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5/13/2013

REVIEW: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3)


The JRPG genre has seen a very sudden decline in the number of games available this generation. A genre that reigned in the late 90s and early 2000s when games like Final Fantasy VII and Xenogears were the kings now has its fans literally digging among mountains of first-person shooters and other mainstream games to find a good RPG of Japanese origins and most of the times, we end up with titles like Atelier Ayesha or Tales of Graces f that, while definitely not bad, don’t even come close to the quality standards of those past years.

For that reason, when games like Ni no Kuni come to the industry, it’s definitely a reason for joy and celebration because it means the genre can still come back to what it was. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a JRPG created by Level 5 (Dragon Quest VIII, Dark Cloud) with the art style of the animated movies by Hayao Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli (Mononoke Hime, Laputa, Tonari no Totoro, etc) that mixes several key points that end up being a fantastic game in almost every aspect. In its plot, we players take control of Oliver, a seemingly common boy that lives in the town of Motorville, where after a certain accident, he loses his mom for which he ends up alone.

One night, while Oliver cried, one of his tears falls on his favorite toy, a rather ugly plush doll his mom gave him when he was little. For his surprise, the toy comes to life and introduces himself as the High Lord of the Fairies, Mr Drippy, who convinces Oliver that if he goes to another world and becomes a Wizard to defeat the evil Shadar, he might have a chance of saving his mother and bring her back to Motorville with him. With that, the seemingly harmless Oliver will go in a beautiful and incredible adventure that will take him to dozens of places where he’ll make friends, enemies and fight thousands of battles.

During the entire game, the plot will be told with a great narrative and pace where new key aspects of the magical world will be presented, questions will be slowly asked and many important events will happen one after the other. The storyline in Ni no Kuni is brilliant and definitely one of the strongest points in the game that will keep anyone following it on the edge of his/her seat.

Graphically, Ni no Kuni is spectacular. The textures, colors, animations and the innumerable details on the game’s areas make the Studio Ghibli art style come to life stronger than ever. It’s really impressive how, unlike other JRPGs, Ni no Kuni has tons of objects, different plants, cracks on walls and many other details that decorate the environments to avoid different places looking the same which is most of the times monotonous and even boring. Besides, the game will occasionally play an Anime-style cutscene where Miyazaki’s style is also present and trust me when I say they look really, really good.

The music in the game, made by Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi (from several of Miyazaki’s movies too) and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, is of the best quality. Practically every song is very memorable with soft rhythms that fit perfectly in every single moment of the game’s adventure like battles, towns, the world map and dungeons. The main theme, called “Kokoro no Kakera” is especially good and comes in both Japanese and English. Just like the voice acting that is present in both languages. It’s a little strange when this happens but to be honest and after trying both for a few hours each, the English voices seem better than the Japanese ones mostly because the original is filled with cliché lines really typical to other games and Anime series of the same style

In terms of gameplay, Ni no Kuni stays loyal to classic formulas in some ways and innovates heavily in others. Like in most old-school and famous JRPGs, the game has a world map where towns are smaller than the character until the players enter and they can be visited in all splendor. The enemies can be seen before battle so they can be avoided. This is another game that proves random encounters are a thing of the past. Outside battle, as usual, we’ll be able to interact with countless NPC, finish sidequests, search for enemies, open chests, solve puzzles, buy and sell in stores, etc.

The game is unique in its battles. It uses a system where Oliver and his party can tame the monster called “Familiars” they defeat in the fights. There are hundreds of these monsters each with their own abilities, stats, attributes and play styles. The idea is that the players must control these Familiars and equip them to the party members (Oliver and co.) to be able to summon them in battle to do their thing. What makes this system so unique is that, though the game focuses on the Familiars, Oliver himself and his friends can also take part in battle and do things like attack, cast spells and such so switching between the characters and the Familiars is a key point when learning how to play Ni no Kuni.

You could say the battle system is like a mix between turn-based fights and action ones. The leader of the party and his/her Familiars can be moved freely around the area while the rest of the group will be controlled by the AI under certain parameters like “Keep us Healthy”, “Conserve MP” or “Go all-out” that can be chosen by the player. Commands are chosen from a list and each time one is used, a cool down begins where the player must wait a short time before being able to do that same action again. So switching between characters, Familiars and alternating their actions and commands heavily is also pretty important in gameplay.

Still, the AI in the game doesn’t always work like you want it to. There’s a girl named Esther that joins Oliver in his adventure pretty early in the game that is an expert in wasting her MP casting expensive support spells at the end of common fights against normal and weak enemies no matter what AI style is chosen for her so it’s a little annoying to play trying to stop her from running out of mana in the middle of a difficult boss fight or dungeon where resources might be tricky to get a hold of. Fortunately, the player will be able to change the leader of the party mid-fight so you can actually alternate between Oliver, Esther and other party members and their familiars if you see them doing the wrong actions.

As usual in JRPG games, the more fights you win, the more Exp you will have and this is important to advance in the story as your characters’ stats will grow and they’ll learn better and more powerful skills. In the case of Familiars, they can also evolve to different and better forms and the player will have to administer skills in a limited number of slots they’ll have available in battle. In addition, they can be given food to increase their familiarity with Oliver. This will give them nice stats, extra skill slots and other nice bonuses that will really come in handy later in the game. All of this makes the public compare Familiars with Pokémon in their own games.

Besides battles and exploration, each town has a lot of sidequests to play available for Oliver in which he’ll have to do errands like find hidden items, kill specific enemies in bounty hunts and other tasks for the townsfolk. The most common ones are quests where specific NPC characters will lose a piece of their heart (soul) like kindness, love, enthusiasm or courage and Oliver will be able to heal them with magic by finding the missing part of the heart they require. These are the most common sidequests but they can be completed easily and quickly for some nice gameplay bonuses at stores.

Finally, I can say that Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is simply a fantastic and amazing game, definitely a must-have for any PS3 owner regardless of his/her tastes in games. It has great graphics, music, voice acting, narrative, plot and battle system. This is an instant classic that will always be remembered as one of the strongest PlayStation 3 exclusives. Now, we can only hope that games like this one, Persona 4 Golden and Xenoblade only mean the slow and much deserved revival of a genre that is missing in the industry.


Pros:
-         Fantastic art style from Studio Ghibli’s Miyazaki.
-         Excellent plot, narrative and pace.
-         Battle system is innovative and fun to play.
-         Oliver and Mr Drippy make an awesome duo.
-         Great soundtrack.
-         Intense boss battles.
-         Lots of end-game content.


Cons:
-         Takes a little while to get going.
-         Esther’s AI is really bad.
-         Lots of Familiars require tons of grinding to become good.


-         Graphics and Visuals…….…..10
-         Music and Sound Effects.........10
-         Gameplay……………………9
-         Replay Value………………...9

-         Overall Score……………….. 9.5 / 10

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