In a world of high-res textures and different shades of brown, Level 5’s Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch dares to be different and adds a highly stylistic splash of colour to your life.
The game follows Oliver, a young boy from the “real-world” town of Motorville, who embarks on a journey to a magical parallel world in order to save his mom from the grips of death.
Leading him on the way is Lord of the fairies, the latern-nosed Mr Drippy (yup, that’s his name) who’s there to act as both friend and guide as well as present some well-placed comic-relief.
It’s Harry Potter meets Pokemon as Oliver unlocks his magical abilities and collects monsters to help him on the path to saving his mother – all while healing the world’s broken-hearted citizens and uncovering the uncomfortable truth that the ties between this world and his world are a lot closer than first thought.
Parallel worlds? Fairies? Magic and monsters? Yup, this is a JRPG – and a fantastic one, at that.
A wonderful world
If stating the obvious was punishable by death, I should be drawn and quartered for stating how beautiful Ni No Kuni is.
It’s a far reach from hyper-mega-resolution textures and ultra-detailed visuals that are found in a lot of AAA titles these days, but Ni No Kuni is a work of art in almost every way.
Every location in the game carries a distinct visual style, with a colour palette that explodes against your eyes. It’s easy to get lost in the world of colour – and it happened more than once.
It goes to show that you don’t need to count pixels in texture layers to convey a beautifully presented world.
The character and creature models reflect the distinct Chibi-style you’d see in films such as Spirited Away and Ponyo – which makes sense considering the visual design and animated cutscenes were composed by Studio Ghibli – the film studio behind those titles.
All this while the cel-shading technique applied by Level 5 goes leagues into integrating the gameplay into the animated world.
It truly is a visual marvel that deserves all the praise it has been receiving.
Music to your ears
Accompanying the visual feast is a musical score that will be sure to tug on the heart-strings just a little bit – if you allow such emotions to enter into your gameplay experience.
If not, you can at the very least allow yourself to be swept into the game world through the various themes and twangings and orchestral pieces.
Purist JRPG fans will be happy to know that the game comes with the original Japanese voice track packed in, so you can enjoy Ni No Kuni in its native form with English subtitles to give you context.
It’s a bit strange, though, as most of the game’s story is conveyed through text – so that means you’ll get to know the characters as English-speaking, only to have them burst into bouts of audible Japanese.
Of course, if you opt for English all the way, you won’t be disappointed. The English voice-acting isn’t as terrible as most localised JRPGs tend to get – in fact, I dare say it’s rather great and charming in its own right.
The overall translation is cheesy and punny as all hell – but within the context of the Ni No Kuni world, it’s a perfect match.
By now you’ve probably established pretty plainly that Ni No Kuni is a JRPG through and through – and if the visual styling didn’t give it away, the gameplay certainly will.
Aside from dealing in the typical RPG tropes of magic, warrior and thief classes, Ni No Kuni does swipe a few concepts from that other popular Japanese RPG involving collectable monsters.
Indeed, Ni No Kuni’s battle mechanics operate very much like Pokemon, where each of the main characters duke it out against enemies and bosses with their very own monsters called “familiars”.
Pokemon familiar is of a specific genus (with the main characters having a favourite type) and can unlock new abilities as they level up. When they reach a high enough level, they can evolve – or “metamorphasize” as Ni No Kuni calls it.
During battles, you have the option to switch between up to three of these little critters, as well as the main character – this, in effect, gives you control of up to 12 different characters of your choosing in a battle.
It may sound like chaos, but you only control one character at a time, and it rarely makes sense to hop around as this takes time, and often timing is crucial. More often than not, you’ll just leave the others in AI control.
That said – the AI is pretty stupid, and in the early stages of the game (particularly with bosses) you’ll find yourself on your own, as your companions run head-first into danger.
Obviously the developers knew this, because it’s completely possible to win boss battles using only Oliver – if you have the mettle, time and recovery items to make it through.
As you get used to the battle system, things become much easier, and you’ll discover which familiars work best to tip the scales in your favour. Mastering the use of All-out Defence and All-out Attack when the options become available will also save your skin when things gets really hectic, though it’s not always fool-proof.
Heal the world
Outside of the battles, Ni No Kuni also has a wealth of other side-quests and story-driven features. You will find yourself running around healing broken-hearted NPCs, going on monster hunts and even solving riddles.
The game packs a lot in – and opens up even more when you finish the main story.
Simply put, you’ll be investing a huge chunk of your time into the game, even if you forego the side-stuff. Running through the story alone will suck up close to 30 hours – and if you want to do absolutely everything (as well you should), you’re looking at 50+ hours.
The more involved side-quests add a lot of depth to the characters and game world – and there is a lot to explore in the world itself. The Wizard’s Companion – a massive book that holds tales, spells, alchemy recipes and a wealth of other information – is freely available to read through, and adds huge weight to the game’s lore.
If you squeeze absolutely everything out of Ni No Kuni – and level grind on top of it (even though that’s not necessary to complete it) – there’s a huge amount of value here if you measure such things by time invested.
Happily ever after
On the surface, Ni No Kuni looks like a childish game, but don’t let the bright colours and cutesy characters and story fool you.
Hidden underneath simple puns and wide-eyed wonder lies a beautiful game that covers a lot of mature themes. The whole game toes the line between this fantasy world and a more tragic reality, and keeps you guessing right up until the end as to what is actually going on.
It’s a level of depth that’s a welcome surprise underneath the bright colours and feel-good atmosphere which makes Ni No Kuni a magnificently packaged journey into a truly magical world. (Yes, I said magical).
JRPG fans will love Ni No Kuni, though it will undoubtedly lack appeal to more traditional western gamers. Perhaps if you’re tired of murder, explosions and guns and want something a little lighter and brighter, then this comes highly recommended.