(This is a guest post from our very own Ryan Noonan!)
What do you get when you combine the semi-real-time combat of the Tales or Star Ocean series, the manic completionist obsession of Pokémon, and the art style of Spirited Away? Turns out, you get the best JRPG of its generation.
The first thing you’ll note about Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, in that it’s impossible to miss, is that it’s freaking gorgeous. If you’ve seen any of the various anime creations of Studio Ghibli – including the aforementioned Spirited Away and also things like Princess Mononoke (one of my favorite movies of all time, in case you were curious), Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, and any number of others – you know what you’re going to see here. Cartoony figures, with an emphasis on relatively realistically portrayed humans and just totally insane fairies and monsters. Your main sidekick throughout the game is Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies (actual title), and he looks like sort of an anteater with a lantern hanging from his nose ring. The various other monsters and creatures are no less crazy.
Speaking of the other monsters… Get ready to spend a lot of time with them. The core mechanic of the game is a very Pokémon-like “catch ‘em all” capture-and-train system. Any of the standard critters you find wandering around the world map or in the various dungeons is a potential ally, called a familiar for the purposes of this game. (This mechanic takes some time to unlock, but once it does, whoa nelly.) There’s a slight deviation from the Pokémon mechanic of “weaken and catch” that introduces a fair amount of frustrating randomness, but it’s not too off-putting as long as you’re not quite as obsessive about catching one of everything as… well, me.
Anyway, you can carry up to three of these little guys at a time on each of your party members, (note: You start with one party member, and you’ll go up to [I believe] three by the end), with three more in a reserve force that you can switch into active duty outside of battle. (You also get something very much like the Pokécenter where you can store your whole menagerie in a less-immediately-accessible fashion.) In battle, each of your party members can rotate freely between the three familiars he or she has “equipped”, or he or she can participate directly in battle. Your main character, Oliver, is particularly useful as the real powerhouse mage of the whole endeavor.
That’s a lot of mechanical detail in a post about why Ni No Kuni is fun, but it’s important to understand all that because it’s totally amazing. What looks every bit like a cartoon for kids turns out to be a fairly complex JRPG. If I’m doing the math right, then in any given battle, you have 4 x 4 x 4 = 64 possible combinations of people/familiars on the battlefield at any given moment, and that isn’t even counting the full array of familiars available. With the click of a few buttons, you can rotate through all of these combatants, leaving the AI to direct the rest of your squad according to some very basic rules (like “use up all your magic”, “keep me healed”, or “don’t use any magic”) that you can assign. Each of your characters and familiars also has three equipment slots for even more customizability.
On top of all of that, all of these battles take place in quasi-real time. You run around a small map, flinging spells, whacking things, defending, evading, etc., all while giving commands and flipping between characters. Developing the situational awareness and muscle memory to successfully direct the whole symphony is pretty rewarding. The major downside, however, is that most of the battles really aren’t that hard. You don’t have to be much of an expert to take down your 25th demon balloon or skeleton warrior or bunch of underripe bananas or mechanical rabbit (all of which are actual enemies you will see).
The real challenge, though, and where the whole game comes together into something totally perfect, is the boss fights. First, they’re enormous. Most of the creatures in Ni No Kuni are about the same size as your main character (or smaller). These are effectively twisted Pokémon, so they aren’t supposed to be all that imposing. The bosses, though, are huge. I haven’t measured, but we’ll say they’re 10-20 times the size of your main character. Second, they’re hard. Unlike the random fights you will mow through (this is, after all, a JRPG), they will likely kill you. I died three times against the first boss I fought after getting a second party member, while I was still trying to get the hang of the party mechanics. These guys have a ton of HP and dish out a lot of damage. They are also pretty hard to get away from if you need to breathe and wolf down a quick Sandwich (+100 HP), as they take up most of the map.
So beating one of them really feels good. Satisfying. Losing to them is kind of surprising, given the significant ramp-up in difficulty that they represent, and there has been much near-controller-throwing in my house (as well as expletives directed at Esther and her maddening need to bathe in the fiery breath of volcano boss Moltaar – Daenerys Targaryen she is not). But once everything clicks and you have the symphony humming along, coming out the other side of one of these harrowing ordeals is really cathartic. It is fairly rare to find a game that provides challenges that never seem unfair. Every time I die in Ni No Kuni I am well aware that I die because I am not proficient enough. That’s kind of nice, and it’s a good impetus for trying again.
This is already way too long, so I won’t say much about the story (which is pretty paint-by-numbers) or the voice acting (which is mostly pretty good), except to point out that Drippy (already mentioned) is truly inspired. His design, his dialogue, his voice actor, and all the weird things he does in the background when the humans are talking (like finding and putting on a woman’s hat and then modeling for himself in her mirror) are just great. He is so good that he often steals the spotlight from the actual protagonists of the story, but he’s worth it.