Review – Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3)

Ni No Kuni Box ArtNi No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch came out earlier this year for the Playstation 3. Pairing the talented people of Level 5 with the incredible animators of Studio Ghibli, Ni No Kuni tells the story of a child given the opportunity to save a world – and hopefully his mother in the process.

I’ve finished this massive JRPG – finally – and can now relate to you a tragic tale of my own. That is to say, the story of my time with Ni No Kuni and how this game wore me down time and time again, leaving me a broken husk of a gamer.

Oliver’s Twist

Once Upon a Time

We must first begin by touching on Oliver’s hometown. The game features two worlds – one a parody of the real world, the other a fantasy world. Motorville, Oliver’s hometown, is a small place that makes no sense. Now, this is going to be a small spoiler but Oliver’s mother dies. That’s the catalyst for the entire events of the game. His mother dies and he has no father. Somehow this doesn’t result in him being adopted by another family, or taken in by the city… no, he is left completely alone in his nice house. His mother’s maid checks on him once in a while, but nobody remarks upon the fact that he is a 13-year old boy who is living entirely alone after indirectly causing his mother’s death. This is, for some reason, seen as entirely normal in this town.

Motorville

Your first quest: Groceries

This could be overlooked if you weren’t constantly returning to this town and interacting with people. There seems to only be one person who, mere weeks after the incident, even has any reaction to your mother’s tragic death – your best friend. This reaction takes place somewhere around 3/4 of the way through the game… for most of the game you keep having to return to Motorville and everybody acts as if everything is normal, despite the fact that you’re running around the town in a cape trying to solve people’s problems for no apparent reason.

Once you get out of Motorville and into the fantasy world, things become infinitely more charming. The story is one that, while it does scream of being an escapist fantasy, is still incredibly heartwarming and moving. Seeing this young child bring hope to the world is a wondrous experience, and it is perhaps Ni No Kuni’s greatest accomplishment. It hearkens back to the children’s stories and movies we loved so much as a child ourselves, movies like the Neverending Story and Narnia. Not the ‘warm and fuzzy’ children’s stories where nothing can possibly go wrong… but the slightly dark and tragic ones, where there is a real motivating tragedy at the heart of it, but these children manage to become the manifestations of hope the world needs to overcome them.

Sure some of the events are a little predictable, but that doesn’t take away from their impact. Sure some of the dialog isn’t as mature as a game like Uncharted might contain – but it isn’t meant to be: this IS a young child after all. The hardest part is ignoring the Motorville side of the Ni No Kuni coin so you can truly immerse yourself in the fantasy created in the fairy world… if you can accomplish that you’re in for a treat.

A Fairy’s Tale

For the most part, the game’s characters are pretty unremarkable. You have Oliver, who is ‘the hero’ and seems to overcome his tragedy at the drop of a hat… Esther who really doesn’t have much of a personality… Swaine the former Prince turned thief – a cliché except for the fact that he has no real reason for becoming a thief – whose snarky attitude provides a somewhat welcome counterpoint to the ridiculously cheerful children… and a few other characters who are all either essentially extreme parodies of common character tropes or largely forgettable.

The one exception to this rule, and the reason the game is so charming, is Drippy. Drippy is a fairy with a hard Welsh accent who guides Oliver on his quest to save the fairy world – tricking him into accepting the quest by convincing him he can save his mother in the process. By adding Dripply into the mix, you’re constantly entertained with that sort of half-cussing that has become quite flippin’ common, mun.

One of the key mechanics in this game, both story and gameplay, is the concept I like to label ’emotional communism’. Essentially, if any person experiences a change in their personality for the worse – whether they become less caring, less devoted, less passionate, etc. – they have had a piece of their heart stolen. In order to make them all better, you have to find someone with an abundance of what they’ve lost and… balance the scales, taking the excess from the one person and sharing it with the less fortunate. While this does create a charming mechanic for being helpful, it also feels just a little wrong. Why can’t someone just naturally be a jerk? Why does every jerk have to be ‘broken’?

You Name it, We’ve Got It

Pokemon and Tamagotchi, check!

One of the key elements of this game is capturing and training familiars to help you in battle. This is done by weakening them and then you have a chance for them to become enamored with you, and when that happens you must have Esther play for them. The unfortunate part is that this mechanic isn’t introduced for several hours into the game, but that’s a pattern you’ll notice in this game. Pacing. But a large portion of this game is collecting familiars and training them.

Oliver, Drippy, and the first familiar

This was my first familiar, and I called him Stabby.

The familiars themselves are adorable, which is most noticeable when you start trying to enhance their strengths and abilities by feeding them. There are a variety of treats and each familiar is partial to one specific type, and by feeding them they gain stats and ‘affection’. When they reach new affection levels they gain special bonuses – but they can only be fed so many times before they’re full so you have to do it regularly, can’t just hope to do it all at once.

Final Tales of Fantasy, check!

The combat system in this game feels like a poorly thought out cross between Final Fantasy and a Tales game. The Tales combat system, which features more action-oriented combat on a mobile map with you only controlling one character and the rest AI driven. The reason this works in a Tales game is because the design lets you have quick and instant control. All of the commands you could want are a single button away, and moving, dodging, defending, etc. are all easily performed. When you add a significant command card structure like a typical JRPG to an action-driven system like this, it just falls flat. You find yourself fighting with the menu structure more than with the enemy. Overall, this isn’t untenable, but it is definitely a harsh feeling part of the game.

In-game combat

Strange UI, eh?

The other aspect of the Tales games that makes the combat work is that you have AI scripts that offer enough options and choices to properly structure a party. Ni No Kuni doesn’t. They have simplified the scripting to such an extreme that it is a pure and utter failure. I don’t like to use extremes because it’s rare that there’s something with no positive aspect… but the AI in Ni No Kuni is irredeemable. The AI turned this game from a potentially interesting experience to a constant battle with frustration that is made even worse by the fact that ‘MP management’ is just as bad. Any useful ability costs massive chunks of your mp pool, and the AI – regardless of what script you set them to – just spams the highest cost spell it has that can feasibly be used.

Just A Dash of Skyrim

On top of all of the core elements, one of the key gameplay aspects is running around the world helping every random NPC you meet. Whether it be in the form of hunting down some dangerous monster that is apparently a threat to the people of the city for some illogical reason, or whether it be merely exercising your right as a Wizard to ensure that everyone is perfectly balanced emotionally… the game offers a plethora of sidequests and errands to do, enough that you really will start to wonder if you’ve wandered into a traditional Western-style open RPG… or you would if the graphics weren’t so charming.

And the Kitchen Sink Too

Ni No Kuni even features an elaborate, if poorly designed, crafting system that allows – but discourages – experimentation yet can help offset one of the game’s key flaws: money. Ni No Kuni’s economy is really in the gutter ’cause it costs hundreds of coins for a coffee. Unfortunately, coffee is the only way other than inns and save points to refill your precious precious MP. Yet rather than shelling out the hundreds of coins for the fancy coffees, you can shell out fewer hundreds for the cheap coffees and use the crafting system to make them into expensive ones!

A fantastic idea, except that the crafting system is awkward and bland. There are two ways to craft, from a recipe or by experimenting. The recipe is pretty straightforward, you click the recipe and if you have the ingredients – tadaa you have a new item. The experimentation system is where it becomes problematic, as experimenting is sluggish and unrewarding. You can pick up to 3 ingredients, and you can use anywhere from 1 to god-only-knows-how-many of each ingredient, from dozens of possible ingredients. If you have the exact right combination(and yes, some recipes do use 4+ of a single ingredient) then you get a new item. The only problem, nowhere does it actually save this successful recipe. It doesn’t fill it into the Wizard’s Guide, it doesn’t create a new recipe for you… nothing. It just gives you the item and says ‘screw you’ if you didn’t remember the exact formula you managed to come up with. This turned a crafting system that I was quite excited about into a frustrating and almost painful experience.

Of Difficulty Spikes And Belated Features

GraphicsThis game features some of the most severe difficulty spikes I’ve ever seen. In one part, near the beginning, you’ll finish a boss and then immediately after that boss be fighting regular enemies that will be almost identically hard. If you didn’t farm in each area to the point where enemies no longer wanted to fight you… you were asking for huge trouble because the difficulty could spike up any moment. When you couple this with the poor AI and the brutally punishing MP management system, it all adds up to a system that becomes just plain not fun to deal with.

And what makes the difficulty spikes feel even worse is the fact that in the early segments of the game (say the first 15 hours) the game intentionally holds back critical features. I can only surmise that they didn’t want to make things too complicated too quickly… but some of these features are utterly essential, and should have been available much earlier. Taming familiars doesn’t come until around the 4-5 hour mark, for example. Fast-travel is unlocked at around the 15 hour mark. But most importantly, the ability to tell your allies to defend doesn’t come until around 8-9 hours in – and they won’t ever defend unless you tell them to. And it comes immediately after a fight that is one of the most punishing and difficult battles in the game – a fight that would have been made much more manageable (and possibly even fun) by the handy ability to tell your allies to defend.

Final Thoughts

Ni No Kuni is a very cost-effective package. It features a ton of content just in the raw story, a ridiculous amount of sidequests, a ton of treasure to find hidden around the world, and even several extras – a tournament, a riddle game, etc – to partake of. When you add in all of the post-completion content, you do have potentially hundreds of hours. The problem is that the first 15 or so of those hours feel like a tutorial, and after that the AI problems quickly begin to turn every minute of that into pain.

The Wizard’s Guide is another definite plus of this game, featuring a plethora of cool images, interesting descriptions and captions that can give you even more content, and reading it is often more fun than playing the game. There’s even an entire ‘dead language’ in there with a rather interesting runic alphabet and several hidden messages within the pages of the Guide for you to find.

A page from the Wizard's Guide

A literary work of art.

Overall

To say I was disappointed with Ni No Kuni would be a huge understatement. The atmosphere, the core of the gameplay, the graphics… there’s so much that’s good in this game. The problem is that so many of the elements are either implemented in incredibly flawed ways or burdened by horrible design decisions that it becomes painfully hard to actually enjoy this game. The longer I played the game, the more angry and frustrated I became at it. As a result, as much as I want to remember this game fondly – I cannot. While the story is charming, while the graphics are gorgeous and the soundtrack a work of art, while the gameplay features some really intriguing ideas… when this game’s name is mentioned, my first – and most frequent – thought is ‘WHY ARE YOU OUT OF MP AFTER JUST ONE FIGHT’. Because, my friends, that is the question you will find yourself asking… all too often.

It is sad to see a game with such tremendous potential fail so completely to reach it, yet that is exactly the situation we find ourselves with Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. It is a game with an absolutely astonishing number of positive features… that are all completely meaningless due to the utterly fatal flaws made in this game’s execution.

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