Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch – Sorta Review
I’ve been thinking about this one for a while, and it’s been a difficult one, for one very simple reason. There’s so much to this game, that it would be hard to mention it all without writing an essay, so I’ll have to figure out what to pick and what to leave out.
Let’s get the formalities out of the way. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a game made by Level 5 in cooperation with Studio Ghibli for the PS3, and it was published by Namco Bandai Games. There was an earlier version for the DS that came out in Japan in 2010, but that never made it to European or North American regions because of the translation issues, largely due to the fact that each copy shipped with a real-life Wizard’s Companion of about 300 pages.
I don’t personally own a PS3, but I have played a lot of this game on my nephew’s. Probably 40-50 hours worth. I am not at the end, but I don’t know when I’ll next have time to go play, and I doubt my opinion will change at this point.
I read several reviews before I got to play it myself, and while they were all glowing with high scores, I wasn’t entirely sold. The way they described it, the features highlighted, the weaknesses emphasised. It all made it seem like something I’d tire of really quickly, but I had some time to kill while I was staying with my nephew over Easter. I booted up Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the Witchy Spooklums, and boy, did I get hooked.
What Level 5 and Studio Ghibli have done here is create a magnificent example of a JRPG. If you don’t like JRPGs at all, this is unlikely to be the game that will sell you on them, because it is very much that.
My biggest worry when I started playing was how almost all the reviews had talked about how grindy the game is, and I thought this would be what would put me off it. And it certainly is very grindy, yet… I found that it struck a sweet spot with me where I didn’t really mind.
I’m sure that part of that is the lack of random encounters. All monsters are visible on the screen, and you run into them to start a battle. Or they might run into you if they spot you. Or run away if your level is too high for them. Though certain monsters will come after you regardless of your level because they know no fear. So if you just leg it, or have certain helpful spells, you can avoid monsters altogether if you don’t want to fight.
And combat is usually brief and entertaining. At least, I’ve yet to reach a point where it gets old, but I suppose that depends on the person playing. You get up to three protagonists, and they can each carry along three Familiars to use in combat. You can also have three reserves if you like swapping things up. Each protagonist can only fight with one at a time, though they can swap them or take the field personally at a moment’s notice. And you will need to swap since each Familiar has a stamina bar meaning they need to rest occasionally. Normal battles will usually not last long enough for that, but in boss battles and such a lot of the strategy is knowing when to use what familiar, and what spells/abilities to cast when. It requires a more active participation than I’m used to from JRPGs, and I appreciate that, even if it still can get a bit spammy.
So how do you get Familiars? Well, a few you’ll get through story progression, but most of them you’ll have to capture yourself. You need to have a certain character and reach a certain point in the story before this is unlocked, but it can get a bit obsessive once you get started. It’s basically Level 5’s version of Pokémon. They can even evolve to new forms! Though honestly they rarely look radically different from their previous form. Just enough to be fairly distinct. I will admit I was rather sentimental and usually stuck with my starting familiars. There is however a point of annoyance here: Whether or not you get to capture a Familiar is based on a random chance when you defeat them. There’s no skill to it. Which can get a bit annoying when the RNG just isn’t in your favour. I’m a persistent bastard though.
Another thing that makes the grind more tolerable is how rapidly things level up. It’s actually rare to do a combat against things around my own level without at least one Familiar or protagonist leveling up. I like seeing numbers go up, okay? And when you find the special mobs that give sick amounts of exp, well… you might just spend an hour hunting them down for fun. Unless you’re not like me and just nab a couple before moving on, you weirdo.
Another thing that might put people off is that Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the Wicked Witch of the South-West has the longest tutorial I’ve seen outside of Final Fantasy XIII. It introduces new concepts and features for hours on end, but I feel this is mitigated by the structure of the game. You always have options to explore. You can run around the over-world, hunt around dungeon areas for loots, talk to people, do side-quests and so on. More stuff opens up to you as you unlock new features, but you’re never locked into a corridor in the way that FFXIII did. You get to play around and check out what you can do with the new stuff you got access to. Like, first thing I did when I got my ship was sail off in the opposite direction of where I was supposed to go, make landfall on a strange island and get murdered by the high-level creeps that were there. The game doesn’t really stop you from doing dumb stuff like that, and neither does it harshly punish you for exploring or experimenting in places you’re not ready for. You simply reload at the last checkpoint, which is usually the last town you were in.
I also appreciate that I can save at pretty much any point in the game, and reload the game right back at where I was, instead of being stuck to specific save spots. Dungeon areas do have save stones, but (and I could be wrong) I believe you can still save at any point you’re not being chased. I mostly use the stones to recover my health and mana for free.
Speaking of mana, it would be terribly remiss of me to not mention Ni No Kuni: Wrath of Which Salem Witch is Which‘s spell system. See, unlike most videogame RPGs, the vast majority of the main character’s spells are for out-of-combat use. And even a lot of the combat ones can have alternate uses. Like using a fireball to light a torch or melt an icy barrier. I was casting spells left and right for all sorts of purposes, and it made me feel like a proper wizard. It was fun, plain and simple. A small point of contention is that some of the spells I’ve gotten I’ve not been allowed to actually cast, for whatever reason. Either they’re unlocked later, or they’re just there for filler, even though they seem useful. I’d have to complete the game to find out, I guess.
See, you have this Wizard Companion. For the DS it was a physical book, but on the PS3 it’s in the game. And it is a book. It’s massive. You can look up just about anything in there. Alchemical formulas, spells, Familiar information, item descriptions, area information, short stories, history of the world, translation for the magical alphabet, and more. And the more you play, the more stuff is unlocked, and it’s actually a tad scary. I guess you can call it the Witchhiker’s Guide to Wizardry.
Blimey, all this way into talking about Ni No Kuni: Wrath of Who Witches the Witchmen* and I haven’t even mentioned the story or the main character’s name or anything like that. Your main protagonist in the game is Oliver (though the game let me pick a name for the save file, so I went with Harry) who loses his mother, is told he’s a wizard by a fairy called Mr. Drippy, and travels to a magical parallel world to try to find a way to save his mother. That’s really all you need to know, as the joy is in discovering this tale for yourself.
I really love the writing and voice-acting in this game. Level 5 and Studio Ghibli show a good grasp of humour, humanity, world-building and even drama. It is not particularly subtle, as most ‘twists’ in the game I’ve seen coming some way in advance. And of course the protagonists are usually oblivious to it until it’s been spelled out for them, which is pretty typical JRPG I have to admit. It never wants you to get stuck, so it makes sure you are given the info you need. Which was disappointing to me at one point as part of the main quest we found a marker with the magical rune-like Nazcäan script on it, and I immediately set to work translating it, only to have Mr. Drippy do it for Oliver automatically afterwards, rendering my efforts moot. On the upside there are a few side-quests where you do have to actually work stuff out on your own with riddles from the Sage of Ages, but the main quest doesn’t take any chances.
I should also post a warning to those have an aversion to puns. The game is rife with them. Just loads. Everywhere. And people say them completely without irony or self-awareness, which just makes it all the more hilarious. It’s just natural to them to call the cat-king “Your Meowjesty” or the cow-queen “Your Moojesty”. I enjoy it personally, and I had a giggle-fit when I caught my first Tyke Familiar and the name-generator immediately suggested naming it “Tyke Myson” (which I of course accepted). But if you hate puns, you might want to steer clear of this one.
And with Studio Ghibli onboard I suppose it was a given that the visuals and soundtrack would be astounding, and they really, really are. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the Famous Witchester Sauce* is colourful, varied, well-designed and interesting to look at. The music score in the background helps set the tone nicely, and it all comes together to make it seem like you’re traveling through a vibrant and alive world. I would have liked to have seen more of Oliver’s world as well, though. It gets a bit ridiculous when it turns out that everyone in the whole magical world has a soul-mate in Oliver’s little town.
I could probably go on for a while, but I think I’ll call it there. There’s most likely important stuff I haven’t mentioned, but it’s probably enough. I will round this off by saying that a third of the way into the year, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of Granny Weatherwax is a top contender for Game of the Year for me. It’s beautiful, witty, heartfelt, touching, fun and captivating.
If you have a PS3 and don’t hate JRPGs, I’d call this a must-have.
I do wonder what’s the deal with Oliver’s dad…