(PlayStation 3 Review) Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Developer: Level-5 / Studio Ghibli
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8 = Excellent

Loss is a hardship that remains a painful constant throughout life, but it’s especially difficult when you’re young. As 13-year-old Oliver, you find yourself facing a child’s worst nightmare: the loss of a parent. After his mother suffers a sudden illness, he is given the unexpected chance to revive her by a favored doll, brought to life by his fallen tears. The newly sentient, slightly gruff creature informs Oliver that he is from another world, one that hosts soulmates who are directly linked to counterparts in Oliver’s. Dippy, the self-styled king of the fairies, then presents Oliver with an incredible opportunity: his best chance at saving his mother.

Dippy offers the young boy the chance to accept his mantle as the pure-hearted one and save the other world from Shadar, a malevolent wizard bent on its destruction, and his master, the White Queen. In the process, Oliver will save his mother’s soulmate, the sage Alicia, thereby offering his mother the only chance left at life. There is no guarantee that it will work, but it’s Oliver’s best—and only—hope. On this journey of last resort, a bittersweet tale of loss and acceptance unfolds as young Oliver comes to terms with his newfound power and an uncertain future.

Ahead of the young hero is a perilous journey that will take him around a world dominated by Summerlands, a continent controlled by three kingdoms, each separated by tracts of desert, grassy plains, jungle, and rolling hills. On the periphery of the world sits a string of islands, filled with small villages tucked inside isolated forests, a freezing land home to a remote Inuit-styled village, and a harsh land rendered barren by industry. All manner of beasts and monsters roam the wilds, the dungeons, and the seas. Explorers will also find treasure and ingredients dotting the landscape, awaiting those who can brave the nearby wandering beasts to recover them. Defeating the creatures isn’t easy, but it is a necessity. Not only will their defeat allow for buried loot to be uncovered, but it will also earn Oliver and his friends the valuable experience necessary to level up in anticipation of the showdown with Shadar. Felled beasts not only reward you with experience, but they also leave behind coin and often items that will aid in your quest. If you’re particularly deft, you can sneak up behind the enemies, represented by single figures on the world map or in dungeons, before they take notice and get an early attack in the ensuing battle to better the odds. And with all of the combat in store, every opportunity to better the odds is a welcomed one.

But an old foe can become a new friend if they find Oliver and company’s skills up to snuff—i.e., the tar is sufficiently beat out of them—courtesy of the harp-playing bard Esther. As the daughter of one of the world’s great sages and a skilled musician, Esther is capable of serenading wooed enemies over to your side. These newly reconciled enemies are called Familiars, and they can be kept in one of the characters’ three-Familiar party, to be used whenever needed in combat, or sent to a resort, from where they can be summoned from special manholes. These Familiars, once deadly enemies, quickly become invaluable allies.

Despite being quiet and largely unseen sidekicks, you will spend more time attending to and caring for the Familiars than any of the main characters. There are around 300 basic Familiars, and they come in in all shapes and sizes, but each takes a form embodied by one of four celestial bodies: moon, planet, star, and sun. The forms are part of a rock-paper-scissors subgame that comes into play during combat, though there will be plenty of surprises due to the various equippable skills and gear. After a Familiar comes into your care, you will be able to increase their abilities through some rudimentary care. Each has 50 bonus points that can be assigned to their various stats—Attack, Defense, Magic Attack, Magic Defense, Accuracy, and Evasion—but the points are not immediately available. Instead, five 10-point levels must be unlocked by feeding the Familiar a variety of treats. Each treat type is associated with one of the stats, and each treat has its own stats, increase and heaviness. Increase determines by how much the stat is upgraded whenever the treat is consumed, and heaviness affects the Familiar’s fullness, with higher-quality treats filling the Familiars up faster but leveling their associated stat faster as well. Once a Familiar is full, they must be exercised via combat to work off the weight in order to consume more treats. However, it is only by feeding them their favorite treat type that their Familiarity increase, which eventually increases their Growth Limit and unlocks 10 additional points. Never in a game has hoarding sundaes and carrot cake been so important.

Familiars also have three forms, which become available whenever set levels have been attained and special form-appropriate drops consumed. Once a Familiar is strong enough, they can Metamorphosize into two further forms by feeding on the appropriate drop. The first form is merely a stronger version of the first, with an increase in Stamina, which is what allows them to remain in combat. The last stage is between two forms, and these tend to be between two elemental types, such as a fire-centric form or a water-centric form. Knowing when to Metamorphosize is important because each morph lowers their stats, making them very vulnerable immediately afterwards. Getting a recently morphed Familiar back to strength requires significant grinding before they can safely be called into service against enemies whom they were previously on par with. As Familiars increase in form, they also gain additional skill slots that allow for those new skills attained through leveling to be equipped, but there is always a trade off as there are more available skills than there are slots. But that’s not all. It’s also vital that the hundreds—and eventually thousands and thousands—are spent on the proper gear because neglecting to keep their arms, armor, and items up to date can lead to some painful lessons. The process of caring for Familiars isn’t quite as involved as it sounds, but they do require attention as they can fall fairly quickly if left unattended.

With his friends and Familiars in tow, Oliver must not only seek out Shadar but also help the inhabitants of the world. As Shadar’s darkness has spread, people, fairies, and animals have had their hearts broken. Those who have become brokenhearted become shells of their former selves, and some even turn violent. Those whose troubles have eaten away at them long enough become home to a Nightmare, which must be defeated before their host’s heart can be mended. Not everyone is afflicted the same way, some lack love, others kindness, ambition, courage, and so on. Sacrifice is another theme that permeates the game, whether it’s Oliver risking his life to save his mother or his allies in order to stop Shadar, and that extends down to the inhabitants themselves. In order to give someone the piece of their heart that has been broken, Oliver must take that piece from another who has it in abundance. And just as Oliver is willing to give his all to help, so are those who have enough to give of their heart to help those in need. As rewarding it is to see people return to their old selves, the process of having to take and give pieces dozens of times can be repetitive.

Hard work has its rewards, though, and as Oliver mends hearts, defeats tough monsters, and—ugh—fetches items, he will receive Merit Stamps. Unlike most other role-playing games, sidequests do not aid with leveling—that’s what grinding is for—but are instead to help accumulate money, items, and stamps. The stamps are pressed on a special card for every deed done (Tasks) and monster felled (Bounties), which are completed once all stamp slots have been marked and then turned in at special shops for merit awards. There are three tiers of rewards, with each subsequent tier offering better perks but also requiring more cards. One perk lowers the cash penalty for restarting after being defeated, while another lowers store prices. This is an interesting take on side missions, though I often found myself wishing for a feature that turned out to be a reward (and that should’ve been a feature to begin with). As the game went on, I increasingly missed the experience bumps that I was missing from all of my additional labors. The lack of extra experience puts even more of an emphasis on grinding. Now, grinding is a common feature in many role-playing games, but in Ni no Kuni, it often results in many portions being drug out far beyond what the narrative is capable of sustaining, resulting in it feeling like filler.

In general, grinding can be a great way to expand a party’s capabilities while taking advantage of a nuanced or well-thought-out combat system. Unfortunately, Ni no Kuni‘s is neither. Combat is comprised of three subsystems: character actions, familiar actions, and an underlying timing system. At the start of a round, you choose to control either Oliver, one of the other characters, or a familiar. Once the selection is made and the round begins, everything gets hairy as characters intermingle on the battlefield, unleashing colorful spell effects and animations and melee moves, with damage numbers popping up to further add to the chaos; it quickly becomes very difficult to keep up with the action. A free-controlling camera helps, but the timing system in conjunction with the often up-close nature of combat means a general sense of confusion permeates most battles as it’s difficult to get an overall perspective. Actions differ in their timing, with skills, spells, and item consumption requiring a startup time and a cooldown time, while attacking and defending are only engaged for five-second intervals. Then there is the autopausing that occurs during combat when selecting which character or familiar to control and which type of action to take, but not when selecting the initial action itself. Despite the attack and defense timer, I tended to continually press the action button anyway because the game does not pause once the character ceases attack or defending; instead, they just stand there, getting hit. Another common occurrence is a character coming out of defending in the middle of an enemy’s flurry. Something as simple as a queuing system would have done wonders to mitigate many of the frustrations caused by the current setup while also saving time, especially for fights when the enemy’s weakness is known and combat is simply a matter of repeatedly performing the same move. The constant starting and stopping also detracts from a system that favors movement and action, which results in combat having a rhythm that frequently feels offbeat.

Despite there being one to two characters at Oliver’s side throughout nearly the entirety of the game, the AI is too erratic for them to be dependable during combat. There are Tactics that allow you to set their behavior, but the characters aren’t smart enough to regularly follow the commands; as a result, the best action is to limit their independence, which negates many of the available options that should otherwise provide a great deal of customization. They will also act strangely in other ways; for instance, if you switch to Esther in order to Serenade an enemy, there is a good chance that the now-AI Oliver will decide to enter the fray himself, which is the absolute worst decision the computer could make given that he is abysmal in close combat. They can be especially frustrating when Oliver learns the All-Out Attack and All-Out Defense commands, which should offer better, more on-the-fly control, but these are frequently ignored. This is a bit of a cascading problem given how expensive everything is, because the AI teammates often require items to pull through the tougher fights, which leave you financially drained once you replenish your health- and magic-restoring item stocks at the nearest town. This perpetual poverty is never-ending as prices for arms and armor skyrocket towards the end, and you’re left scrimping to ensure that everyone, and every Familiar, has the proper gear.

I couldn’t help but wonder how much more I would have enjoyed combat had it utilized a more traditional turn-based system. Whenever you see an enemy gearing up for a power attack but cannot scroll to Defend in time, or whenever you see a Familiar fruitlessly continuously run directly into an enemy on its way to its targets, it’s hard to see why the current system was chosen.

But where Ni no Kuni stumbles with combat it excels in providing a satisfying classic adventure. The dialog might drone on from time to time and be a touch saccharine, but the plot and characters are so wholesome and traditional that the story manages to be quite refreshing. The band of adventurers will crack wise, encourage one another, and argue as each plays their part in felling Shadar and the White Queen. The standout character is undoubtedly the snippety and humorously curmudgeonly Dippy, whose delivery nearly always elicits a chuckle and whose Scottish accent stands out in a game dominated by UK voice actors. Although many of the characters are somewhat of a curiosity, given the number of residence of Motorville, Oliver’s Detroit-influenced hometown, sound as if they’re from across the pond.

The sense of a perilous quest and an epic journey are emphasized through some neat tricks that use the camera and control speed to make everything feel grander than it is. By the end, you come to realize that the world is fairly small, but it holds an exaggerated sense of scale due to a slightly sluggish camera swivel and character run speed, with the result being that each trip feels like a long trek and each camera motion a vast sweep across a sprawling landscape. And there are other extras both large and small that fill out the world and its history, such as the Wizard Companion, its acquired pages slowly revealing spells as well as general information, and wonderful fairy tales that are worth reading in their own right. Whether it’s setting out to collect a few ingredients for a citizen of Al Mamoon, gambling at an undead-run casino, or venturing to an entirely new area, Oliver’s flowing cape and scurrying friends evoke a strong sense of wonderment and adventure. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the game is gorgeous, with some of the best animated small touches I’ve ever seen in a game, complementing the great character and creature design seen throughout.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch might not be a groundbreaking role-playing game, but it is a fantastic adventure. Despite its colorful and eye-catching visuals, the game is fairly traditional, and excels in those areas, but it stumbles when venturing into more untested territory, such as the lackluster Pokemon-style combat system. It might drag on in some parts and frustrate in others, but it’s a welcomed addition to the genre that should please many adventure-seeking gamers.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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