You know how long it’s been since I played a new, proper JRPG? You know, with proper battles, proper levelling up, proper world maps, proper dungeons? Too bloody long, I’ll tell you that much. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has come along to save the day, with it’s old school sensibilities wrapped under a shiny anime coat. After some time with the game though, is this return to the old school really what RPG fans need?
Ni No Kuni is a co-developed project from two Japanese favourites; games studio Level 5 and animation company Studio Ghibli, sometimes known as the Disney of Japan. The pedigree is immediately apparent, and you can see shades of the studio’s other works in the game with ease. The art style is classic Ghibli, with the charm and unique flair their works always achieve. The gameplay is reminiscent of Level 5′s previous titles Dark Chronicle, and Rogue Galaxy, with a focus on real time, super fun combat.
The plot follows the adventures of Oliver, a young lad who has recently lost his mother. Oliver’s tears awaken his toy doll, who turns out to be a fairy from another land. This fairy (known delightfully as Mr Drippy) takes you on a journey to his land, pronouncing Oliver as the pure-hearted one, a prophesied child who can rid his world of a great evil. Let’s be honest, it’s pretty cookie cutter stuff, but the charm of the characters keep you interested, and while it feels a touch cliche, you shouldn’t mind too much.
Helping the game’s atmosphere, and one of it’s greatest achievements, is it’s delightful graphics. The world looks like it’s been pulled straight from a Ghibli movie. The care put into the cel-shading is superb, really nailing that sort of childrens anime feel. The inhabitants are wondrous and varied too, with many different kinds of people and beasties to interact with. Even the animation is great too, with fabrics flapping about believably, and characters toddling about the place in some delightfully bouncy ways.
The real kicker though, is the world map. Ni No Kuni is a “proper” old school RPG, which means a decent world map that you can run about in. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s gorgeous. Hills roll, rivers wind, rocks dot the landscape, and the whole area is a pleasure to run about in. The minimap even displays a wonderful little hand drawn version of the world, with easily visible landmarks to navigate by. The towns and dungeons have just as much care put into them too, with little styling details present everywhere you look, nailing that “fairyland” feeling with ease.
You may have noticed we’ve been focusing on the more aesthetic aspects of the game so far, the visuals, the atmosphere, this sort of thing. Sadly, when it comes to gameplay, Ni No Kuni hasn’t maintained the high standard that the visuals have set. The combat is real time, and has you controlling your beasties with a set of commands. In general, it skips along well enough, with fights usually over quite quickly, without too much fuss. The problem is that the game doesn’t pause for you to select these commands, making quick heals and defends a nightmare in a scrape. Many a fight was lost due to not being able to scroll the menu quick enough.
The problems don’t end there though. Oliver can use up to three other familiars to fight with him, but only one of these four combatants can be used at a time, and you share the health bar. Say your front line fighter is taking hits? By the time you swap out to Oliver to heal, you’ve been knocked out flat. It’s not that it’s particularly hard, and it won’t happen often, but getting caught out always happens at the worst possible times.
Your compatriots aren’t much help either. You end up with a party of three people, each with up to three familiars each, They’ll fight by themselves pretty easily, but it’s impossible to input individual commands for the other fighters. This results in a very “do what you feel like” style of combat, and can have them running out MP gauges way too quickly. The group tactic commands help fix this problem, but these don’t get unlocked for a while, forcing you to make do until you acquire them.
The quests are not that much better either. The actual characters are always interesting, varied, and fun to talk to. The first few quests are fun enough, but the quests soon devolve into a few key types. You either go get items for someone, go capture a specific monster for someone, or fix someones broken heart, an interesting mechanic rendered tedious by the way it’s handled.
You’ll come across people who seem down, and are missing a key part of their heart, like enthusiasm, or courage. You need to find other people with an excess of this feeling, and transfer it to the brokenhearted person. However, people with these emotions are marked out obviously on the map, removing any sense of challenge, and reducing these quests to tedious legwork.
On the subject of legwork, Ni No Kuni has a surprisingly grindy core to it’s gameplay and questing. The key offender is the “collect this beastie” type of quest. You need to fight the beast until you get lucky and it lets you capture it. Not so bad usually, but if luck is against you, you have the possibility of HOURS of work trying to catch one. A notable one we experienced was in trying to get a Green Buncher, a large banana man. This took over two hours until we caught one, with the capture state just not happening. Infuriatingly, there is nothing you can do to improve your odds, you just have to keep plugging away until you catch one. The charm rapidly wears off, this much is true.
Now, you’d think all this negativity means Ni No Kuni is a bad game. Its not, its really not. The problem lies in a few silly choices that mar an otherwise incredible game. When it works, bouncing about the place with childlike glee, its a magical experience. The charm, and attention to detail oozes from every pore, it really is stunning. Sadly, a few key irritants ruin an otherwise great title. A lesser game would have gotten away with a smaller smack on the wrist for the same crimes, and I know that sounds ridiculous, but let me explain.
Ni No Kuni was shooting for the top, a classic JRPG, with the monolithic Studio Ghibli behind it. It almost succeeded, but the mistakes it makes stand out so much more than they should have. I was rooting for Ni No Kuni to be outstanding, but “pretty good” seems more appropriate. It’s not bad, it’s just disappointing.
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