If you're a fan of Japanese animation or animated films in general, you've likely marveled at My Neighbor Totoro or dabbed at tears during Grave of the Fireflies at some point in your life. Storytelling just doesn't get much better than the delightful Studio Ghibli films, starring wistful adolescents with heartfelt wishes and plights that could reach even those with a heart of stone. Now, a collaboration between the evocative animation studio and Professor Layton developer Level-5 has found a successful balance between interactive media and film. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a sparkling gem of an RPG, thanks to engaging gameplay and stellar presentation.
Beginning in the American pastoral Motorville, players follow Oliver, a young boy whose forced to travel to another world to save his mother. It's an intriguing set-up, one in which Oliver must grow up prematurely, accepting his role as "the pure-hearted one" in order to defeat the dark Djinn Shadar. In typical Studio Ghibli fashion, the situation takes a decided turn toward the bizarre, with Oliver's stuffed animal, Mr. Drippy, turning animate and the two venturing forth to a parallel world in a bid to rescue his own world from its impending doom. The story's unexpectedly heavy and is a bit to take in, but you'll find yourself with a smile to match Oliver's once the journey gets underway. Ni no Kuni's gentle pace feels ethereal and believable; it's poignant in a hallmark Ghibli way.
More than just a good story, Ni no Kuni boasts robust action-oriented combat, exploration, and a Pokémon-esque "Familiar" system that allows players to find and recruit bizarre creatures to aid in battle. Aside from Familiars and what they bring to the table, standard, comfortable Japanese RPG tropes are found here in abundance. Dungeons are ripe for excavation, towns are reliable safety-and-restocking places, and leveling up comes with sweet surprises and automatic upgrades. You can move about the field during battle, so strategic movement and positioning in the heat of the moment can drastically lessen damage dealt by enemies and keep you in the clear.
Familiars spice up what could have easily been just another exercise in Dragon Quest-like combat. Monsters ranging from anthropomorphic cats to less-than-attractive Totoro-like imps wander about the overworld, acting as adversaries and allies. You're able to acquire hundreds of Familiars from 14 different genuses, each outfitted with special abilities, attributes, and affinities that govern their effectiveness in battle and when combined with other monsters.
Oliver can travel with three different Familiars, each with its own set of armor, weapons, and items. Their leveling system is just as well-rounded as Oliver's, and raising Familiars becomes a game on its own as you spend most of your time mixing and matching monsters in Oliver's stash. It's addictive stuff, and part of what will keep you glued to Ni no Kuni long after your quest has been completed--especially when you factor in the complete control you're given over these adorable little scamps' actions.
Bounty hunts and a crafting system are available for players looking for some extra credit between traveling across the lush forests and through a lavish overworld. Bounty hunts pit players against stronger Familiars for a delectable challenge, and alchemy can be used to further develop Familiars to keep them ready for battle. In addition to these augments, Ni no Kuni sports heartwarming side quests that follow Oliver in his attempts to cheer up and empower townsfolk. There's plenty to do--you just have to go out and look for it between major plot points.
It's easy to forget you're playing a video game at times thanks to the excellent English voice cast (though you may choose Japanese audio if you prefer), landscapes that wouldn't look out of place in a stylized painting, and a breathtaking score by way of Joe Hisaishi and the Tokyo Philharmonic. Every aspect of Ni no Kuni's presentation is gorgeous, and the constant reminders of such high-quality construction are certainly appreciated.
Of course, with a game clearly aimed at players of all ages, you'd be correct in assuming it's a bit simpler than necessary. The grinding is kept to a minimum and battles move at a satisfying pace, but in the end it's not a challenging experience. The focus here is on the dazzling visuals, the heartrending plight of Oliver, and the magical world he's found himself whisked away to. The total package more than makes up for its slight discrepancies when it comes to more “hardcore” RPG sensibilities, and as it stands there's plenty of content here so that you won't be bored over the course of the 35 hour-plus game.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is stunning, gripping, and touching in all the right ways. Studio Ghibli could have drawn from any film in its well-established stable, but crafting from the ground up with Level-5 resulted in what is one of the best RPGs available on the PlayStation 3. Children, adults, and the young-at-heart alike should find common ground with Oliver and his plucky sidekick Mr. Drippy. Like magic, you just have to believe.