Oh god, it's finally here. I was somewhat dreading the moment I'd come to review Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Not because I thought it was terrible or that people would hold another opinion than my own, but rather because I'm not quite sure I posses the necessary words to accurately describe my time with it.
And indeed, there was certainly plenty that I hadn't seen. Oh boy, I've got a doozy to write up, haven't I?
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PlayStation 3)
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release date: January 22, 2013 (US), February 1, 2013 (EU) (Version Reviewed)
In case you skimmed the intro, I highly suggest you go back to my preview article and read up on that if you haven't already. I don't plan on talking about the stuff covered there, so things like the basic story and such will not be here! No point in saying the same thing twice, right?
Anyway, let's talk characters! Oliver stays the strong and fearless young boy that we see in the games intro, which certainly makes me very happy. I was all too worried that, like many games, he would have spiralled into the realms of manic depression, barrels and snake-people, but fortunately for us Level-5 and Ghibli know what they're doing. Drippy also opens up over the course of the story, so don't worry, he is certainly more than a charming Welsh lord high-lord.
Those of you that have seen clips of the Japanese version or played the demo that hit the PlayStation Network will know that two more characters join Oliver in his epic quest. Esther is a sweet and innocent young girl, who pretty much plays a female version of Oliver in most respects. She has her moments, but it's Swaine that really injects some life into the party. The nuisance-come-thief is just what the group needed to avoid being just a bunch of fearless kids travelling the world. His existence means that us older folk have someone to relate to, so it works really well as a gauge on how bad things really are in this strange, alternate world.
Level-5 do an absolutely fantastic job of keeping the battle system from looking like a giant, convoluted mess. It's certainly got a lot of meat to it, that's for sure, but all of the commands are simplified just enough to work great. You can only control one character at a time, be this Oliver, Esther or Swaine, and each one has a few differences in how they fight (Oliver has spells, Esther has music, Swaine has gun tricks). Each character can hold up to three familiars, which you can freely switch between to take advantage of how fights play out. The two characters who you aren't using will be controlled by the computer, which actually works pretty well. I tend to use Oliver by default, leaving Esther to heal up and Swaine to wail on the enemies.
I do have a minor gripe with the combat, however. In fact it only concerns boss fights, but I think it's a point worth mentioning. Boss fights are pretty tough. Most major fights feature critters that have a lot of HP and dish out a good amount of damage before going down. This is fine, but the game sort of ruins its own climactic battles by throwing gold glims at you with worrying regularity. These fully restore the HP/MP of the character that picks it up, as well as allowing them to perform a unique 'miracle move'. I'm playing on normal difficulty, but way too many times have I managed to get an easy win because of gold glims. I want to beat the boss down with the party I've finely crafted, rather than do so in a way that almost feels like I've cheated. You might be thinking it, but no, you can't just leave the gold glims alone. If you don't pick them up, one of your other characters will.
Over the course of the game, you will need to head back to Motorville via a gateway spell to solve puzzles or gain information. Each character you meet in Motorville has an alternative in Ni no Kuni, so often times you will be heading back to find out if someone is in trouble, or to learn about some of their particular habits. It's a neat mechanic in itself, but forcing you back into reality is a great way of continually showing you how grand, exciting and dangerous the land of Ni no Kuni really is.
What really surprised me is just how many spells there are for Oliver to collect and use. Strangely, not very many of them are usable in battle, as most of them just allow for you to interact with the world a little more. One of the earlier spells you receive allows you to unlock chests, but you'll soon get spells that allow you to talk to animals, build bridges and make plants grow quicker. They seem more like puzzle solving tools than spells, but with a hefty collection of them so short into the game, it proves to be a pretty neat way of making you study the world more. You're going to be on the lookout for anything that looks even remotely suspicious, immediately flicking to your book of spells to try and work out if you can influence it somehow.
Which is a great thing, really, when the world looks so stunning. The world map is simply a gorgeous piece of art, and the actual levels carry plenty of charm themselves. It's easy to write off the graphics in a cel-shaded game as being the same as all of the rest, but Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch proves that other games have quite a long way to go if they want to emulate the storybook quality of its aesthetics. Speaking of the world map, there really needs to be a better way to get around in the early game, as you're often caught running between two reasonably distant locations. It wont be much of an issue to most, but if you want to go and get that chest you saw near Old Father Oak and you only just remembered when you're in Castaway Cove, be prepared for a bit of a trek.
The largest part of the game, which doesn't even become apparent until you're a fair way through it, is the familiar system. You get a familiar very early on, but after a while you end up recruiting them at a rate that puts most Pokémon trainers to shame. Esther can befriend critters that find themselves impressed with how much of a beating you gave them, so you can use this to quickly build up a sizeable collection. While you're limited to three familiars per character and three in reserves (for a total of twelve in your party), you can store away the extras to use later. Each monster has its own spells, stats and weapon slots, so you can dig deep to find the perfect team that suits the way you play.
That isn't all for familiars, though. Each one will learn spells as it levels up, but you only have a select number of slots in which to fill with attacks (similar to how Pokémon can only use four moves). You will have to pick and choose which spells you prefer, but there is a way to increase the number of slots your creature has. All you must do is embrace the power of evolution! That's right, your familiars can evolve into stronger beasts when they hit a particular level and you feed them a particular item. This will knock the creature back to level 1 (including its stats), but in return you get a creature that is even stronger after it's levelled, a wider selection of attacks and more of these useful attack slots. They will also gain a slight change in appearance, and this happens each time you evolve a monster. They can evolve at least twice, but I haven't evolved more than once per monster just yet!
But that's not all! You can also feed your familiar treats in order to boost its stats even further. I think that's about it? In all seriousness, the familiar system is both incredibly deep and incredibly rewarding, and it is perhaps my favourite mechanic in the entire game. It may sound a bit like Pokémon, but really there are plenty of differences to keep things fresh. I really find it hard to believe that anyone would dislike the system at the very least, especially when the monsters are packed full of charm.
If you don't think customising monsters is enough, be relieved to know that there is a full-on alchemy system just waiting to be unlocked! Like most alchemy systems, you have the choice of building items by recipe or blind luck, but sifting through the wizards companion will offer a selection of weapon and item recipes. Ni no Kuni offers a huge set of tools for you to customise your characters with, and the sheer freedom is something you'll find incredibly refreshing.
The voice acting, for the most part, is just what you would expect to hear in one of Ghibli's films. The voice of Oliver was sourced by holding auditions in London, so you certainly can't fault the intentions behind such an endeavour. I mean, having a real-life young boy voice the in-game young boy seems like a no brainer. His voice is far from bad, that's for certain, but it makes you wonder if it would not have been better coming from a professional. I personally think it suits the game very well, but for those of you that disagree, there's a Japanese audio option.
The story offers plenty for you to do on your adventure across the mystical world of Ni no Kuni, but there are also a plethora of side quests to perform. These come in two different flavours, either being a 'hunt' or a 'request'. Hunts involve you finding and hunting down a stronger-than-normal monster, and requests are exactly what they seem. These usually involve finding items, exploring the world map or catching particular familiars. Completing these won't just earn you goodies and money, but also 'stamps'. You are given stamp cards, each with ten spaces, and completing side quests can earn you anywhere between two and six stamps. If you complete a card, you can redeem it for permanent bonus abilities. These include being able to creep up behind monsters easier, foraging extra items and moving quicker on the world map. These abilities are particularly useful, so partner these with some genuinely fun side quests and you can easily see what kind of an impact this will have on your final game time!
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is, quite simply, one of the most noteworthy RPGs in recent years. Released in a genre that has grown increasingly stale, it pulls out all the stops to blow away any and all preconceptions and show that there is life there yet. But it's not content with just showing it has a few new tricks, no, it demonstrates to us all that it can rival even the most highly regarded games in the genre. I can count the number of memorable RPGs on one hand, so the beautiful and vibrant world of Ni no Kuni is in sparse but good company.
9.0 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title in its genre)
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