Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Review

John Robertson

Collaborations between heavyweight outfits are an unpredictable beast. If the theory goes to plan and things pan out exactly as intended then two creative forces coming together in unity over a common goal should yield some fantastic results. Aerosmith and Run DMC, Disney and Square Enix, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. These work.

Often, though, the merging of two strong forces creates a disruptive relationship which fails entirely to harness the potential on offer. Ego, differing practices, alternative visions... whatever the reason, sometimes the dream pairing is more dystopia than utopia. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Kit-Kat and Orange, Lindsay Lohan and humans. These don't work.

So enter Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a collaboration between Level-5 (Professor Layton) and world renowned anime creator Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Ponyo et al). Perhaps it's due to the fact that the two companies originate from different industries, perhaps it's due to the fact that they simply know how to properly share talent and resources; whatever the reason, Ni No Kuni works. It works incredibly, surprisingly, wonderfully well.

”Shut up and eat your dinner, you little sod.”

And that's a good thing, not just because it solidifies the idea that talented people can come together and create something special, but also because it reaffirms that there's still life in the JRPG yet. Those that have already written the genre's obituary might want to think about cancelling those funeral arrangements.

From the off it's impossible not to be charmed by what Ni No Kuni delivers, not least because it looks like nothing you've ever seen before from a video game. Its cel-shaded approach to visuals is, without exaggeration, one of the most spectacular and charming feasts for the eyes ever assembled for a video game and puts to shame almost everything else that has attempted something similar. The world in which thirteen year-old protagonist Oliver, lantern-nosed fairy Mr Drippy and the rest of the outlandish cast inhabit is a constant joy to visit and explore.

Ni No Kuni looks like an animated movie. Its lines are sharp, its colour palette is diverse in tone and vibrancy and it relies on a strong art style over needless worrying about pixel count and particle effects. The strength of its aesthetics never lets up, from hour one to hour fifty and beyond the childlike awe of traversing what looks like a Studio Ghibli film never leaves you.

Characters and locations are equally as charming. Split across a number of continents on the world map, destinations such as the desert oasis Al Mamoon, the ice village Yule and steampunk city of Hamelin are a diverse set that - while hardly cutting edge - creates a sense of cultural differentiation to the world as a whole. Characters in each area are equally unique in both their race and fashion sense, ranging from your basic fantasy human to your less basic abominable snowman.

Usually a character in each of the main towns/cities has some sort of problem for you to solve in order to drive the narrative forward, ranging from the miniscule and optional to the massive and essential. The way in which this is more often than not solved is by harnessing the power of a magical locket to share various pieces of 'heart' between the game's troubled cast. In fear of spoiling one of the game's primary mechanics I'll say no more, but the locket/heart idea may initially come across as somewhat saccharine and childlike for some people's taste.

Barney's older brother was always the black sheep.

Don't, however, let the art style and the family friendly narrative themes (think a coming of age story in which a boy travels to a parallel, magical land) force you into a false sense of security; this is not a game that allows you to take things easy and coast through from cut-scene to cut-scene.

Progression can be rather difficult at times thanks to a battle, levelling up and monetary systems that leave little room for cheating or inferior planning. Fights are turn-based and fought with teams of up to three active members on each side. You're free to move about within the battle space as you wish, and doing so is vital in tougher battles that require more intelligent thinking in terms of staying out of enemy range and successfully employing your own melee or magical attacks.

While mind-numbingly easy early on, these battles quickly become a serious trial when faced with end of mission showdowns. Equipping your team with the right skills prior to entering the fray is a necessity rather than an option. Level up your team in a way that's too specialised and you'll come unstuck when faced with an opponent that excels in a style or attack type that you have no counter against. Conversely, try to cover every base and your lack of mastery in any single area will force you back into the levelling up grind. You’ll have to slowly learn new attacks required, for example, to beat specialist fire/lightning/water based foes.

It is possible to switch the battle difficulty between normal and easy ad nauseum, but doing so feels more than a little like a cheat. Things are made slightly more complicated due to the fact that you only control a single character, relying on the other two in your squad to get on with business within the framework you've (optionally) laid out in the form of loose tactics. Thankfully, the AI does a brilliant job of working out how to act in battles and rarely is a defeat their fault.

What really sets Ni No Kuni's battle portion apart, though, is essentially a wholesale rip-off of the Pokémon idea. Excluding bosses, every enemy you come across in the world can be captured, trained and deployed into battle on your behalf. Each team member is able to carry three Familiars (read: Pokémon) at a time, giving twelve different fighters to choose between at any one time; the three human characters, plus the nine Familiars between them.

”20 bottles of Hooch, please.”

It's a good idea to spread different types of Familiars across each character. What you don't want is to load three healing specialists onto the same person and find that you're the last one left alive and without items that resurrect your friends. Similarly, a character with only close-range melee Familiars is at risk due to lacking a medic. In a perfect world, each of the three teammates should be self-sufficient, while also complimenting one another.

Familiars can be evolved once they achieve a certain level, each of these metamorphoses opening up new attacks and, eventually, specialisations. As a result, it's often worth sticking it out with a new addition that is initially underwhelming in the hope that it will eventually become the champion you need in an area that you're lacking representation.

One of the best things about the Familiar system is that it removes the monotony of battling for the purpose of levelling up. Until you've captured every creature on a specific continent, every enemy encounter is a chance to expand and strengthen your potential pool of fighters. Playing to one's innate sense of collecting for the sake of it is a tried and tested way to increase a game's replay value and Ni No Kuni executes the idea perfectly.

It's impossible to understate the need to train your Familiars, there is no other way to find success in battles. In large part that's due to the currency (Guilders) being incredibly difficult to come by, with post-battle rationing at the lower end of the gluttony scale. Items are remarkably expensive in comparison to the Guilders you're carrying, preventing Final Fantasy-esque splurges on 100 of this item and 200 of that in a single shopping spree. Just being able to afford five resurrecting Phoenix Feathers on a single trip is a rich man's spend, 10 and you must be Bill Gates.

It's that mix of the deceptively challenging gameplay and the childlike wonder of the presentation that gives Ni No Kuni its long term appeal. Just when things seem too punishing, you're met with a cut-scene or new character or new plot twist that makes it impossible to stay annoyed. Then, when things start to get a little too overzealous in their fluffy softness, you're thrown into battle with a three-storey monster firing off attacks that you've never seen and come with a five-death learning curve.

Fight, fight, fight, fight!

As far as Trophies are concerned there's little of surprise; reserved for completing chapters of the story, levelling up your Familiars and tackling large numbers of side quests. This is a very big game and getting every award possible means completing pretty much everything on offer and regularly taking lengthy detours from the critical path. In short, Ni No Kuni is not going to be high on the list of Trophy collectors. The pitch is perfect, blending elements that we've seen before in a way that shines new light on old ideas.

No matter which way you look at it, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is every bit a success - a two finger salute to everyone that had written off the JRPG for dead. It's probably too much to hope for that this game will spark a new renaissance for the genre, but it's nice to see that it's still got this quality of fight left in it.


As we expect from Studio Ghibli, voice acting (both Japanese and English) is of the highest order. Each area of the world has its own musical themes that stop things becoming played out and predictable. Battle sounds, on the other hand, do become a little predictable and tiresome.

Stunning, to say the least. Probably the best example of cel-shaded visuals ever put into a video game. From start to finish Ni No Kuni is a pure joy to watch and reason in itself to take the journey.

A good mix of tested RPG mechanics combine to form something diverse, rewarding and entertaining. The Familiar system in itself would have been enough, but the battle system, world map exploration and dungeon trekking all work in tandem to demonstrate how much this genre still has to give.

There's plenty to do, with new elements added regularly and almost up to the very final moments. Side quests, Familiar fighting tournaments, optional 'bounty' boss battles and the equivalent of Pokemon collecting keep things from feeling like a grind.

Fairly standard fare reserved for levelling up, ploughing through the story and completing side quests. Nothing to complain about, but nothing to get too excited about either.

A serious and welcome return to form for the JRPG. In a genre hardly afraid of embracing the idea of magic, the partnership of Level-5 and Studio Ghibli demonstrates that positive wizardry can come from a development tandem. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a contender for best JRPG of the century thus far and a must buy for anyone with even a passing interest in all things world map and turn-based battle systems.

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