Oliver with magic spells or summon familiars (Pokémon) to fight in your place, you all share the same health and mana bars. You will gain up to three party members each of which can summon one of three familiars. There are 400 familiars in the game to catch and train and each has their own abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

This gives the potential for a lot of strategy, but the controls let it down as menu navigation is clunky at best. For example you use the left analog stick to move in combat, but to choose between Attack, Spells, Items, Defend etc. you must use the D-Pad, which can be very awkward unless you are blessed with two thumbs on your left hand.
It can be quite annoying as there are few timing specific abilities that I found myself messing up because I couldn’t contort myself quick enough, also after using abilities there is a cool down period which often leaves you character standing there immobile while it recharges, you end completely open to attack.

Mapping those abilities to shoulder buttons or even having movement on the right analog stick could have solved this easily.

The game sounds amazing, between composer Joe Hisaishi and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra your ears are in for a treat. The talent brought together here is almost world shattering. The music and overall sounds of the game are just pure ear candy. Even the menu beeps and boops just conjure up the feeling of nostalgia for the those 8 and 16 bit RPGS I grew up on. I’m not sure if it’s intended or a glitch but I found during some battles the combat music would just drop out, leaving the rest of the fight in silence except for the combat sound effects but it’s something a patch could take care of.
The music is one thing, the voice acting is another.

Drippy your sidekick for the entire game is voiced by a very talented actor, the rest of the cast not so much. So much so it creates some cognitive dissonance that may hinder your enjoyment. Drippy himself while very well acted and well written has taken on a strong Welsh accent, the reason for this is that in the Japanese audio he has a very thick Osaka accent to make him stand out from everyone else. I don’t think the localisers are trying to compare Osaka to Wales or tell us where Torchwood Japan should be located or anything like that; but it is jarring when listening to this well acted Welsh accent compared the other mediocre accents which are generally British except when they are sometimes not. It’s the fact that he is so much better than some of the others that it highlights the large talent gap, that after about seven hours I switched to the Japanese audio and found it much more enjoyable. The only thing about the English subtitles is that they are still in “Welsh”, the translation is close enough overall but some minor details are different, the gist is the same, not really a problem if you don’t speak Japanese I guess.

Another nitpick I have is that the game isn’t voiced all the way. The Ghibli animations are all fully voiced, but the rest of the game randomly alternates between fully voiced scenes, to partially voiced scenes, to just walls of text. It can be jarring when a scene switches from full voiced work to plain text in the middle of a conversation. I would have preferred the whole game to be voiced obviously, but if that wasn’t an option I would have kept the voice work totally for the Ghibli stuff, and left the rest text based to play into the old school JRPG feel.

Ni No Kuni is good game, but feels like it’s aiming for a new and possibly younger audience as an introduction to this kinda game (and that’s okay). There is no point in throwing Time Compression, Disgaea’s ridiculous stats, or Fire emblem’s Perma-Death system at the uninitiated, that would more likely scare them away forever. The game is simple over-all, both narratively and mechanically for an experienced player, but there is some magic in there I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s like there is some subliminal signal in there modulating the good memory and nostalgia sector of my brain. Playing Ni No Kuni I find myself remembering moments and feelings from games I haven’t thought about in years. It’s like they distilled some of the core feelings from so many things and mixed them together in a way that didn’t clash. Listening to the music I think about Zelda, Macross Plus (of all things), and I feel like I am playing Star Ocean, Dark Cloud, Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasies or the Tales games all over again for the first time.

Despite some lack of polish in certain places Ni No Kuni exceeds here and more than makes up for it. So if you are even vaguely interested in Studio Ghibli, a new or experienced JPRG fan, or a fan of any of the franchises I listed above (or even a Harry Potter fan), it might be worth checking out for you.

Good Points

– Charming

– Great Visual Style

– Sounds Fantastic

Bad Points

– Clunky Menu Navigation

– Mediocre English Voice Action (Not including Drippy)

– Audio glitches in Combat