You just don’t find games like Ni No Kuni anymore. Revamping the JRPG genre and adding a level of charm that we’ve never seen before, this is an absolute must play.
It tells the story of a young boy named Oliver, whose mother tragically dies in the opening scenes. Accompanied by a delightfully Welsh fairy, he travels to a magical realm in order to save her, stopping the evil lord Shadar (and a White Whitch) along the way. From the offset you’re completely drawn into the fascinating plot, which seems to have a deeper metaphorical meaning that I still have not uncovered. Characters in the magical realm are twinned to those in the real world, allowing for some wonderful overexaggerations – one particularly plump lady is represented by a truly humongous queen, and a cat becomes a king: “His Meowjesty”, in fact (expect to find puns everywhere).
Not only this, but the world that Level-5 have created is amazing, full of diverse and varied environments. In the first few hours you’ll explore a medieval kingdom, a forest, a Turkish city and a volcano. And that’s just scratching the surface. Each has plenty of small details that really stand out: the city of the “Cowlipha” had fountains of milk, for example. It’s often said that it’s the little things that count, and that’s certainly the case here.
When you put the game in the disc-drive for the first time, you’ll immediately be blown away by the visuals. They’re really something special. Not only are the graphics as high res as you could possibly want, the art style is stunning and accompanied by an equally wonderful soundtrack. There’s clear inspiration from Studio Ghibli, who helped Level-5 with the game’s animation, resulting in a title you just don’t want to stop looking at or listening to. Unfortunately, you don’t get to experience such brilliance all the time: whilst the game is totally fluid during gameplay, the FPS rate drops significantly during cutscenes, as Japanese anime is wont to do, resulting in a jarring difference that you won’t ever get truly used to.
Speaking of cutscenes…there’s a lot of them. Which is both good and bad. It’s wonderful when you’re experiencing the exceptionally good voice actors delivering the hilarious and well put-together script. But this too doesn’t happen all the time. The vast majority of the cutscenes you’ll see are neither voiced nor animated: just text scrolling along the screen in front of images of the character. This is really, really disappointing: with the vast amount of plot in this game, I really hoped that all the cutscenes would retain the same quality as the opening one, but alas this isn’t the case. More annoying is that there doesn’t seem to be a reason as to why this is, other than budget restraints. This is probably the biggest fault I could find in the game, and although it is relatively minor it stands out compared to the exceptional quality of the rest of the game.
The gameplay itself is equally superb. I like to refer to it as a light RPG: it has quite in depth RPG elements if you want them, but they are entirely optional. Gameplay largely consists of both exploring the environment and combat, one of the strongest features of the game. Each battle involves the use of familiars, Pokémon-esque creatures that each have unique abilities and attacks. You are free to move around the battle arena, allowing you to avoid enemy blows, and you yourself can attack at any time – there’s no turn based nonsense here. This results in a combat system much more fast paced and enjoyable than in similar titles. Whilst it can get somewhat repetitive, the level of strategy involved is significant, keeping it from ever becoming boring: deciding whether to rely on Oliver’s magic or that of your familiars can require considerable thought, as does choosing which familiar to use. Each can only be out for a short period of time before it needs to recharge, and there’s also a short refresh time on attacks. This means that you’re always thinking one step ahead: think of it as a fast paced game of chess. The addition of a companion later in the game adds further depth to the combat, despite her slightly grating voice.
The only time at which this combat becomes infuriating is during the boss battles. These are atrocious, repetitive sections of the game, where you will literally spam the same attack for about ten or fifteen minutes. There is nothing entertaining about them, and the difficulty curve from normal gameplay to these is too large, sucking all the usual fun out of the game. Fortunately these are few and far between, but the annoyance they cause is too great to ignore.
There’s also some basic puzzle solving: nothing too challenging, but interesting enough to make the game feel varied. Oliver can use spells contextually, such as opening doors or freezing water, and you’ll have to make use of these to fully navigate the environment in another nice touch from Level-5.
And that’s what the game is: a collection of nice touches built around a central pillar of charm. Of course it’s not perfect: the autosave is confusing, the aforementioned boss battles are awful and the cutscenes are a mixed bag. But these issues seem insignificant when you’re fully absorbed in the beautifully realized world and engrossing plot. This is all style and all substance, and the best game we’ve played in a while.
- Aesthetically brilliant
- Very in depth combat
- Unique and innovative
- Poor boss battles
- Lack of voiced cutscenes
- Somewhat glitchy autosave
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is available now on PS3 (reviewed).
Review copy kindly provided by Premier PR.