[REVIEW] Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Switch)

Ghibli: The RPG

Every so often there is a collaboration of studios using their talent to allow their creative ideas come to fruition and when industry veterans come together for that project it can be something miraculous. Veteran video game developer Level-5 and long-running animation company Studio Ghibli have worked in harmony to produce one memorable and magical experience. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has finally arrived for Nintendo Switch. Although this isn’t the first time Ni no Kuni has been on a Nintendo platform and a handheld no less. In a Japan-only release, the Nintendo DS seen the release of Ni no Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn. Garnering major buzz, a new title would follow in 2011 being an enhanced and fully-realized version of the original Nintendo DS release; Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for PlayStation 3 and 2 years later in the west in 2013. The Nintendo Switch title is the PlayStation 3 version with all of the downloadable extras included with no corners cut. It’s one of the most beautiful games on Nintendo Switch being both a pleasure to see on your TV and playing in handheld. If you love RPG’s then you’re in for a wonderful experience. If you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli’s work then you’re also in for a treat. Being a fan of both means you’ve won twice. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an incredible addition to the Nintendo Switch library.

Ni no Kuni is immediately captivating and has one of the most entertaining introductions that sets several tones at once as to what to expect further into your adventure. Be fancied by the quality animation of cut-scenes produced by Studio Ghibli with all its fine detail you’d come to expect from one of their features created exclusively for the game. Studio Ghibli is often praised for their exceptional dub work so English voice overs across the board are great, but if you’re in the sub-only camp then fret not as the option to choose either English or Japanese can be toggled in the settings menu. Both tested, both approved. I found myself sticking with English this go around because one of the main characters who tags along with you from the start and is introduced from the get-go is quite enjoyable and it pays off. Great voice work accompanied by a heavy accent can make all the difference.

The opening gameplay gets you familiar with controls and navigation. You play as Oliver, residing in 1950’s-ish Motorville, ready to take home groceries to his mother Allie, eat breakfast and then head to school. Before doing so, he meets up with his buddy who plans to get into a little harmless mischief. At least, it was meant to be harmless. Planned for taking out a custom built automobile out for a quick nighttime drive, one loose screw leads to another and that leads to the car falling apart and Oliver taking a surprise swim. It is his mother’s intuition that saves him from drowning and tragically takes her life by doing so.

A devastated and heart-broken Oliver locks himself in his room for days. Shedding tears onto a doll his mother gave him changes everything from there, however. Releasing the spell cast onto Drippy trapping him as the doll, he comes to life and begins to explain why he’s come to life. It’s all thanks to Oliver, as he is the Pure-Hearted One. Yes, he is the hero to save the world, but it’s not just one world. Everyone has a soulmate which is essentially themselves in another dimension. When something happens to one person, it’s basically mirrored for their soulmate. The energetic & fast-lipped Drippy, a.k.a. “Lord High Lord of the Fairies”, convinces Oliver using his unique and entertaining way with words to enter his world to save it by mentioning how his mother is the direct image of Great Sage Alicia who has been trapped in a snare by the evil Shadar back in Drippy’s world. Saving her just might bring his mother back and Oliver agrees to help.

The art direction is fantastic and transitions well between the animation and actual gameplay. There’s a sense that this world and its characters are properly realized in 3D without sacrifice. There is a desire to want to pause and inspect the background details in animated cut-scenes. It’s also the subtle details in character movement and interactions Studio Ghibli gets recognition for and when Level-5 implements those into the gameplay side of things it’s more of a joy. It’s not unknown for games these days to add little touches to animations or gameplay that flesh out movement in general, but for JRPG’s with a similar gameplay style to Ni no Kuni during its time of release, the details are present. Animation detail applies to gameplay in addition to watching story sequences, too. Some backdrops look like the belong in an anime. You’ll see shimmer on water from fountains that looks like it was drawn in as it animates. Nice attention to detail here.

Moving around just feels smooth. Running across the entire world of Ni no Kuni has a nice momentum going for it. There is a focus on world design to compliment your travels. Ni no Kuni wants it to be playful wherever you go. Walking up and down steps is a smooth transition into its own animation. You may sometimes walk against a wall on a steep ledge, find your balance walking across a log on a stream of water, hop from wooden post to wooden post, jump across mushrooms that bounce, and more. It’s nothing groundbreaking and one might wonder why it deserves mentioning. It’s an adventurous and fantastical world and these movements and situations players will find themselves in is something that could be expected from Studio Ghibli’s line of work. While the animated cut-scenes are exceptional, so are all of the character movements. The cartoonish nature and fluidity are present both in gameplay and in-game cut-scenes. Drippy is hoppity and has an expressive lantern-nose. Oliver’s cape movement has a nice flow to it when running as well.

Oliver is a master wizard in the making. With barely scraps of the essential wizardry gear, such as a proper wand and the right outfit for flare, there’s just enough for him to get by and soon him and Drippy enter to the other world. The Wizard’s Companion is a book that he carries forth and gives him a small taste of spells, one being Gateway, to travel between worlds. Players here get a taste of basic combat before it evolves, as well as the world map. The destination? Ding Dong Dell! To meet his Meowjesty. The characters and locations all have their own identity and contain plenty of questing and time well-spent there just to advance the story alone, but there’s also a decent amount of it optional. Shadar has cast a darkness to the peoples of every town and they are not their usual selves. They are in fact the Broken-Hearted. It’s up to Oliver to mend their hearts and restore their happiness. Doing so opens up more options within towns to progress through the game.

Ni no Kuni tickles the heart of all ages. There are comical situations just as there are touching themes. Oliver’s main goal is to learn the best spells and become strong enough to defeat Shadar, but in order to do that he must meet with people who have the highest knowledge of spells or who can give permission to Oliver to meet someone or go somewhere. So even the kings and queens of the cities are broken-hearted. Using a locket, Oliver can take a sliver of someone else’s heart (essence, no surgery here!) who’s overflowing with a particular emotion in order to use it on another person who could use that emotion to feel better. Many quests are solved by having the right heart to give to someone. Say for instance somebody is lacking the drive to do something they’d usually do, a little bit of Enthusiasm might do the trick. Often a town requires solving several problems that it has because that’s how video games work, but good problems to have as these towns are wonderful.

There’s so much personality on display here. The various shopkeepers have their own way of speaking that fits their visual design. The dialog in general is well-written. One thing in the game is Drippy will always follow you around, whether it’s in town, in dungeons or the world map. Pretty much in all cases after dialog sequence with an NPC, a new quest, an update to your quest or so on, you could talk to Drippy and he’ll have something to say about it. All this dialog on Drippy alone could be missed. Drippy also never blocks your path and immediately moves out of the way no matter which way you are going. Back to shopkeepers, a way to get quests is to visit the Taskmaster. Optional bounty hunts can be completed as well as engaging in a bulletin board that shows who could use help.

Quests are available in towns, but also update with new ones after major events take place, too. Aside from the jolly good vibes you get from completing these quests, there’s also incentive to do so. Completing quests will reward Oliver with Guilders (money) and items, which tick the box of common drops to rare drops, ingredients and weapon/armor. In addition, each quest has a certain ranking displayed by how many Merit Stamps it’s worth. Players get a Merit Card and have it stamped every time a quest is completed. Each Merit Card has up to 10 stamp slots. When completed, players can trade in that Merit Card for a passive reward unique to gameplay that’s worth having. The number of Merit Stamps each quest is worth varies, but stamps carry over to a new Merit Card if you’ve reached the limit of one. Rewards even require multiple Merit Cards. Rewards can be anything like moving faster on the world map or being able to jump even. There’s plenty to earn and reveal when it comes to these Merit Card rewards, so quests become more meaningful if you wish to complete them.

The peaceful parts of the world aren’t without dangerous territories filled with “beasties”. The monsters in the world have their own speed and movement patterns. Some will enjoy charging straight into you when spotted, but can easily be dodged as they only head in one direction. Others will repeatedly follow you around for a while. Whether it’s you who touched an enemy from behind, or they to you, the one who did the sneak attack will always gain an advantage in battle by having a head start to perform any actions. Monsters you’ve defeated in battle or monsters who run away from you in dungeons who run away from you will disappear, but respawn after a given time or you are away from the spot temporarily. Players can grind freely should they choose.

One JRPG staple seems to be it’s labyrinth/multiple paths approach in dungeon areas. Take the hidden or secret route and be rewarded with a treasure chest. There’s an easy map on display and a bigger overall map to bring up if one needs it. Completionists will find themselves returning to areas to use their new spells or abilities to reach new areas and unlock chests. Treasure chests come in 4 different colors, each representing the manner in which they need to be unlocked. Green chests, for example, require an ability that a member in your party can only open. Travelling the world map also has its secrets. Eventually you’ll be able to travel the seas and mount a magical beast to soar the skies. There are save spots in dungeons that also restore your entire HP/MP and are required to save. Saving can be done pretty much anywhere else at any given time. You’ll be thankful for saves as battles may surprise in their difficulty. At first, they’re pretty standard, but the further you progress you realize you’ll need to be better prepared.

Battles are a fusion of real-time and turn-based. Players can control their character to roam around a field in any direction, but their abilities and actions that perform in real-time are also on a timers and cooldowns. Each party member can have up to 3 Familiars. Familiars are essentially the Pokemon of Ni no Kuni. These creatures who have their own charm to them can be tossed onto the field and be the most effective in battle. Each Familiar has a stamina meter that slowly drains when active, so they’ll need to be retrieved to rest temporarily before you can send them out again. Familiars have their own abilities and sign of the cosmos. Think of particular elements being more effective over another.

For example, Sun has priority over Moon, but Star has priority over Sun. Elements aren’t missing and are very present, however. A Familiar with a water ability will be effective against fire types. It’s all about mixing and matching. The more your treat your Familiar well, the more effective they become. They even have the ability to Metamorphise, evolving their overall stats, number of abilities that can be learned, and appearance. Of course, Metamorphising will reset their level back to 1, but they’ll become more powerful than they were before when reaching the same level it was before it took place. Giving treats, like dessert, to Familiars will increase specific stats of your choosing. They’ll also love your a little more and be more effective as a result.

There are hundreds of Familiar to catch; all different. Eventually you obtain the ability to catch creatures during battle. All the different beasties you will encounter in the game can be caught, named and saved. Familiars that you can’t currently hold are saved and sent to the “bank”. Thinking of which Familiars to use in battle will make all the difference. Each Familiar’s HP/MP is tied to their owner. A familiar taking damage or using an ability that’s not a regular attack will consume the bars of the player instead. Each party member has unique abilities to take advantage of. While Familiars can only choose up to a specific amount of abilities to use in battle at a time, their owners have no limit in using the number of abilities in their repertoire. While Oliver’s wand may do little damage, he can freely choose between any number of offensive and defensive spells he’s learned thus far. Calling the shots, party members make the call for choosing Provisions to consume food as well as potions, or to flee from battle.

Players can set the tactics for each party member when they’re not controlling them, such as who to target and what to do. Each party member can be controlled at any time with ease, and often that might be the best case. Sometimes the struggle in battle comes from AI making weird calls or not being efficient. For instance, Esther’s starting Familiar has a healing ability, but it will often try to heal itself or others when not a sufficient amount of damage has been done, thus consuming precious MP repeatedly until no MP is left for the useful offensive abilities to be performed by the AI. This often results in your teammates passing out during battle leaving you to stop, consume a precious item to restore life and restore their MP, and so on. Most of the time it’s manageable, but it’s a persistent issue if the battle is legitimately challenging you. Then there’s a bit getting used to movement with the left analog and selecting actions at the same time by using the d-pad in real-time. Basically, afford to stock up on items when spells don’t cut it or you don’t have the proper spell. Eventually you’ll be able to conjure your own set of anything you could buy at shops, even weapons & armor.

But relax, click in the right analog and enjoy a first-person perspective of the beautiful world. Take it in everywhere you can. Ni no Kuni is a beautiful game to behold. The art style holds up strong. A very stable 30 frames per second, running at 720p in both docked and handheld, it’s lovable at every moment. If it wasn’t enough that the game looks the part, legendary composer and renown Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi composed the soundtrack played by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The sound is exquisite. Whether you’re playing on the TV or in handheld, direct audio input to both of your ears is a must. The beautiful and diverse soundtrack is played for all of the right moments and is very cinematic. An epic travelling theme awaits, cultural influenced songs for towns are beautifully fitting their own region, tense moments for bosses, themes for story beats and dungeons are all a treat.

Also make note of the Wizard’s Companion. It’s incredibly details and contains a vast amount of imagery and information as if it were indeed a real book with lots of pages to flip through. Many missing and need to be found as well. Great for those who enjoy and want to learn more about the world’s lore. A must for learning recipes!

Summary
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch hits all the high notes. It's a great JRPG, but it also transports you into an interactive Studio Ghibli world. The art and sound is directly that of Studio Ghibli. Careful production and planning went into this and it shows. It's easily one of the best out there. The Nintendo Switch is quickly becoming the one-stop RPG machine and this is one of the top recommendations. Many games in the genre can keep your attention, but seldom do you get one to entertain you like this one. It has that magic. Studio Ghibli: The RPG, developed by veteran Level-5.
The Stellar
  • Beautiful harmony of Level-5 and Studio Ghibli's talents.
  • Visually attractive art style both in-game and in animated cut-scenes.
  • Great voice acting and writing.
  • Incredible soundtrack.
  • Gameplay mechanics engaging.
The Lesser
  • Could seem like a tad of hand-holding with all the dialog.
  • Battle is fun, but AI party members could give you a game over.
9.3
Must Play
Gameplay - 8
Visual - 9
Audio - 10
Value - 10

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