Feb 5, 2013

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of The White Witch Critique


     To say I was excited for Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch would be an understatement. I've been a huge fan of Studio Ghibli and, in particular, Hayao Miyazaki's work since I was a child watching such classics as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service quite regularly. Hell, I was once so enthralled with Princess Mononoke that I told a kid at school my girlfriend's name was San and she lived in the forest...that's actually a true story...don't judge me! Anyway, it wasn't until I got out of high school that I discovered the game developer Level-5, the first game of theirs I played being Professor Layton and the Curious Village: which I adore. So, you can probably ascertain my level of enthusiasm the first time I saw a trailer for this mash-up of superb game developer and legendary animation studio.

     Originally Ni No Kuni was a DS game, and Japan exclusive, titled Ni No Kuni: Shikkoku no Madōshi (literally "Second Country: The Jet-Black Mage") so technically this is an HD remake of the DS game, but there are quite a few differences, which I will discuss in a special spoiler section near the end (don't worry you'll have fair warning).

     Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch follows the story of a boy named Oliver who lives with his mother in a town called Moterville. One night Oliver sneaks out to meet his friend and test drive a car the two of them built. As Oliver is driving along a road running parallel to a river, one of the wheels pops off and Oliver is sent careening into the water. Oliver, who apparently can't swim, gasps for air when suddenly his mother grabs hold of him and swims him safely to shore. However, all this excitement causes Oliver's mother great stress and she suffers a fatal heart attack. For three days Oliver cries alone in his room, blaming himself for his mother's untimely death, when one day his doll, Drippy, comes to life and informs him that there may be a way to save his mother. Drippy, introducing himself as "Lord High Lord of the fairies" speaks of another world in which the soul mates (people who share a soul) of the people in Oliver's world live. Drippy also states that the soul mate of Oliver's mother is still alive, but has been imprisoned by an evil wizard named Shadar, and that rescuing her may bring Oliver's mother back to life. With this new found resolve, Oliver and Drippy travel to the other world and embark on a journey to defeat Shadar and free the soul mate of Oliver's mother; however, few journeys are so cut and dry, and sinister plots that go beyond the evil of Shadar begin to unfold.

ni no kuni oliver and drippy
Oliver and Drippy
     One of the most appealing aspects of Ni No Kuni is, obviously, the way in which it emulates the style of a Studio Ghibli film. The really important cutscenes that are usually pre-rendered CGI cinematics are all animated by the geniuses at Studio Ghibli, but more importantly, Level-5 has done an excellent job of making the rest of the game look and feel as magical as the animated scenes. The fact that they managed to so gracefully translate a 2D style into a 3D world really shows the amount of skill and dedication the folks at Level-5 have. Beyond this, the developers crafted a fantastical narrative and environment that submerges the player into a world as wonderful and beautiful as any Ghibli film, with visuals, narrative, and musical score masterfully weaving together to emulate the works of the legendary animation studio. It's honestly amazing just how often I forgot I was playing a game and thought I was watching an unknown Ghibli film.

Notice how well this 3D scene emulates its 2D counterparts.
     Of course, style alone does not a good game make, and I initially feared that Ni No Kuni would fall into the bad habits most JRPGs have fallen into as of late; that is, spectacular visuals, awful gameplay (a "Golden Piece of Shit" if you will). Thankfully, Ni No Kuni avoids this easily sprung trap and delivers a solid gameplay experience that is both fresh and familiar. Rather than set out to redefine the now stagnate JRPG genre, it takes the rather clever approach of borrowing mechanics from more prominent games, carefully picking what works and casting aside what doesn't. Two such games borrowed heavily from are Final Fantasy (mostly FFXII) and Pokémon: these likenesses are most apparent in the battle system. Upon wandering the seemingly massive, unnamed, world of Ni No Kuni you will encounter many creatures from which you must defend yourself; thankfully these aren't the traditional random encounters that accompany most JRPGs, but you can actually see enemies walking around and if you touch them you are transported to a separate battle screen. There are two different ways in which you can engage in combat. The first way is to attack using Oliver or one of several other human characters that join your party as the game progresses. The second method involves the use of "familiars", creatures whom you've befriended that can fight on your behalf. Each character comes with their own familiar, but before long you'll gain the ability to befriend creatures in the wild to become your familiars. While human characters tend to be weaker in terms of physical attacks, they are much more flexible as they have the capability to cast more spells or special attacks, use items, or give commands to allies. Familiars are better equipped to deal a lot of damage in a short amount of time, but some simply act as support to call in if a certain special ability is needed.

A rather intense battle between familiars and wild beasts.
     An interesting thing to note is that a familiar and the human that sent it out share an HP meter as well as an MP meter. This is interesting in that it allows weaker familiars to have great amounts of HP and MP. The ability to swap between a familiar and a human character on the fly by pressing the L1 button allows you to use attacks and support magic from one familiar/human to buff the stats of another that you can then quickly switch to: it’s a great system that provides a wealth of possible outcomes and battle styles. Combat becomes more frantic, yet rarely tedious, when other party members join your cause. At the start of the battle you can choose which party member to be the “leader” and choose which of their familiars, if any, to send out first. 

     Combat is similar to how it was before, except now you can switch between different party members and their familiars. Since each human can possess up to three familiars at any given time, you technically have a total of twelve party members to choose from: though there are only three pools of available HP and MP. Only the leader is directly controlled by the player (as is the leader's familiar) and all other party members act automatically, however you can choose “tactics” from the battle menu when the leader is the active character to command your other party members. Unfortunately, the automated characters never seemed to follow the tactic I laid out for them; I don't know how many times I told a party member to "keep us healthy" only to find them vigorously attacking while another party member is on the verge of fainting. Familiars also have simplistic, Pokémon-esque type match-ups. These types include: Sun, Star, Moon, and Planet, with special "double" types of each. These type match-ups affect each other in a sort of rock, paper, scissors kind of way with Sun being strong against Moon, but weak against Star, which is weak against Moon. Planet seems to be strong against the previous three and has no weakness, but familiars of this type are rare. Double types are simply more powerful versions of their singular kin. While it isn't required to pay attention to these signs, battles tend to go much smoother if you do, so this turns out to be a great mechanic for adding depth to the game, without increasing it's complexity too much. Overall the combat system is fun and fast paced and makes you feel as though you're actually in command, rather that just sitting back, watching the action unfold.

Come at us bro!
     Overall Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a very well designed and polished game, but there are a few issues that mar its otherwise mirror-like sheen. One of the biggest is that Ni No Kuni has the bad habit of holding your hand WAY too much; certain bits of information are so painfully obvious that it feels as though the game is just wasting your time. This is very similar to how Fi acts in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, which, understandably, gets rather annoying. I get that much of what this game is about is aimed at a younger audience who may not understand the finer points of JRPGs, but in a few places it seems as though Ni No Kuni is aimed more at a dumber audience. There's also the issue of just how botched the beginning is. Story wise, things tend to move a little too fast to really mean anything. In the span of just fifteen or so minutes we are simultaneously introduced to Oliver, his Mother, his friend Phil, and are told of Oliver and Phil's plans to sneak out and drive a car they built; we then see The White Witch using some sort of ju-ju to sabotage the car, Oliver being saved by his mother, his mother dying, and Oliver meeting Drippy. The breakneck speed at which the narrative is conveyed is accompanied by long, drawn-out tutorials and gameplay tips that I can see turning off more than a few players. Really, the first hour or so is nothing but tutorials and hints at already obvious mechanics; Ni No Kuni is a game that leaves little for the player to discover on their own, and instead walks them through even seemingly minor portions of the game. To its credit though, Ni No Kuni seems to break the forth wall at certain points to comment on how JRPGs are played. It’s as if the game expects a great deal of players to be new to the genre and it reassures them of some of a JRPG’s odder features through humor: for veteran players these moments become a sort of inside joke. What’s interesting is that Oliver seems as clueless about the rules and mechanics of this new world as I imagine a newcomer to the genre would feel. It almost makes me wish this was the first JRPG I’ve ever played just so I could connect with Oliver on a deeper level.

    There are a number of side quests for you to complete. These include the usual fetch quests, delivery quests, bounty quests, etc.. When you complete a side quest you are given various items and amounts of money as well as merit stamps. Merit stamps go on cards that are not unlike a punch card you would get at a store or a restaurant: buy ten, get 1 free! Each merit card requires 10 stamps in order to be filled out; once filled out, the merit card can be used to purchase special abilities, some of which require multiple cards, so it pays to do these errands. I think this is an excellent incentive for doing the side quests as it provides the player with extra perks and rewards that would not normally be obtained. The downside of this is that some side quests seem like last minute additions to the game put there simply to pad it out more; these usually consist of get X from person A and give to person B who happens to be standing just a few steps away. Also, special attacks of enemies and allies, or the presence of in-battle text can oftentimes throw your ploy off causing you to waste time, at best, or take a hit, at worst: I died several times while trying to resurrect a fallen party member simply because Drippy had something obvious to say about the enemy I was facing.

Run for the hills, he can see our flaws!
     The story is heartwarming but not as “chill inducing” as I had hoped. Oliver is your typical lovable block head with a heart of gold, and it's amazing just how much his character evolves as the story progresses. Normally the main character in JRPGs tends to be very bland and lifeless so the player can project their own vision of who this character is; this isn't a terrible thing to do, but it seems like a rather lazy approach to delivering a narrative. However, Oliver is a very endearing character that gradually “grows up” as the game progresses; so gradually in fact, I didn't realize just how much of a manly badass he becomes until I began to reflect upon the game. Drippy is very amusing and acts as both a guide and a companion to both the player and Oliver; he has the ability to “lighten up” any dark situation (hence the lantern nose) which, admittedly, can be somewhat distracting during moments of high emotion, but I imagine this was purposefully done in order to maintain the lighthearted tone of the rest of the game. Speaking of Oliver and Drippy, there is a nice dynamic between the duo; Oliver is smart but likes to think things through, as well as think out loud. Drippy on the other hand jumps to conclusions (though he’s usually right), getting annoyed with Oliver for taking so long in his thinking process; Oliver then gets distraught when Drippy calls him dense, right at the moment he’s figured something out. This dynamic has the fourth-wall breaking effect of holding the novice player’s hand and spelling everything out for them, while also making more skilled players feel smart for figuring things out before Oliver; it’s as if novice players are supposed to identify with Oliver and veteran players with Drippy.

(the much anticipated spoiler section is coming up; scroll down and start reading after the "END OF SPOILER SECTION" text and you'll be safe.)


     It pains me to say this, but another one of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch's flaws comes in the form of its story. For one, The title is somewhat out of place in that the titular “White Witch” doesn’t really do a whole lot other than grant powers to Shadar and get mildly upset when he fails. Shadar is the true antagonist and he is much more interesting than the White Witch. When the Witch does finally do something it is after you defeat Shadar (about 35 hours into the game). This action of hers is a very minor event that is guised as being much bigger than it actually is; she uses a spell called "Manna" that causes white ash to fall like snow, turning anyone it touches into a zombie. Not only does this attack come out of the blue, the affect it has on the inhabitants of the game completely changes the over all tone. Whereas before you were fighting wild creatures and monsters, now you are fighting human beings, albeit zombified ones. Plus, this "epilogue" seems like the writers wrote themselves into a corner and came up with something palpable but not very enthralling. After all, undoing the damage caused by the manna takes very little time and consists of the pattern: go to kingdom X; make your way to that kingdom’s throne room; defeat a boss; cutscene; done. Rinse and repeat two more times. After this its off to a mysterious island for a short while, then on to the final dungeon. Needless to say I feel a little bit cheated with how anticlimactic this all goes down, and I imagine that many other players will as well.

Just sittin' here, doin' nothin'...have some ash, because fuck it.
     Really, the game should have ended after you defeat Shadar. The reason behind this is simple: Shadar is a much more endearing villain than the witch and there was certainly much more build-up to the final showdown with him. Not only that, but the encounter with him just feels like the climax. Oliver has just found out his mother was actually the sage Alicia the whole time, and she actually died in Moterville, so there is no chance of her being saved. Oliver is, in fact, Shadar's soul mate, which I honestly didn't see coming until just before it happened, and is equally as pure as Shadar is evil. Plus, Oliver reaches his apex in terms of character development just before this battle, leaving no more room for him to grow afterwards and causing him to just kind of sit back during the whole White Witch, epilogue, thing. All signs point to the battle with Shadar being the ending, so what happened? Well, from what I've read, this is where the DS version of the game ends, and anything after this point has been added for the PS3 release. This would explain why the subtitle of the DS version is The Jet-Black Mage, because the game was never meant to be about the White Witch, it was about the struggle against Shadar. Honestly, this is the first time I can think of a game needing to cut content in order to make the game better.

My Osteoporosis makes me a badass.

     When it comes right down to it, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a flawed but fantastic game that is arguably the best JRPG of this generation. Few people can look at this game and not immediately be struck by its overwhelming beauty and artistic quality. As stated before, the way in which Level-5 so masterfully managed to capture the essence of a Studio Ghibli film is remarkable. Ni No Kuni managed to stir up my inner child which allowed me to see its world with even more magic and wonder than I otherwise would have. While the game takes a while to really build up some momentum and suck you in, and the ending may be lackluster at best, the value is, as they say, found in the journey itself. I highly recommend Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch because what it does well, it does really well and it's positive aspects more than make up for its handful of flaws.


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