Level 5 and Studio Ghibli have pooled their considerable resources to produce a real fairytale in traditional Japanese style.
Young Oliver is an ordinary boy who lives in an ordinary town with his mother. There is a grand destiny waiting for him, and it materializes in the form of a family tragedy. The grieving boy is met by a most unusual fairy, who leads him into a wholly new world, straight out of the pages of a storybook, and leads Oliver to grow into a wizard and hero.
The game looks like something straight out of the Studio Ghibli film. Oliver's small hometown exists alongside a fantastical fairytale world, inhabited by a vast host of peculiar creatures. We jump back and forth between these two worlds, which both emphasizes their difference, and also draws unexpected parallels between them.
Family is the central theme here, along with friendship. Values that might be dismissed as childish. But you forget fairytales often can be very cruel. Ni no Kuni is no different: an hour into the game there's a scene that no pre-teen should be viewing on their own. It certainly brought an unexpected lump to our throat.
In general though, Ni no Kuni is a gentle game. The fairytale world is a vast, colourful and exciting place, and the game takes its time in telling its story, as if often typical of the J-RPG genre. You'd be hard pressed to recall a Western equivalent in which your first companion doesn't join until hour eight, and about half the magic system isn't opened up until hour twelve.
Although the pacing is rather 'relaxed' like this, it is also pretty much perfect. Every time when we felt like things were getting a bit samey, the game threw something new and different. Impatient players may get itchy feet, but to those that the trappings of the genre are normal will have no opportunity to be bored.
The game's plot doesn't strive to be overly complicated, but instead tells a classic tale with themes that everyone can relate to. There are plenty of side quests, which can be explored whenever one feels like it. The characters are entertaining, and rarely overcooked as is typical of Asian games.
Firm favourite is without a doubt Mr. Drippy, Oliver's fairy companion and guide. The small, rather bizarre looking critter speaks with a broad Welsh accent, which is also reflected in the subtitles. His banter is often hilarious.
Quality dubbing means all the characters have clear and varying accents. The voice acting is very nice, although the lip-synch is a bit on the lazy side.
The rather emotional soundtrack is wonderful in itself, and there has no doubt been quite the orchestra to perform it. The problem with it is that the basic themes are repeated hour after hour after hour, so they'll be playing in your head long after the console's turned off. The combat music especially will make one bang their head against the table, particularly when things aren't going so well.
The graphics fortunately soothe any ensuing headache, as they're a combination of classic Ghibli and a more conventional console aesthetic. Although the characters are drawn very simply and almost without any shading, they somehow fit in with the detailed background graphics. Two very different styles meld into one, making you feel part of this fantastical world.
This only makes it all the stranger though, that while the in-engine cut scenes and character animations are smooth and expressive, the Ghibli-made anime bits are jerky. They can't be called cheap, because all the details and the beauty one would expect are there, but it seems like the animation is lacking about half the usual frames. This is a perplexing misstep in an otherwise grand game, and it sticks out like a sore thumb every single time.
One just can't obsess over this problem though, because this is truly a wonderful game. Ni no Kuni is laid out like your typical JRPG; a large overworld map filled with random monsters connects various cities, dungeons and such. Unlike tradition dictates though, the beasties do not just appear from thin air, and they can be avoided on the map.
The combat system will also be familiar to fans of the genre. It is a somewhat uncomfortable mix of real time and turn based battling though, meaning you've to fiddle with all sorts of menus while getting laid into. At least the spells and provisions can be browsed in relative peace. The boss fights are especially challenging, and sometimes it becomes necessary to lower the difficulty level to get past them.
Fortunately Oliver is not alone against the monsters. Alongside his companions he has a choice of wizard's familiars. These are the same critters one encounters in the wild, but they can be tamed, fed, equipped and trained to reach new levels and forms. Sound familiar?
This is what Ni no Kuni is about really. It is a combination of many, many familiar elements, which are combined in an unusually player-friendly manner. Many of the issues that come with the genre have been smoothed out. Mind you, no revolutionary changes have been made, but for one of its genre, this is a progressive and perhaps a somewhat westernised game.
For those of you who enjoy a bit of a read, there is plenty of background material to be had in the form of the Wizard's Companion. It is handed to Oliver early on in the game, and contains almost two hundred pages of info, though some are missing to begin. Fortunate, as you can easily experience information overload at the start.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an enormous game, and it would be easy to write an enormous review of it. In an effort to be concise, let's just say that it is a wonderful fairytale adventure, with an appealing story that has been married to the familiar conventions of Japanese roleplaying games, which have first been given a good dusting.
If you enjoy this genre and the works of Studio Ghibli at all then you got a sure winner here. Even for those who've had a reserved attitude towards the J-RPG genre in the past.
9 / 10
+ Beautiful to the eye and ear alike
+ Charming classic story, + player-friendly
+ Deep combat strategy
- Cut-scenes not as smooth as in-game.
- background music will stick in your head.