Ni No Kuni: The Cutest Darn JRPG

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a JRPG developed by Level-5 and published by Bandai Namco. It originally released on the DS in December 2010 in Japan only. An enhanced version later released worldwide on the PS3 in November 2011. A remaster of the PS3 game was released in September 2019 for PC, PS4, and Nintendo Switch. I played the Switch version.

I’ve been wanting to play this one for a long time.

Ever since I learned that staff from Studio Ghibli were involved in making a video game (circa 2015), I knew I needed to play it. I seriously considered buying a PS3 just so I could play this game. But back then, I was in college and I rarely allowed myself a new $40 3DS game, let alone a used PS3. So I put it off.

But then Ni No Kuni was confirmed to be coming to the Switch during Nintendo’s E3 2019 show, and I was elated. It only got like 3 seconds of screen time in a sizzle reel, but those 3 seconds were the highlight of that entire presentation. But then it just had to release between the Link’s Awakening remake and Dragon Quest XI. Finally though, after years on my wishlist and another year on my backlog, I’ve got to play the game. Was the wait worth it?

Let’s start with those gorgeous Ghibli animations. Just so you know, Level-5 made the game, not Studio Ghibli. Ghibli just did the animated cutscenes and some artwork. Furthermore, directing legends Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata had no hand in Ni No Kuni, so don’t go in expecting the game to be an interactive Spirited Away or Kiki’s Delivery Service. However, the Ghibli seal of quality is still there. From the rumbling cars of Motorville to the lush kingdom of Ding Dong Dell, the artists did a superb job animating lively scenes full of intricate details. Joe Hisaishi, the composer of Ghibli’s films, worked on this game’s soundtrack as well, creating a fantasy that sounds distinctly Ghibli-esque. If you like games with style, then Ni No Kuni is bursting with it.

The game begins with our protagonist, Oliver, living out his boyhood in Motorville, a town clearly inspired by 1950s America. After his mother’s health suddenly takes a bad turn, Oliver discovers a parallel fantasy world to his own, and sets out on a quest to save her.

He ends up on a traditional coming-of-age story within the structure of a traditional JRPG. But there are key moments that help Ni No Kuni stand out. Oliver begins his journey on a personal note — he just wants to save his mom. The key emotional beats of such a journey were not only endearing, but kept me invested to the end. Most of Oliver’s character development is rather slow, and his arc doesn’t take him through large changes, but he does experience some heavy stuff for a child to deal with, and I think the writers handled that development rather well.

The supporting cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Early on Oliver befriends a fairy named Mr. Drippy, and this little guy almost stole the entire show. Whatever they paid the voice actor, they didn’t pay him enough. He always has a well-timed Scottish rant to go on that always brought a smile to my face. But outside of a brief episode in his hometown, Mr. Drippy’s development is rather flat. And the rest of the cast follows suit. There are cute vignettes and interactions with Esther, Swaine, and Pea, but no real character arcs, save for maybe Swaine.

The Myrtle / Esther story arc is probably Ni No Kuni’s dual world mechanic at its best, both in terms of story and gameplay.

Every person living in the fantasy world has a doppelganger in Motorville — what they call a Soul Mate — and at first the game explores some neat story and gameplay concepts with this idea. You teleport back to Motorville to find a character’s Soul Mate and mend their broken heart with one of the Pieces of Heart (personality traits that look like Lucky Charm marshmallows). Doing so will compete their story and unlock their fantasy-world counterpart to aid you on your journey.

While the game makes a sweeping first impression, the pacing in the mid-section slows from a leisurely stroll to a molasses crawl. The game is about half the length of other JRPGs I played this year such as Persona 4 Golden and Dragon Quest XI, but because their story pacing goes at a brisk walk, Ni No Kuni actually felt like the longer game by comparison. Most scenarios are quite repetitive and episodic, with only some deviations here and there. It also doesn’t help that the antagonists are largely absent for most of the game. About two-thirds of the way to the finish line, the pacing starts jogging along with strong emotional beats and twists, ending with a satisfying climax. It’s just that middle third that feels like a hurdle.

It doesn’t help that the game has a massive monster-catching mechanic. Familiars are this game’s version of Pokemon. After taming them, you can give them equipment, teach them special moves, and feed them stat-boosting items. They evolve like Pokemon as well, and each familiar has two final forms that you can choose from. They have elemental strengths and weaknesses much like Pokemon, too. There are hundreds of different species, and most of them are derpy and adorable. I loved their designs. However, your ability to tame a wild familiar happens entirely by chance, which isn’t as rewarding as Pokemon’s capture mechanic. And my biggest complaint is that when the Familiars evolve, they revert back to Level 1, exacerbating the mid-game’s pacing issues with unnecessary level-grinding. There are also so many Familiars that I was a bit overwhelmed by which I should use. This is the kind of JRPG where I highly recommend using a guide to understand everything it has to offer.

This brings us to the combat. Don’t let it fool you — Ni No Kuni looks like an Action RPG, but in reality it plays more like Final Fantasy‘s Active Time Battle system. You can select between Oliver or his familiars and then decide which action to take – Attack, Defend, or any number of Special Moves. This system is also deceptively simple if you just looked at the normal enemy encounters, because most of these don’t require more than spam Attack to win. Underneath all of that there’s actually a good amount of depth to consider, but you won’t notice it until you reach a boss battle. It becomes a satisfying system to master, but I was disappointed that I didn’t get many chances to actually use it to its fullest.

The game is rich in a variety of side content. For starters, you can hunt for bounties, which are tougher Familiars that act like mini-bosses. I enjoyed these fights as they provided me opportunities to test out new Special Moves and new strategies. Many NPCs you encounter will also be Broken-Hearted, requiring you to search the world’s towns for people with Pieces of Heart to spare. They are simple quests that are rather on-the-nose with their metaphors, but I liked them all the same. Other NPCs will want to see a certain familiar or need certain items. It’s standard side quest stuff.

The best side quest of all was with Horace. Horace is a ghost who will give you useful spells if you can solve his riddles, most of which you can find the answers in your book, The Wizard’s Companion. This book is a legitimate novel that you can read at your pleasure. It’s filled with detailed illustrations describing Familiars, items, recipes, and locations. There are even short stories found within its pages. It’s completely unnecessary, yet it’s a charming addition that I loved casually perusing now and then.

Completing the side quests will earn you Merit Stamps, which you put on a Merit Stamp Card, very similar to a rewards card you’d find at an actual retail store. You can spend these cards to unlock useful skills for Oliver to use, including earning more XP and moving around faster. This helped speed up the final portion of the game; however, these rewards made me think that maybe the game should’ve had them to begin with. The cards themselves are so charming to look at, but I don’t think they were necessary.

I think this brings us full circle. Ni No Kuni is full of charming visual details — the way Mr. Drippy waddles, the cat paw / fish motifs on Ding Dong Dell’s architecture, the Raven Shop NPC that squawks bird puns, this game is a beautifully-wrapped gift. But I get the feeling that Ni No Kuni has more style than substance. Don’t get me wrong, there’s enough substance there to enjoy, but the game sinks into many typical JRPG pitfalls, not knowing when to trim the fat, and it relies on that charm to help win you back. In a Venn Diagram between Ghibli films and JRPGs, I’d recommend this game to those who find themselves squarely in the middle. As a lover of both myself, I had a lovely time, but if you’re strictly a JRPG fan or strictly a Ghibli fan, then there’s likely going to be something that would frustrate or disappoint you.

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