A lot of people like to theorized that JRPGs exist for the sole purpose of making anime video games. That’s a lie, I think only two people have ever said that, but if ever there was a true video game interpretation of an anime movie, it’d be Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Studio Ghibli, famous for movies such as Hal’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, have teamed up with Level 5, developers of the Professor Layton series and the White Knight Chronicles series, to make something beautiful, charming, and overall in the spirit of a true Studio Ghibli production.
Ni No Kuni takes you through the life of Oliver, a young charismatic boy from our world, who through a series of tragic circumstances, is called into another world to help defeat the Dark Djinn Shadar. His main companion is Drippy, one of the most entertaining sidekicks to join a protagonist in years. He talks through a very charming and very thick Welsh accent, and pretty much defies all the JRPG tropes we as gamers are used to. Instead of leading you on through a frustratingly obvious situation, Drippy states the answer that the player already knows, which gives the tone of a pretty standard JRPG story of “a chosen one” wielding magic to save the day, an entirely different feel. Not only that, but the story in general tackles a lot of mature topics, like what makes people the way they are. Ideas of loss and friendship are handled not only with care and tact, but in a thoughtful manner that allows you to connect to the characters much faster than you would normally.
While talking about the story, I have to mention its greatest complement: the beauty of the game itself. The 3D graphics in standard moments of gameplay and combat are truly the simple style of Studio Ghibli brought to the third dimension. Not only that, but there are animated FMV cutscenes that are indistinguishable from Studio Ghibli productions, and it is clear the team was well incorporated into the visual concept of the game.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, the translation and localization for Ni No Kuni is the best of any JRPG I’ve seen in years, save for the huge ones like Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts, to which it definitely stands as a peer. From voice acting, to writing, to tone, to music (performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra), it is done with precision and care to an impeccable level. If I had one complaint, it’d be the lack of voice acting in the back half of the game, just because it is so well done and performed.
Although presentation and sound may be Ni No Kuni’s strength, it does fall somewhat shorter in the gameplay department. The combat bases itself around familiars, which are essentially Pokémon (monsters you capture, train, and evolve), and falls into the same grind-heavy, repetitiveness many JRPGs seem to these days. The combat is basic, but some systems, such as types of familiars (Star, Moon, Sun, and Planet) aren’t really explained well. To top things off, the dreadful companion AI makes the later levels of the game, where the difficulty really ramps up, quite frustrating. It just seems like drawbacks such as AI companions not being able to use items have already been addressed by similar franchises such as the Tales series.
Sidequests of Ni No Kuni fall into the more tame denomination, all being “billboard requests” in a store located in every single town. Though there are some good variations here, there is no originality to them. The same person from the many towns before has lost his diary, you have to find it. The same monster researcher now wants you to go out and find three more monsters for him to study. These prove the most frustrating, for the system where you can capture and befriend familiars is completely random and can take hours simply because it’s based on a dice roll. I just wish there could have been more originality in initiating the sidequests.
Before moving on to my final thoughts, it’s important to mention Ni No Kuni does something with its menu system that I have never seen before: The Wizard’s Companion. This book is something you get early on, and is a full-fledged read. It has detailed, hand-drawn pictures of all the monsters, bosses, weapons, and items in the game. As you progress through the game, actual original stories and fables fill into the book, which are completely optional to read, but I found really engaging, and familiarize you more with the lore of the world you’re exploring. It’s honestly one of the most creative and original things about this already great game. I’m still kicking myself since I found out that the collector’s edition comes with a physical copy of this book.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch pretty much does JRPG better than most JRPGs do it. It’s charming when it wants to be, it’s serious when it wants you to feel something, and it has all the things of a JRPG you may already love, just better than half the ones out there. Great voices, great and memorable characters, grinding, a world map, a dragon to fly on, and much, much more. I don’t know if it’s going to “revive the JRPG genre” or anything, but it is a damn fine game, that’s for sure.