Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a battle of extremes. There is a side of me, still ten or twelve years old, looking on the game with a sense of awe that threatens to engulf what I thought I once knew about the universe. The other side, however, has an incredulous look on his face and is constantly mouthing ‘seriously?’ and ‘this is so laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaame’. Somewhere in the quagmire of my mixed reactions there is a score, and I hope by the time I finish writing this review I will have uncovered it.
You take on the role of Oliver, a young boy who has recently lost his mother (as in dead, not misplaced). With the help of his best friend, a doll that was magically brought to life, Oliver travels to the world of Ni no Kuni in an attempt to ‘save’ his mother, in an adventure that could be rewritten as ‘The Muppets Perform Necromancy!’. For older gamers that look at things critically, the idea of watching this little boy completely misunderstand the nature of death was both heart-breaking and creepy. Heart-breaking, because you knew the inevitable outcome, and creepy, because you had no idea why older, wiser people in the game were trying to help a child bring someone back to life in a world where that shit is considered to be the start of the zombie apocalypse.
Oliver undertakes the path of the wizard, utilising both the powers of magic and familiars to reach the goal of his journey, which changes three times throughout the course of the game. It feels like one game with three definitive chapters, and while this switching of objectives isn’t terrible and doesn’t detract from what’s pleasing about the game, it also doesn’t give you any love for it either. Especially towards the end chapter, switching the antagonists from Shadar (the evil wizard in charge of destroying the world) to the White Witch (who Oliver has no idea exists before she announces herself to him) is incredibly jarring.
If you’ve seen any Studio Ghibli films, you basically know what’s going to happen already, and besides maybe one or two (out of fifteen) twists that might raise your left eyebrow just a little, it’s fairly predictable, and really, really lame. Really, the sentiment of the story could be summarised as “We are the best friends and love and hope and friendship and believing in yourself is so god damn amazing!”. As the most cynical, critical, and handsome games journo in Australia, there was still a part of me that fawned over the proceedings, despite problems with flow, pacing, and lack of any real depth.
But if you’ve made it far enough in the game to find this out for yourself, story is probably not the reason you’re playing it.
It might not be for the gameplay either, depending on how you look at it. There are some mechanics in Ni no Kuni that should, by right, become staples in the JRPG genre. Firstly, enemies you encounter will run towards you at a speed determined by their stats – if they’re slow in battle, they’ll be slow to rush you, and vice versa. If you happen to be particularly powerful, enemies will take one look at you and get the fuck out of there, saving you from having to go through the motions of defeating the first monsters you ever came across 20 hours later in the game.
Secondly, how battles work is how Pokemon should have worked for the past seven years. Each familiar is launched onto the battlefield under your control, and the speed of the familiar will actually help you avoid attacks and get better placement for counter-attacks. While all familiars can attack, each of them have an array of different abilities. Some can defend, some evade, some rely solely on their armour and ability to damage to see them through, and others are built to dish out magical damage. Enemies (including bosses) will occasionally drop health, mana and rarely a golden orb that grants you a chance to unleash your super ability.
Familiars share their life and mana with their companions, a facet of the combat that I really, really enjoyed. It’s almost reminiscent of FF XIII, where you constantly switched between combat roles, only in this case, it’s actually good, as you could fully customise every role/familiar you choose. This can range between simply choosing their skills and their path of progression, to feeding them treats to bolster their strengths or round out their flaws.
Unfortunately, the combat itself is where this all starts to fall apart. When versing regular enemies, the fights never really change up from ‘mash the enemy until they die (heal occasionally)’. There is some strategy, as monsters have their own elements: Sun, Star, Moon, Planet and Double Planet. In the usual paper scissors rock way, they all have a strength and weakness against another, but as far as I can tell after hours of grinding and battling that it really doesn’t matter, especially on top of the fact that elemental damage will still come into play. It’s a waste, really, considering how much customisation can go into your familiars, only to have them use the same manoeuvres to win every time …
… unless you look at the battles against regular enemies as merely the stop in-between bosses. Boss battles are the best part of the game; between getting ready to defend from their super attacks, switching between familiars to exploit their weaknesses at the right time, healing and using the right items and provisions to ensure victory, you are guaranteed to be constantly involved in what’s going on. Elemental damage becomes much more pronounced, but also completely disregards any involvement of the ‘Sun’ ‘Star’ effects.
The battle system also struggled to become complete after the first five hours or so, waiting until you had your primary three party members till you received the option to go all out attack or defense. This is further let down by the fact that your fellow party members are borderline retarded, and that without the huge litany of customisation from the likes of FF XII, they end up wasting mana and generally not giving a shit about their own lives or anyone elses. There are a few commands you can give them like ‘back me up’ or ‘heal’, but the differences between these choices is almost completely unnoticeable, as they will eventually do something stupid and die.
More than once I ended up battling bosses only using Oliver, simply defending and attacking when needed. It’s an incredible shame that the customisation and fun to be had with the familiars wasn’t matched by the battle system, because there is so much to do. Sidequests are split between Bounty Hunts and Errands, which are almost criminally addictive. Bounty Hunts will tell you the approximate location of the target, and requires you to actually find it with your own eyes (amazing right) before you can take it down. Errands, while mostly banal fetch quests, are occasionally worthwhile, but normally net you more money and better items.
Beside being rewarded with money and items, you also get stamps, which is probably why my inner twelve year old was so excited. Stamps can then be exchanged for pretty awesome in-game rewards, like receiving more experience, travelling faster and getting more items. And jumping. While you may thing jumping is useless, more than one time in battle I’ve avoided death by jumping with a familiar and grabbing a golden ‘super ability orb’ before it just disappeared.
There’s still more to do though. Alchemy lets you mix items together to create new, better equipment, there is a casino where you can go to gamble (and I mean gamble, it was actually kind of discomforting to see an eleven year old hit up the pokies) to win items and tickets that can be later used at the Solisseum, a place where you can do even more missions and things to win more items and legendary familiars. When you beat the game, more missions open up, and takes you back to just before the final battle.
The question then becomes ‘is it worth doing all the other things if the combat is so mediocre?’. For those of you that fall in love with the party and the familiars, then hell yes it’s worth it, but if your feelings are lukewarm you might just want to plough on through to the final boss and be done with it.
- Reviewed On