Combining the talents of the well-known Level 5 studio (Dark Cloud, Professor Layton series, White Knight Chronicles) and legendary animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Ponyo, Whispers of the Heart), Ni no Kuni (fully, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch) is a wonder to behold. The intelligence of your computer controlled allies can be a source of frustration at times, and the mana cost of spells versus how often you regain mana is incredibly unbalanced, but the rest of the gameplay and storytelling is such a pleasure that the smaller annoyances won’t deter you (too much).
Ni no Kuni follows the story of Oliver, a young boy who discovers another world while in the depths of grief over losing his mother. Buoyed by the possibility of rescuing her from her fate, Oliver resolves to quest through this troubled land. In doing so, he begins fulfilling prophecies about “The Pure-Hearted One”: the foretold savior of this new land, restoring hope where the Dark Djinn, and the titular White Witch, have stolen it away.
Joining Oliver along the way is the usual assortment of characters for an RPG such as this. Unfortunately, one of the main annoyances of the game rears its head when you begin to have other characters in your party. The computer controlled characters will follow basic paths when it comes to assisting you in combat. You can tell them general ideas, from “Go all out!” to “Be backup” to “Assist me” and so on, and the system will take it from there.
The issue starts when the AI decides that it’s going to consume all the magical power it has on useless spells and actions. There’s no way to fine tune how Oliver’s allies act and react, and so they will waste all their reserves at the beginning of a battle leaving you with nothing to work with for the rest. I eventually wound up setting the companions to the “Do nothing” setting, and then micromanaged them. Irritating, but it was less irritating then having them run around wasting MP.
The gameplay can get fast and furious and, while the combat system is serviceable but not overly fun, it does need some tweaking. The mana cost for abilities and spells is far too high for the relative slowness that you accumulate the resource. I was able to, for many battle situations, simply run around in circles to avoid the enemy’s attacks. This allowed one of the characters, who cavorts around the perimeter of the combat area, to throw out mana- and health-restoring bubbles for me to collect. This was, I felt, a huge waste of time; one battle against two enemies lasted nearly twelve minutes (I timed it), because I was running around in circles for almost 9 of that trying to recoup mana. You can purchase potions to restore health and mana but they are, again, over-priced for the rate you accumulate currency.
Even in these long, drawn-out situations, the visuals of Ni no Kuni are stunning. The watercolor-style visuals for the main world map, which Oliver and company (sorry, Eric, not a Disney reference) adventure across, are lush, and it feels like you’re watching a Studio Ghibli film. The animated sequences have just a tiny bit of stutter to them, as if they were created at a lower frames-per-second speed than the rest of the game. They are still very good, and I couldn’t help but grin at many of them because, frankly, it’s like watching a Miyazaki film for the first time. Exploring the game world is a pleasure, and there’s always something to see just around the bend.
The sheer depth and detail that went into the game can be staggering at times. You could spend an entire play session or four reading the in-game encyclopedia, which not only contains information but also short stories. You can even pull out your own writing supplies and work to translate the wizarding symbols that are scattered throughout the game using the information you discover along your travels. There are a large number of side quests that will keep you busy for days, and you can take on bounty hunts to stop rampaging monsters from threatening the populace. You can build your skill at one of the core concepts of the game by restoring hope (or, in game known as pieces of “heart”) to various characters, each with their own story and needs.
I loved the effort that went into the localization of the script and the voicing of the characters. The stand out character in the English dub, at least for me, was Drippy. This guide that you meet early in the game will stay by Oliver’s side as a faithful companion and help him navigate the sometimes treacherous world that Oliver finds himself in. His thick Welsh accent in the English dub was perfect for the character, with all the colloquialisms, but I did need to turn on the subtitles to make sure that I understood everything he was saying.
The music, composed by long-time Studio Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi, is both appropriately whimsical and epic in scope at the appropriate times. There were moments that I wanted to just leave the game running with the main world map open to simply listen to the themes that played. One downside, if you can call it that, is that someone intimately familiar with previous works by Hisaishi will pick up on near-identical themes and cues. Having almost 20 various albums by him from other Studio Ghibli films, it was occasionally distracting to hear a musical sequence that triggered my brain to expect one of the themes from Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind or Mononoke Hime, morph itself into something completely different.
Even with the drawbacks, there is simply nothing like Ni no Kuni on the market today. The meticulous attention to the small details, the incredible blending of the visuals, the music, the voice-acting … these all combine to breathe life into the world of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. As Mr Drippy says, “That’s right! A whole ‘nother world; beautiful en’t it?”
Yes, Mr. Drippy, yes, it is.