BADGP Reviews: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Namco/Bandai, Level-5)

Review: How Far Can an Art Style Carry a Game? By Alex Linna and Zach Buzan February 1, 2013

I would like to start of this review by comparing January 2012 to January 2013.  Both months had three large games released. 2012: Soul Caliber V, NeverDead, and Final Fantasy XIII-2.  2013: Anarchy Reigns, DMC, and Ni No Kuni: WofWW.  I predicted that all of the 2013 games would be superior to their year old brethren.  Anarchy Reigns is better than Soul Caliber V, DMC is certainly better than NeverDead… and then I had to actually think about FFXIII-2 vs. Ni No Kuni.  They compare surprisingly well. Both have time travel. Both have Pokémon-like assistants in battle.  Both have gameplay depth, exploration, times where I was considerably frustrated, dragons, and deal with loss as a theme.  I think I will end up liking Ni No Kuni more after I have more time to digest it, but I was surprised by how I can actually say something positive about XIII-2 after XIII.  Jan 2013 has had two wonderful downloadable titles to make it better than Jan 2012 (if that was not already clear) in The Cave and Skulls of the Shogun as well. (Alex)

What is Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch? (Zach)

Like most studio Ghibli films, Ni No Kuni revolves around a young boy named Oliver who is sent on a journey to save someone he loves.  The story is about emotions and collecting them so that Oliver can save the people he cares about. Throughout Oliver’s adventure he acquires friends and different monsters that aid him through his trials. The story is very light hearted and it holds back from any swearing or blood throughout the game. With this childish writing in mind the game brings up death quite a bit creating an emotionally impactful game.  Even though the story and writhing is childish, Ni No Kuni’s battle mechanics is where the game gets advanced. The fighting mechanics are a mix of Pokémon and a fast paced Final Fantasy XII. You eventually play as three characters who can summon their own monsters. Each of these monsters has different abilities and their own strengths and weaknesses.  Each ability, attack or defense takes time to pull off for each character. The player has to decide how to manage all of these abilities to successfully conquer the challenges offered by the game. Mixed with a good story and an interesting battle mechanic Ni No Kuni is one of the best JRPGs that has been released in years.

(Alex’s Response/Additions)

Ni No Kuni is a rare breed.  First, it is a third-party console exclusive.  A species I thought died out long ago.  Second, it is a game that appears childish, but does not pull its emotional punches.  The game makes a surprisingly strong emotional impact on the player.  Third, despite the perhaps childish appearance of the game, it is incredibly challenging.  These factors make Ni No Kuni a special game and a great way to start off the year.

How Does it Look? (Tech/art/presentation) (Alex)

The first thing of note one notices in Ni No Kuni is the striking art style and animation.  Animation does not get much better than this; both artistically and technically.  I experienced perhaps one technical issue where a boss froze up allowing my underleveled self to pummel it into oblivion. This was during what was for me the most demanding fight of the game against a killer lightning-spewing jellyfish, so I greatly appreciated the bug.  I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of Ghibli cut-scenes in back-half of the game, but they are out in full force in the first half.  Level-5’s in-game engine, like Atlus’ Catherine, looks even better than the full-motion cut-scenes.  The care put into the engine and animation is also present in the game’s brilliant enemy and monster design. One boss in particular, Candelabracadabra, left quite an impression.  The presentation adds much the practical parts of Ni No Kuni; the menus are accessible and aesthetically pleasing.  One addition that I found greatly helpful was that the map lights up the characters that are a part of quests. This was subtle, but invaluable.  It should also be noted that my most memorable moment from the game is related to Ni No Kuni’s astounding art style.  When Oliver gains control over a dragon and can fly around the entire world it is simply magical drinking in the marvelous artwork provided by Level-5.

(Zach’s Response/Additions)

Just in the opening cut scene I knew that Ni No Kuni was going to be a spectacle for all JRPG fans.  With the landscape and character designs from studio Ghibli and the animation from Level-5 this game holds beauty for all ages. Even in battle all creatures and attacks look very impressive. Another amazing part of the visual presentation in this game is that studio Ghibli incorporated anime cutscenes into the game. The landscape in Ni No Kuni never gets dull. From dark forests to bright desserts the player gets to view a variety of different environments.

How Does it Sound? (Alex)

The opening theme of Ni No Kuni is wonderful like most of the music present in the game.  However, I found the main battle theme to get old quite quickly.  Unlike Final Fantasy XIII and Xenoblade Chronicles where a single theme carried me through over forty hours of adventure, I tired of Ni No Kuni’s main battle theme within the first few hours.  Aside from the lack of variety on the main battle theme, the music in the game is nothing short of fantastic.  I would argue that the voice work in the game is even more impressive than the music.  I could not get enough of the voice performances of Mr. Drippy (and his old comedy team), Pea, and Shadar.  Pea’s voice in particular always made me smile due to adorableness.

(Zach’s Response/Additions)

Upon hearing that an actual orchestra would be performing the soundtrack to Ni No Kuni I was really excited upon listening to it. Within the first few hours I found myself humming along and turning up my television set. However, the main battle theme gets really mundane to listen to in the first few hours into the game.  To make up for this little hiccup the game’s voice acting team does a really good job with all of its characters. I was even impressed with the side characters having really good voice actors.

How Does it Play? (Zach)

Throughout the game the controls handle as well as you would expect from any RPG. Moving through the worlds is simple as can be. Later in the game you can fast travel to any previous area. Like any old RPG the monsters in each area as you move through the story increase in difficulty and variety. This keeps the players on their toes since monsters can change difficulty at unexpected times. This keeps the game challenging throughout the adventure and never makes the battles dull. Another challenging combat mechanic that the player needs to hurdle is the balance between attacking and defending. This becomes a little challenging at the beginning when you are controlling three different characters. Each character has their own AI system and responds to battles in their own way. However, none of your characters will defend from an attack unless they are told to do so.  With great controls and a little quirky combat mechanics this game handles itself pretty well making it enjoyable and challenging.

(Alex’s Response/Additions)

I laud Ni No Kuni for its ambitious art direction and how wonderful it sounds.  I found that actually playing the game was a little less praiseworthy.  It did not help that the game starts out tremendously slow (as do many JRPGs), but I did not start to enjoy playing the game until about 5hr in when a second character was added to the Oliver’s party.  Even then I had several gripes with the games which I will outline here.  Oliver is slow, too slow.  Moving him around is chore at times, especially in the overworld.  There is even an upgrade so that he moves faster, but I found it to be hardly noticeable.  The game has crushing difficulty spikes.  I avoided this later in the game due to copious grinding.  The ally AI is simply awful.  They burn through their MP, cannot defend themselves, and it is impossible to micromanage three characters during the insanely quick paced battles.  It took a long time for me to gain a familiar with a “Revive” spell referred to as “Upsy-Daisy” in the game.  This meant a lot of resources went to reviving items.  The game also waits a long time to give the player fast travel, and as soon as it does, it becomes nearly obsolete.  There a numerous inconveniences present within the game.  After Xenoblade corrected many of these issues with respect to the player’s time, Ni No Kuni felt like a step back to the old JRPGs it tries so hard to emulate.  Though it might not be a fair comparison, Level-5 was likely trying to remake Dragon Quest VIII here in some ways; there are ways to modernize the genre to make it less annoying.  One last harsh criticism before I get to the compliments: there are way too many “Jeepers” and “Neatos.” You will completely understand what I am talking about here when you play the game.

Ni No Kuni provides ample incentive to do side-quests.  The merit badge system is addictive and fruitful for the player to engage in.  There is a constant stream of progress brought forth from after nearly every battle there being a good chance someone in the party is going to level up.  This makes it easy to say, “Just one more level and Mitey will level up, and he might be able to metamorphise this time!”  A very similar draw found in the Pokémon games.

How Does it Compare? (Zach)

A lot of RPGs that have been currently released are tailored for adult audiences. The Witcher, Mass Effect and few more games in this genre show blood, cursing, and sometimes have nudity in them. Ni No Kuni steps a little outside of this box and tries to hit a larger audience. This game refrains from any mature situations and tries to give an audience a heart-warming story. The game also delivers the player a new battle mechanic that has not been seen yet.  With the mix of Pokémon and turn based combat it gives the audience something refreshing to try.

(Alex’s Response/Additions)

I compared Ni No Kuni to Final Fantasy XIII-2 in my introduction and I stand by it.  The battle systems are differently paced, but there are similarities a plenty.  The next closest game I have played that I would compare it to would be Tales of Graces f.  The perspective of the combat and the overworld felt familiar.

Conclusion/Recommendation (Zach)

Ni No Kuni has great visuals, music and voice acting. With a fresh new combat system and the ability to capture numerous amounts of monsters this game will last quite a while. Even though the game has its quirks and the writing seems childish, Ni No Kuni’s environment and characters more than make up for it. I would recommend this game to all RPG fans and also fans of studio Ghibli.

(Alex’s Response/Additions [Thematic elements])

Ni No Kuni deals with some deep thematic elements, and I have a conspiracy theory around the story.

Minor Spoilers Follow:

Early in game Oliver’s mother dies.  Oliver, as anyone would, struggles to accept the loss of his mother.  Whilst crying in his room one night his doll comes to life and takes him on a magical transdimensional journey.  As I was playing it, I thought, “Oh snap! Oliver just snapped!”  The entire game could be viewed as Oliver’s dissociation from a reality he cannot emotionally handle.  As he mends the brokenhearted in Mr. Drippy’s world, he is also mending his own mental consciousness and accepting his own mother’s death.

End Spoilers.        

There are many great moments in Ni No Kuni.  There is section where Oliver prevents a divorce. Supreme Sage Solomon is hilarious in the ridiculous way he is so condescending.  I also do not think I have played a game with more puns, “At these prices we must be Raven mad!” says the proprietor of the weapons shop who so happens to be a large black bird.  I laughed the hardest though at a suggested nickname for a monster I had just captured.  I believe it was called Little Tyke or something in that vein, the game suggested that I call it “Tyke Myson” and I was literally laughing out loud.  My ultimate recommendation comes down to, how much do you think you will enjoy the combat?  Everything surrounding the game is outstanding; I just did not enjoy playing it most of the time.  It however, rises above and is more than simply a beautiful game.  There is some fun to be had with Ni No Kuni and even more wonderful moments to be experienced.

My favorite track in the game:  Hamelin: The City of Bacon

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zc4YIxUVywc&list=PLboZYijCIApfIdnFEE6Ngk-aCBzs00TqD

Zach: 9.2              Alex: 8.6               BADGP: 8.9 out of 10

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