We're now heading towards the end of this console generation and despite some initial reservations, we've ended up with a ton of great JRPGs to keep fans of the genre satisfied. They've come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing that none of them have so far had is direct input from one of the world's most famous animation studios, Studio Ghibli. It's for this reason that Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has made people sit up and take notice and it's with good reason too - this one of the generation's best JRPGs.
Ni No Kuni focusses on the story of a rather slight young man called Oliver. He hails from the town of Motorville, but before long he finds himself in a rather different world. After learning of his existence, the White Witch tries to prevent the arrival of "the chosen one" by causing what should have been a fatal accident. It's not Oliver who ends up suffering though, as his mother ends up sacrificing her life to save him.
Oliver mourns the loss of his mother, but soon after his tears awake Drippy, his faithful doll who turns out to be Lord High Lord of the Fairies. Without wasting any time, Drippy tells Oliver of his world's plight, but Oliver refuses to help until he realises there's a chance he can save his mother's life in Drippy's world.
The story plays with some interesting concepts, but the central theme is about the hearts of people. One of the game's antagonists, Shadar, steals pieces of people's hearts and because of this, you have to spend a lot of time fixing them up. It helps to show why people might act in certain ways and the message here is clearly that people sometimes aren't themselves. But it's not because they want to be, it's because they're lacking in something. It might be that they're lacking belief, courage or enthusiasm, but once it's restored they will become the people that others once knew and loved.
Despite the White Witch being the overall antagonist, Shadar is the one who you'll encounter most often throughout the game. He perhaps isn't the most menacing of people due to the art style employed, but it's interesting that his evil doesn't come from rampant destruction. There have been many antagonists through history, but you might struggle to find one who will destroy a city by stealing the hearts of all the citizens and it's a nice deviation from the norm.The gameplay in Ni No Kuni starts off quite simple. You're able to control Oliver, but you also have the option to have a familiar fight on your behalf. The use of pets has become more common in JRPGs of late, but having the option to switch between your main character and his three familiars makes things rather interesting. When you add in additional characters, this is enhanced to a much greater degree and while only three people can fight at a time, it gives you the option of using twelve different characters during any one battle - tons of choice.
The familiars are tied into the fate of their master, so they share life bars. However, aside from that all of their stats are independent. This means that most of the time, you're more likely to use a familiar than either Oliver, Esther or Swain. This isn't always the case though, as each of them has unique abilities that are useful in certain situations. For example, Swain has a rather awesome move for dealing with Dragons, and Oliver's spells can come in rather handy against certain types of enemy.
The battles themselves are rather interesting as they employ a free-roaming mechanic. This means you can evade different attacks by running around, you can also kite in quite a few different instances.
As with most JRPG systems though, the AI sometimes lets itself down. You can offer up different tactics for the AI to use, but they are quite like chalk and cheese. There's nothing in there which allows for any kind of moderation, it's either do this, or do that. It's this approach which creates frustration when it comes to conserving MP. You'll quite often find that your AI counterparts (unless told to use no actions) will charge into a battle against something weak, and start casting mass damage spells straight away. Then, when you might need them to use a healing spell because you're fighting something a bit tougher, they can't because they've stupidly run out of MP.
The battle system also tries to employ the use of tactics, but it can be quite hit and miss. Most games will have the option to defend, but it's rare that you will ever actually need to. However, in Ni No Kuni it couldn't be further from the truth. Not only do you take vastly reduced amounts of damage, but the game will reward you with extra glims that can be used for recovering health, MP or for performing super moves - it's a great addition which makes things a lot more fluid. The main issue comes with timings. When fighting a stronger monster, you will often be made aware that they're charging up a move. It's during this time that you will have to do multiple things. First, you will need to cancel whatever it is your character was doing and go into a defensive posture, but you will also need to tell the AI characters to do the same. Sometimes you might not have enough time to do all of those things, but the AI certainly doesn't. They will often switch to a familiar with the best defense and therefore, won't have enough time to select a defensive move too. It's great that they tried to make things more interactive, but the AI just isn't responsive enough. It's difficult with your own character too, but you can get around this by pre-empting everything - they can't.
Aside from these gripes though, the battle system is very fluid. All of the familiars have very different roles to play and with so much choice, people will have fun picking their "dream team." There's also a load of time to be spent looking after the familiars and improving their performance/moves in battle.
There's no denying that Ni No Kuni is a rather gorgeous looking game. Studio Ghibli's art style shines through here, but it's most evident in the cutscenes. These look just like a Studio Ghibli film and have been crafted in the most wonderful of ways. Each of the different locations you visit has a specific look and feel and there's so much randomness in here. But it's also the little things that make Ni No Kuni such a delight to look at and play. For example, Oliver will have to wear different clothes when visiting different places and if he's in the cold, you'll even see his knees shaking if you stand still.
It's also worth mentioning Drippy separately. No matter where you go, he always brings life to the situation. Perhaps the most notable occasion was when you venture to Hamelin, but there are many others where his rather unique charm shines through.
The music also deserves special mention too. No matter where you are, or what you're doing, there has been a piece of music composed by Joe Hisashi that matches the mood. Perhaps the best piece is the World Map theme, which is also vocalised to become the game's main theme.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a game that shines on multiple levels. Yes, it features a fantastic soundtrack and wonderful art direction, that should go without saying. These elements are complemented by solid gameplay, strong story fundamentals and a ton of lore. You can tell a great deal of care has been put into making this game and anyone who's a fan of JRPGs should find plenty here to enjoy.
|Shadar offers a nice change of pace.|
|The art style is gorgeous.|
|Story has strong fundamentals, but could have been more engaging.|
|AI doesn't always shine itself in glory.|
|Some of the battle elements could have been more fleshed out.|