At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Ni No Kuni – Wrath of the White Witch was a bit soft, even a little “twee” but once you delve a little further into the magical world created by developer Level-5 you’ll soon realise there is a titan of a gaming experience to be had with this J-RPG.
The first thing that strikes you is the nature of our unassuming hero, Oliver (The pure hearted one), who is abnormally kind and excruciatingly well-mannered. He’s not your typical saviour, especially not when compared to the butt-kicking lead characters in other current chart-topping games. But rather than put Oliver at a disadvantage, his good nature makes you really care about him and as a result makes the story in this game one of the most engaging and heartfelt stories I’ve ever played through.
We first meet Oliver in his home town of Motorville, a picturesque slice of 50s/60s America that’s reminiscent of cult classic TV show The Wonder Years, but all is not as it seems as we’re also shown apparent forces of evil plotting to corrupt Oliver’s heart and/or kill him because they fear a prophecy that’s touted the boy as earth’s saviour.
Sadly Oliver’s world his turned upside down when his Mother passes away under suspicious circumstances, leaving him distraught. But things start looking up when Oliver’s tears fall onto a doll his Mother gave him – Mr Drippy – who magically comes alive and turns out to be the Lord High Lord of The Fairies in a parallel world. Mr Drippy explains that Oliver’s Mother may be saved if they can find her soul mate in his world and defeat Shaddar who is threatening to destroy it.
A wild, epic and magical tale follows which sees Oliver joined by a great cast of characters as he develops his wizard craft and grows in heart and strength. Even though this is an RPG you spend less time focussing on items and stats than most others because you get lost completely in the tale which is made even more awesome thanks to animated cut-scenes from Studio Ghibli the team behind the award-winning animated movies Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Gameplay-wise this looks and feels similar to Pokemon as Oliver uses “Familiars” that he can call in to help him during battle. Familiars are initially creatures you meet on your journey, but as the game develops you can capture pretty much any creature you fight and then once you have them, you can use treats, EXP points and item upgrades to level-up your Familiars. Oliver and his human party members are also available in battle, armed with magic, special moves and abilities such as stealing items. Rewardingly the battles are kept fluid as you can move around and swap in and swap out characters whilst fighting giving you much more freedom to dodge attacks and exploit enemy weaknesses.
Aside from the main story and battles, there are plenty of side quests in the form of Bounty Hunting and Favours which will see you rewarded with Merit Badges and items when help out people you meet who are in a spot of bother, like a mother I met who had lost her three children. Before social services could be called I explored the small town I was in, found them and in return she gave me cash, some items and rewarded me with merit points that can be used to upgrade Oliver’s abilities. Another type of favour you’ll often be required to do is mend “broken hearts” by finding someone who has a particular quality, such as courage, kindness or enthusiasm in abundance, collecting a little bit of their heart using a spell (Take Heart) and then giving it to someone who is broken-hearted after having theirs stolen by the evil Shaddar using another spell (Give Heart).
Although I wanted to blast through the many hours of gameplay (up to 60) the story alone has to offer, I often found myself getting sidetracked by the Merit Badge quests which are highly addictive once you get going.
Ni No Kuni looks stunning, especially once you’re on the open map and being treated to cut scenes, but it’s clear that every inch of this game has been created with stylistic skill and craft and the result is a visually stunning game that for the most part feels like an interactive movie where you control the characters. The music, scored by award-winning Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi only serves to add to the epic and otherworldly feel of this game and really makes this a standout and must play title whether or not you’re a typical J-RPG/RPG fan.
There’s a couple of niggles such as the Welsh accent of Oliver’s sidekick Mr Drippy – it can grate on nerves at times (I had to change it to Japanese and just read the subs), and a second gripe is that the game holds your hand a little too much in the beginning but it is useful for newcomers I guess and thankfully occurs a lot less frequently as you progress into the game proper.
If you have a Playstation 3, appreciate great storytelling, characters with depth and sumptuous visuals - this game is unique and supremely crafted, making it an easy purchase and we couldn’t recommend it enough. You will laugh, you will become emotionally invested in Oliver’s journey and you will recommend it to your friends.
In the west we’ve been deprived of strong JRPGs for too long, relying on Japanese imports with subtitles we can’t read and crying out for greatness, thankfully, Ni No Kuni has finally answered that call.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch will be released in the UK on February 1st, Playstation 3 only.
Check out the launch trailer: