Monday, May 13, 2013

Game Review: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3)

Ni no Kuni stands on the shoulders of giants. The game, developed by Level-5 and Japan's contribution to humanity, Studio Ghibli, shares many similarities with classic games. It has the creature-collecting feature of Pokémon. It has the puzzle-solving component of Legend of Zelda. It has the item creation mandate of Vagrant Story. It has the level grinding requirement of every traditional JRPG, from Final Fantasy to Ys to the Tales series.

Ni no Kuni shines just as brightly as those games because of its stunning graphics, touching storyline, gorgeous soundtrack, fantastic voice work, and addictive gameplay. It has high replay value -- I finished this game twice, which I usually don't do.

Best of all, it has a compelling hero. Oliver is a young boy who undergoes a profound loss before the game begins. He starts out on his adventure weak and uncertain, encouraged only by a quirky sidekick. He comes into his own when he decides to help others, even when it means delaying his own quest. He makes friends. He learns. He grows. And when his journey ends, he understands that it's really just another beginning.

Which brings us to the most fascinating aspect of the story: its metaphysics. Playing through, I wondered: is Ni no Kuni all in Oliver's head? Is his trip to another world actually a psychotic breakdown triggered by tragedy? There are certainly arguments for this possibility. I've also read gamer boards that undermine that theory.

Whatever the case may be, Ni no Kuni offers a rich experience to Oliver and players alike. Below are the highlights of the game:

The graphics are beautiful. Animated in a distinctly Studio Ghibli style, Ni no Kuni makes the eyes pop with its vibrant palettes, especially on the world map. Movements appear realistic and add to the energy on screen; for example, Oliver's cape swirls jauntily as he runs around, Esther's hair bounces with her, and Swaine's tattered coat flutters at the slightest breeze. The bosses are large, imposing, and vividly colored, which as we all know is nature's way of saying, "Run away!" Too bad boss fights are mandatory. Finally, traveling through the world is sheer visual joy, whether by land, sea, or air.

The combat system is challenging. Players need to pay attention when fighting, especially if they're under-leveled or facing a boss. Quick reactions and strategic thinking garner the best results. Later in the game, the choice of which familiars to level up adds variety to battles. The options of "All-Out Attack!" and "All-Out Defense!" become useful later on, too. The glims feature, whereby landing a particularly excellent blow causes enemies to drop glowing balls that restore player's HP or MP, is a lifesaver. The wonderful graphics are on full display during encounters.

I do have two quibbles about the combat system: the AI and the camera. Players can only control one character at a time, and must set tactics for the others. One of my characters consistently depleted MP rapidly when set to AI. I had to buy or make a lot of MP-restoring items to compensate. Next, the camera adjusts automatically when the main character moves around the field, so for instance, when I'm running frantically toward an HP glim, the camera suddenly rotates so I lose sight of my goal. This problem can be solved by having a good memory, but is still gripe-worthy.

The familiars are fun. The familiars are adorable little monsters that fight on your side. Their unique abilities add another layer of complexity to the game. There are hundreds of creatures that players can capture, but only three familiars can be with one character at any time. Each character prefers certain species over others, which allows for stat boosts when leveling up favored creatures. Familiars can also metamorphose into stronger versions, and gamers get to choose the final form. Discerning JRPGers will opt for function over form, which is why I eventually abandoned my Puss in Boats, a cat with a sword, an eyepatch, and a pirate suit. The only way it could have been better was if it were a ninja. Alas, I have a world to save, and other familiars have superior stats.

Looks: unbeatable. Stats: not so much.

Side note: Now I understand why people went crazy over Pokémon. Gotta catch 'em all, indeed.

The music is flawless. Joe Hisaishi, the composer behind most Studio Ghibli hits, created perfect scores for Ni no Kuni. The main theme is a majestic exultation of adventure. The battle theme relies on violins, trumpets, flutes, and light percussion to thrill and dare, which is a welcome relief from the ominous heavy drumming that usually accompanies fights in RPGs. Speaking of ominous, the boss theme is a martial beat that swoops to match the highs and lows of those intense encounters. And "Arie," the mournful piece that often accompanies cut scenes involving Oliver's mom, destroys me every time I hear it. The OST for this game is the best I've heard in a long time.

The story is solid. Somewhere in the first few hours of the game, I became convinced that I had sussed out the inevitable plot twist. I'm glad I was wrong. At its heart, Ni no Kuni is about growing strong by overcoming heartbreak. In fact, that was one of the reasons that some players thought Oliver imagined the whole thing: he often had to help Ni no Kuni denizens "mend their broken hearts," which sounded like he was projecting his pain onto others.

Playing through to the end of the game convinced me that the question of whether or not Ni no Kuni was real didn't matter at all. What counted were Oliver's travels, the lessons he learns along the way, the bonds he forges, the strength he earns, and the peace that he attains within himself.

The other playable characters, and the main villains, embody the sub-themes of the game -- friendship, courage, misguided power, solitude, kindness, and hope. The antagonists are well-developed and have parallels to the hero, which enhances the story. In the end, beating them is fulfilling because their defeat is their salvation. Overwhelmed by the power of "the Pure-Hearted One," they remember who they once were, and the noble intentions they had before succumbing to wickedness and weakness.

And of course, it's a heck of a ride to even get to the point of challenging the Big Bads. There are rulers to placate, islands to discover, pirates to stop, alchemical formulas to learn, errands to complete, monsters to hunt, monuments to investigate, and more! As an added bonus, time travel makes an appearance!

In conclusion, Ni no Kuni is magnificent. It is a triumph of imagination, game development, and musical prowess. It may stand on the shoulders of game giants, but that just means it's on top. Buy it now at your local game retailer!


If you're a gamer, here's my Post-Game Errands Guide on GameFAQs!