…and the Bland Played On
HIGH The visit to the Fairyground.
LOW Losing the third phase of the final boss battle because of stun-locking.
WTF So I'm in a nursery inside a fairy's reproductive system?
The name "Ni No Kuni" means "The Second Country", which is about as dull a name as I can imagine for a tale where a boy's tears transform his favorite toy into a fairy who teaches him magic and then transports him to another world full of dragons, cat-pirates, violent banana bunches, and witches. Yet the game seemed to have promise, if only because of the involvement of beloved animation house Studio Ghibli. As it turns out, this amounted to putting lipstick on a pig. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch wastes the artistic talents of its creators with tired design and sloppy execution.
Things start off promisingly enough. After a prologue in a charmingly-rendered small town, a fairy named Drippy conducts a young boy named Oliver to the second world in a quest to revive his mother. The first area has an engaging look built around the idea that its main inhabitants are anthropomorphic cats, but the game quickly descends into a tour of de rigeur landscapes and dungeon concepts.
The design doesn't even do the art of these places justice: Ni No Kuni obscures the finer details of the overworld with a drawn-back camera, and also by cloaking many parts of it in an eternal low-contrast night that dulls its beauty. As for the dungeons, the less said, the better. A few evince a degree of loving detail that makes wandering them worthwhile, but too often they degenerate into the same vast, empty hallways that dragged down other Level-5 role-playing games such as Rogue Galaxy.
Certain touches in the towns keep the Ghibli charm going—Yule's friendly yetis, Ding Dong Dell's fish-shaped spears, Hamelin's pig-masked grotesques and mechanical transformations. However, Ni No Kuni only realizes its potential when it reaches Drippy's home Fairyground. Here, the agreeable array of multi-hued, multi-shaped fairies, egg-shaped babies, and a bizarre biological nursery dungeon show off a level of invention equal to the quality of the game's art.
Unfortunately, Ni No Kuni puts its few successful backdrops to poor use. The towns mostly serve as a stage for a blistering array of boring sidequests, many of which simply require Oliver to run back and forth two or three times to gather "pieces of heart" that he can use to cure "brokenhearted" individuals.
These quickly-handled incidents sometimes do a good job of fleshing out the supporting cast, but Ni No Kuni goes wrong when it handles the main characters in an equally discrete fashion. Oliver grows throughout the adventure, if only because his few moments of development are sprinkled sparingly among the plot episodes, but his allies Esther and Swaine experience completely atomistic arcs. Their main personal challenges are met, dealt with, and then the characters promptly sink into stasis. Aside from terribly clichéd sniping between Esther and Swaine, the main characters never play off of each other or grow together, so the game's attempts to emotionally trade on their friendship feel hollow and false.
This means Ni No Kuni must be sustained by its combat system, which never recovers from the developers' choice to base it on real-time action. The system's promising metaphor of manifesting "familiars" based on an individual's personality gets pushed aside almost as soon as it's introduced. By the second dungeon Oliver has borrowed someone else's familiar, and within a short time any monster can be recruited by the party and swapped between main characters.
This should be a strength of the system, but it actually adds frustration. Because familiars don't earn levels much faster than the main characters and are always recruited at a low level, they rapidly fall behind Oliver and must be brought up to par. The steep time investment this requires provides a powerful incentive to stick with the first few familiars found rather than exploring the diverse qualities of the whole set.
Even players who try to test out multiple familiars will find it difficult to explore their uses. Special commands must be selected in real time during combat, and virtually any command—even using items—can be interrupted by any enemy attack. Magic-oriented familiars will be even further hamstrung by the steep cost of regenerating magic power. As a result, most battles consist of repeatedly selecting a conventional attack.
Here the game's lousy Artificial Intelligence (AI) begins to rear its head. Attacking (or defending) starts a timer window during which the player's familiar attempts to land a hit on the enemy. However, the familiar uses an AI-dictated path to its enemy. This can involve running in place while trying to pass through another monster (or ally), or, if the player has been careful enough to move his familiar close to its target on his own, jumping several paces backwards or to the side. With slow-moving familiars, it's entirely possible to order an attack while standing right next to an enemy and never have the familiar throw a punch at all.
The character AI is equally awful. Left to their own devices, Swaine and Esther will frequently call out familiars that are wildly inappropriate for the situation, or will even try to attack ineffectually on their own. The player can switch between characters easily, but because the dumb AI takes over immediately after switching away, the player's wise choices are not sustained. Even when they call out reasonable familiars, AI-controlled characters profligately waste magic power on massively powerful attacks against very weak enemies. The modest tactical menu Ni No Kuni offers is entirely unequal to the task of managing the AI's titanic idiocy.
Inevitably, these defects must be addressed by grinding. Ni No Kuni makes this more difficult than it needs to be, because for most of the mid- to late-game the vast majority of the world's mobs give 300 experience points, give or take 25. Like other games, Ni No Kuni has a few monsters that yield disproportionately high experience; unlike those games, defeating many of these creatures is absolutely essential to getting through the game without a spiritually crushing level of grind. Even with them, the game becomes so flabby that its emotional arc disintegrates long before Oliver reaches the end of his quest.
In a certain sense, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch seems to be exactly as advertised. The quality of the artwork is unimpeachable, just as one might expect from the studio that created it. Unfortunately, the beauty of Ghibli has been painted onto the unimaginative and poorly-executed design of Level-5. As a result, Ni No Kuni turns out as blandly as its name suggests.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase through Digital River. (On the basis of this experience, I strongly recommend that gamers avoid ever purchasing anything through a Digital River storefront.) The game was reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 50 hours of play was devoted to single-player mode, and the game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains alcohol and tobacco reference, comic mischief, fantasy violence, mild language, and simulated gambling. There's absolutely no blood, and no direct fights between humans, and consequently the violence plays out below the level of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. As you might imagine, the story deals heavily with themes of parental death and letting go of departed loved ones. I would be hesitant to give this game to any child that has lost a parental figure recently. In addition to the fact that he's a boy wizard, some parents may be disturbed by the fact that Oliver's first familiar (among others) has a vaguely demonic appearance. The game is reading-heavy, and several puzzles rely on reading comprehension and solving ciphers.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Sound cues have an attentional benefit but are always accompanied by visual indicators. Subtitles are available for all dialogue.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.