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Fight For The Top 50 – Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch

by Andrew Reiner on Nov 28, 2013 at 06:00 AM

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The first shot in Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is worth studying. In its foreground, we see an idyllic meadow consisting of white flowers, thick trees, and a vibrant sunbeam peaking over a rocky plateau. Tranquility hangs over this lush view; the hues immediately drawing similarities to many of the worlds featured in Studio Ghibli’s films. As we peer deeper into this vista, the visual dynamic shifts. Large rocky spires, almost looking like the teeth of an enormous dragon, jut out of the ground and point back toward a mountain range overcast by thick clouds holding pockets of darkness. The sight is majestic, but the hint of fantasy makes it somewhat foreboding – a destination that smacks of a Level-5 role-playing game.

Perhaps I’m looking into this scene a little too much, but I enjoyed seeing how Studio Ghibli’s artistry blended with Level-5's. The fingerprints from both of these studios are clearly identifiable, yet they meld well, combining for an adventure that wears its heart on its sleeve in a world filled with wondrous magic.

Ni no Kuni’s tone is mostly colorful and upbeat, but the story’s foundation is surprisingly sad, focusing on a young boy’s state of mind after the loss of his mother. This tale has strains of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in its DNA. Is Oliver creating a fantasy world as part of his grieving process, or is he really traveling to it? This story can be interpreted both ways, as a touching soul-searching adventure and a fantasy to save a kingdom in peril. It’s a great arc to dissect and debate.

No matter which angle you support, this is a coming-of-age story for Oliver. He’s one of those characters who puts the needs and safety of others first. You just want to see this kid succeed. He’s been through hell and yet he remains a ray of light for others. His sidekick Drippy isn’t so nice, often resorting to sarcastic and terse banter to get his opinions across. The chemistry established between these two leads works well and is fun to watch.

While most of this tale is delivered through in-game cinematics, we are periodically treated to animated Studio Ghibli sequences that are every bit as beautiful as their motion picture work. The entire visual direction is vibrant and stunning, turning most of the environments into inviting masterpieces.

Level-5’s gameplay design is equally as enchanting, blending the thrill of monster collecting with dynamic real-time combat sequences. While your monsters are brutally beating the living snot out of other creatures with swords, magic, and any number of barbaric weapons, the vibe is light-hearted. Monsters level-up through experience points earned in combat, and can gain additional standing with you when you feed them chocolate desserts. Good luck keeping a straight face when you give your monster a chocolate bar and he dances around happily with a heart over his head. It’s adorable.

The combat sequences move at breakneck speeds, forcing players to think fast and act carefully against specific enemy types. In the early stages of the game, it’s just Oliver and a monster of his choosing clashing against woodland and desert creatures. These battles are entirely manageable and don't last long. When additional party members like Esther are added, you’re at the mercy of unreliable teammate AI. Parameters can be initiated to force the AI into certain routines, but they don’t always react quickly to changing battle conditions, and sometimes make silly choices that don’t benefit your push for victory. You’ll see these AI deficiencies rear their ugly heads mostly during boss battles, which just happens to be when you need support the most. These moments can be frustrating, but they don’t even come close to derailing what is otherwise an enjoyable combat experience. Most battles are exciting exchanges that tap into an extensive magic system, complete with a wide variety of defensive, stasis, and summon spells.

If you are thorough in your playthrough and take the time to complete as many side missions and bounty hunts as you can, you’ll put yourself in a better position for most combat encounters. The balance of the game leans more on the difficult side, but I found any boss that wiped me out could be tackled by leveling up Oliver and company a few times through overworld or dungeon grinding. Spending the extra time to level up brings great benefits, like additional spells and tickets that can be exchanged for game-changing perks. This game rewards you well for the time you put in.

My wife Kelly and I put over 70 hours into this RPG, and are hoping that Level-5 and Studio Ghibli team up again for either a sequel or a new project. Although it released in January (which seems like forever ago now), my memories of it remain strong. Both charming and fascinating, Ni no Kuni is a special game, the likes of which we don’t see enough of.

The Top 50 Challenge
All of Game Informer’s big role-playing fans have already gotten their hands on Ni no Kuni – either giving it an approving nod or an indifferent shoulder shrug. For the better part of a year, I’ve sung this game’s praises to most of the staff. I recall one of my discussions piquing the interest of Tim Turi and Jeff Marchiafava. I suspect both of these gentlemen will appreciate this game, but I think Tim will get the most out of it. He’s a big fan of video game music and art, and Ni no Kuni is a showpiece of these elements from start to finish. I also see him digging deep into this game’s challenging combat system. The two pieces that may pull him out of it: The storytelling (I don’t know how much whimsical drama he can take), and Drippy (I enjoyed his sarcastic banter, but Tim may want to strangle him). Regardless of what Tim thinks, I look forward to talking to him about this game.

Tim was given one day to play Ni no Kuni. Come back tomorrow at 12 PM CT to read his impressions and see if it’ll get his support for Game Informer’s Top 50 Games of the Year.