Japanophiles already know the talent behind Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch makes it one of the most promising titles to come out of Japan in recent years. Not only does the game have thriving Japanese developer Level-5 behind it, but it also has Studio Ghibli—Japan’s prominent animated film studio—at the aesthetic and musical helm.
The first introductory moments of Ni no Kuni prove that the partnership has paid off—visually, at least. It becomes clear after a dozen hours in that the game dodges some pitalls that have poisoned Western reception of Japanese role-playing games in recent years but not all. Unfortunately, Ni no Kini missteps into redundant problems of the genre, holding the title back from reaching sublime heights.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: if you’ve seen a trailer or image of Ni no Kuni, you’re well aware of the game’s staggering beauty. Ni no Kuni’s gorgeous landscapes alone provide more than enough reason to see protagonist Oliver’s lengthy adventure through.
From the traditional Studio Ghibli animated cutscenes that occasionally pop up as a wonderful treat to the smooth stair animations, Ni no Kuni oozes aesthetic charm from the Golden Grove to Hamelin and everywhere in between. It’s not just the in-game visuals, either. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra compliments Ni no Kuni with a wonderful soundtrack on par with the best Disney movies. It often feels like you’re playing an animated feature film and not a videogame.
Without this presentational flair Ni no Kuni would be difficult game to get into. The story slows to a crawl shortly after the first intriguing moments, and Ni no Kuni doesn’t help itself by introducing gameplay mechanics far too slow. The first moments introduce you to Oliver, a boy who lives an idyllic life with his mother in small town 1950s America. Of course, Oliver’s life doesn’t stay idyllic for long, and soon he’s off on an adventure to another world.
Past this, major plot developments are few and far between as the game tasks you with playing problem solver with each town you visit, complete with backtracking and large quantities of pace-slowing dialogue.
Despite the slow pace, Ni no Kuni’s unique protagonist redefines what it means to be a JRPG hero: out with brooding revenge and silent protagonists, and in with Oliver, a young boy trying to make his way through a strange world by helping everyone he can. Oliver’s childish innocence, good-natured attitude and cute little cape make him one of the most refreshing protagonists of any genre—JRPG or otherwise.
Rest assured, Oliver isn’t a pacifist. Ni no Kuni features a combat system which straddles the line between rewarding and clumsy. Drawing inspiration from the Pokemon franchise, Oliver and friends train, capture and battle Familiars on a three dimensional field.
These Familiars vary in abilities, attributes, strengths and weaknesses, and learning to use the right Familiar at the right time is often the only way to ensure success. Training them to be battle ready takes an excruciating amount of grinding, but the vast array of Familiars available make it addicting to mix and match your favorite critters into capable teams.
Unfortunately, the ambitious combat suffers from inconsistent artificial intelligence and design issues. Since you only control one of three party members in real time, the other two function with generalized AI settings; as a result, they burn through resources much quicker than the length of the average boss battle, neglect to heal their companions despite being ordered to and sometimes forget to send out Familiars for battle.
What’s more, Ni no Kuni’s boss battles boil down to defending and attacking at the right moments, but the ability to order your AI companions to defend isn’t unlocked for quite awhile after recruiting them. Until that time, the AI becomes essentially useless during boss battles as they die quickly, leaving Oliver and his Familiars to fight tough battles alone.
Side-quests round out Ni no Kuni and provide dozens of hours of gameplay outside of the main quest, but most of them boil down to charming, but simple fetch quests. Aside from hunting down dangerous creatures, Oliver is tasked with curing people of broken hearts. These quests require you to talk to one person and then walk across the town or world map to talk to another.
Yes, the dreaded fetch quest rears its ugly head in Ni no Kuni. Fortunately, the rewards for the menial and engaging tasks alike are well worth the effort. They provide Oliver and friends a wealth of abilities to help them on their adventure, and more importantly, greater incentive to explore the beautiful world straight out of a Miyazaki film.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch’s ambitious combat system tangles itself up with clunky artificial intelligence, and the pacing stumbles amongst the issues that have been plaguing Japanese role-playing titles for years—namely, repetitive, soulless dialogue and mindless fetch quests. These issues alone keep Ni no Kini from being a sublime role-playing experience, and hold it down as a mediocre game wrapped in a magnificent and awe-inspiring coat of paint.