Or What Happens When Studio Ghibli does Pokémon
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Also Available on: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Nintendo DS, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Genre: Role-playing, Adventure
Developer: Studio Ghibli, Level-5, QLOC
Publisher: BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment
Release date: 20-Sep-2019 (on Switch)
What most people have heard about Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is that the game’s animated sequences were produced by Studio Ghibli.
Of all animation studios, Studio Ghibli does not need to be talked up. If you know of them then you equate them with stellar hand-drawn stories that have an emotional and fleshed out core. If you don’t know of them or their work, chances are you have not sampled anything from countries other than where English is the dominant language.
Going into this game, I knew to expect stellar animation. And if Studio Ghibli was willing to put their names against this, the story was likely to be top notch too.
Despite this being Ghibli’s first foray into the world of gaming, I had high hopes for Level-5’s development skills meshing with Ghibli’s artwork after producing greats such as Dragon Quest VIII and the slightly more recent entertaining charm of Fantasy Life.
Considering the above, and as a long time fan of Studio Ghibli, it was more of a wonder that I hadn’t picked this game up to play sooner.
The Story Begins
Ni no Kuni is centered around a young boy named Oliver who grew up in the fictional American town of Motorville in the 1950s. The beginning of the game is innocuous enough. You start off the game wandering through a beautiful, but exceedingly ordinary, town as a young boy doing young boy things.
Tragedy strikes after sneaking out at night to meet his best friend, and Oliver is left miserable and closed off after these events.
Oliver’s yellow doll, Mr. Drippy, comes to life soon after and reveals itself to be from another world. The fact that Oliver could break the spell put on the doll revealed that Oliver must be the ‘Pure-Hearted One’ destined to defeat the evil Dark Djinn that had taken over Mr. Drippy’s world.
Oliver agrees to go to this world and help where he can after reassurance that the traumatic events just passed could be reversed with magic from Mr. Drippy’s world. And so begins the long, arduous journey for Oliver to defeat the Dark Djinn and reverse the harm done in his own world.
“Yer a Wizard.... Oliver”
The main point of contrast between Oliver’s world, which is our own, and Mr. Drippy is the existence of magic in day to day life.
The existence of wizards was once commonplace in Mr. Drippy’s world, but the Dark Djinn has done away with most of them and only a few are left. This makes it remarkably difficult for Oliver to actually learn spells in the beginning, as the wizarding book Mr. Drippy gave Oliver is missing most of its pages.
As Oliver progresses through this new world he gradually learns a number of spells, the most defining of which as far as the game goes is the ‘Form Familiar’ spell pictured above. This spell allows the caster to project a ‘familiar’ which is a reflection of your soul that can battle for you. While Oliver’s soul projects the mite above, he also gathers other monsters throughout the game either after normal battles or during events to become his familiars. They even undergo ‘metamorphosis’ after being exposed to Drops so all in all its a very Pokemon-esque affair.
A surprising number of spells are used for basic problem solving in game, and some hardly more than once or twice. ‘Broom Broom’, a spell that animates a sweeping brush, I only remember using once for a side quest. Others are used far more frequently.
A key part of the game is played through Oliver’s everyday magic, most notably the ‘Take Heart’ and ‘Give Heart’ spells. The Dark Djinn is controlling the world by breaking people’s hearts. This seemed to mean taking one aspect of a person’s soul away, the first of which you come across is enthusiasm. This leaves the person broken hearted and pretty much useless to you and your party until you fix them. To fix these people you need to use the spell ‘Take Heart’ on someone who has too much of what the victim lacks, and use ‘Give Heart’ to give that piece to the broken-hearted person.
It ends up being a fun mechanic that did not get as repetitive as I feared. This was largely thanks to the different ways a person can be broken hearted and how they respond to which piece of their heart is missing.
It’s… not Turn Based?
The battle system in Ni no Kuni is trying to be a little bit different from run of the mill JRPGs, without going whole hog on creativity.
Once entering a battle you or your familiar can move about the screen and attack indiscriminately. There are timers set for how long you can maintain a defensive pose (this gets more and more important as the game goes on) and for how long your familiar can stay on the battlefield. Oliver has no such restrictions, but his non-magical attack is non-existent so if you're trying to keep some semblance of MP up you have to get used to switching between one of three familiars and Oliver fairly quick.
To make this transition easier, the battle freezes as soon as you pull up the selection menu. This is the case whether you are selecting one of Oliver's spells or the familiar's 'Tricks' too. This is a decision that is in line with most mainstream games at the moment and honestly saved me the headache of that extra level of multitasking.
None of the early battles are overly difficult, and the battle system is very accessible and introduced at a more gradual pace than expected. Even in the later game most bosses can be taken down after a bit of light grinding.
In fact the only boss that seems to be a consistent headache for most players is the Big Final Boss. This is not something that I would typically complain about. But I have been killed one too many times in that battle recently to reopen the game for at least a week.
The game rage is real.
Also this means I can't comment on the final scenes of the game until I actually beat that *#!£/, but I'm sure the last 20 minutes or so can't colour my opinion too much more than the fifty-ish hours of play before this has.
I live for games that are localised successfully when it comes to voice acting. This game got a lot of this right, but a few pieces niggled for me.
Oliver's English voice actor did not deserve the lower average ratings people gave him after the game came out. He did a decent job. Upper average is where I believe he should sit. The accent that people claimed swung between British and American worked for me. Oliver's mum was extremely British and he lived in America. It wasn't what the game was going for (the voice actor was British apparently trying to do American) but I thought it worked regardless. Outside of accents I believe he captured Oliver's sweet nature in a very believable way.
Mr. Drippy rubbed me the wrong way for a few hours. In my mind he was being very unfair to Oliver (who at the time I thought was eight max but it turns out he's thirteen) who is a literal child. But the English language voice actor's Welsh accent and hilarious delivery warmed me up to him faster than I would have otherwise. Mr. Drippy ended up being my favourite character, which I did not see coming in a million years.
I probably would have enjoyed Esther more if she stayed alive for more than three minutes at a time (maybe an exaggeration) in battle. I know game developers enjoy giving female characters no defense to speak of but I would like it if she was at least as sturdy as the thirteen year old boy. Her voice actress did a great job, and her personality was entertaining enough for what she was given to do. But having to deal with Esther dying so often, especially when she is the character you need to tie monsters to you as familiars, may have reduced my opinion of her.
Swaine was an interesting addition to the party. I've never understood why so many RPGs have one older character hanging out with a bunch of children, but here it is again. Swaine is the character likely to be the most relatable to players (or maybe I'm just a coward) and his backstory ends up being more touching than expected.
All in all the main party is a win. None are so outlandish that they become unrealistic (except Mr. Drippy but as a literal fairy I think he can be left off the hook) and the rapport between the voice actors feels genuine.
The Take-Home Message
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a beautiful game crafted with the kind of nostalgic warmth that Studio Ghibli is known for.
This is largely seen in their confidence in crafting a lead character whose defining trait was being a kind, good kid. Not snarky, not overly reliant on dark aspects of personality to force obvious character development, it was a refreshing change of pace. Because it was done well. If done badly I am very aware we could have ended up playing a smarmy Barney and Friends type game.
The gameplay was fun, and figuring out how to use Oliver's spells during side quests was entertaining. The game didn't have the most innovative battle system in the world. But there were enough new elements and entertaining cutscenes in some cases (especially in the battle with the genie) to keep the battle system from feeling old. Even if it was.
Play this game if:
You like Studio Ghibli's art and story style
You want to try a JRPG but don't want to jump in too deep (very accessible style-wise)
You like 'monster catching' games
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