If there is one company that could rekindle my long dried out love for JRPGs it could well be Studio Ghibli. The Japanese animation studio has been pouring out heartwarming, off-kilter, bizarre and stunningly beautiful films for as long as I have been alive and a move into the gaming industry makes joyous sense. The animation they have provided for Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a game developed by the equally superb Level 5 Studios (responsible for the Professor Layton series), shifts the adventure into a gear rarely achieved by video games.
Brilliant bright lighting styles, a considered sense of timing and an abounding energy that Studio Ghibli is famous for have all been delightfully injected into the game. Combining this with the bouncing, bubbling and blissful score written by Joe Hisaishi ensures that the animated sections are at least equally as absorbing as the rest of the gameplay. Consequently the game is happily filled to brim with animations, cropping up at every opportunity throughout the experience.
While the Japanese version was released in late 2011, the Digital Fix managed to get their hands on the incoming localised version of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch at a hosted event in the publisher Namco Bandai’s offices, due for release on the 25th of January 2013 as as Playstation 3 exclusive.
The story told in Ni No Kuni is that of a young boy named Oliver who, after a prolonged period of depression following the unfortunate death of his mother, is swept away by a magical fairy into the titular fantasyland (Japanese for “The Other World”). Here Oliver discovers he possesses the powers of a wizard and must use these newfound talents to save the world and maybe even bring back his mother. In much the same way as C.S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the plot entangles themes of youthful imagination, maturity and coming to terms with the world around you. Themes that Ghibli fans will find especially familiar appearing in many of their films particularly their seminal work: Spirited Away. A film that could very much be considered a spiritual ancestor to this game.
Perhaps the plot is not the most original or refreshing, but the characters, creatures and the world they inhabit are wonderfully imagined and entertaining to observe. The localisation of the game for the English speaking audience is particularly impressive, with clever translations and fantastic voices as well as accents giving each role a distinctive personality. The standout being the dancing Welsh tones of Drippy the King of Fairies, whose role as an advisor to Oliver ends up being more of a comic relief, constantly ending his sentences with the word ‘tidy’ for some inexplicable reason.
While the animations are suitably fantastic, the voices witty and clever, Ni No Kuni is obviously more than a film and JRPG fans will be itching to know how the game actually plays. Many of the classic tropes of the genre are immediately obvious: the player navigates an area diligently helping others, collecting items and coins, levelling and progressing along with their quest, and will occasionally bump into enemies causing the scene to shift to a battle arena.
The battles turn out to be an interesting amalgamation of the classic turn based Japanese format that is deeply imbedded in the genre mixed with a more Western approach concentrating on movement and timing. The player controls Oliver, or one of his familiars that he collects along the way, moving them around the arena, attacking at vital moments and blocking or staying out of range at other points.
While that may seem like a far more Westernised approach to RPG fighting, the cooldown time on moves, along with far less emphasis on precision or timing, actually aligns it closer to a classic turn based formula. This is particularly noticeable earlier in the game when battles tend to be trivial or formulaic with the player and the enemy taking turns to whack each other over the head. It is not until reaching the first boss encounter that it becomes evident that timing, movement and defence is the key to staying alive. For example, as the boss winds up to unleash a deadly torrent of pain, it is essential to maintain the block position, and then while he recovers from this move, returning the damage takes priority.
Some hits to your enemy will cause them to drop little bubbles of health or mana, which the player must immediately move to collect. It is an interesting mechanic that ensures that players keep an eye on proceedings and adapt their tactics accordingly, however with the scarcity of health and mana in the game sometimes it seems like there is an over reliance on collecting these drops. This worry is emphasised further by the fact that your fairy friend Drippy sometimes throws these bubbles into the ring at random intervals, causing rather farcical battles with the player running around the ring like a frightened boxer, waiting for mana drops.
Along Oliver’s journey he discovers various creatures whom he takes under his wing as familiars. These little pets can be used in battle, swapping them in and out (replacing Oliver on the battlefield) to counter specific enemy types in that familiar Pokémon style. They can also be given treats and played with to improve their stats and skills. At least a small proportion of the game is devoted to building relationships with these bizarre little creatures. Similarities with the catch-em-all classic end there however as the familiars Oliver finds have shared health and mana, and the creatures are not caught in the wild. Later in the game Oliver meets other characters who will join him on his journey. Sadly the point where we reached in the preview build did not demonstrate their use on the journey or in battles.
Perhaps the most striking element of the game was the unashamed difficulty which seems at odds with its overall childlike mentality. Playing on the normal tier I struggled to battle my way through a very early dungeon, dying several times. Death sends the player back to the last respawn point and strips them of a sizable chunk of their gold. Experience points and items are retained, but since monsters will respawn along with the player, they will have to battle their way back through the dungeon to make any progress. There is certainly a heavy reliance on using items and potions to keep health and mana high (or skipping around the battlefield claiming those dropped balls), arguably more so than alternative JRPGs such as Final Fantasy.
With a direct completion time of not much more than twenty hours Ni No Kuni is noticeably short when compared to many other games from the same genre. Perhaps this demonstrates Level 5 Studio’s reliance on a concise story that can capture the ever wandering concentration of the younger audience. It makes sense, and hopefully the majority of the players will be far from upset by the relative brevity of the experience. Besides, beyond simply following the story to its conclusion, the game is filled to the brim with side quests and loving anecdotes which after being discovered can be read at one’s convenience from Oliver’s Journal, as well as a host of mini games and toys to keep people occupied.
It may take longer than our time spent with the game to warm to Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch’s combat, but one thing that can be certain is that the presentation of the game is of the most remarkable quality: Studio Ghibli have clearly been firing on all cylinders to produce the stunning animations and Level 5 Studios have evidently worked hard to mould these into a well designed game. Personally I’m itching to return to the world of Ni No Kuni, perhaps not to take part in strange ritualistic battles, but to see the conclusion of Oliver and his fantastical journey, to be enchanted by the wonderful music and even be impressed by the the delightful and intelligent localisation work for the English audience.