“I would like to make a film to tell children “it’s good to be alive”.”
― Hayao Miyazaki
Starting May off with an amazing game! While there have been a homogeneous host of JRPGs bearing anime visuals, I couldn’t pass this one up.
Studio Ghibli was to anime what Disney was to animation in the West. Ghibli is known for consistently creating quality rather than quantity, anime art that stands out in a world absolutely crowded with anime series that have episodes numbering into triple digits. However, with the recent retirement of legendary Hayao Miyazaki, one of the founders of Ghibli and undoubtedly the face of the studio, their future is currently uncertain. Just watch The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a foray by Studio Ghibli into the world of video games, and what they’ve helped to craft is just as endearing, just as charming, just as emotional, and just as visually impressive as any of their animated films. Add to that their collaboration with Level-5, who has put out titles like some Dragon Quests, Rogue Galaxy and the innovative Dark Cloud. Together they’ve crafted an RPG that is truly special.
There’s no other way to describe it, en’t it?
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (which translates as “Second Country” or “Country of Two”) is a massive, revised adaptation of Ni no Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn, which was released for the Nintendo DS in 2010. Wrath of the White Witch expands upon the gameplay and narrative of Dominion of the Dark Djinn, which is probably what makes the PS3 title almost seem like two RPGs in one (you know what I’m referring to if you’ve played it).
The game’s storyline enters into a niche in classic literature similar to the Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, and Through the Looking-Glass: the childhood adventure story. It’s as timeless and innocent and imaginative as each of those, finding an ordinary boy caught up in the drama of a bizarre fantasy land with real-world parallel characters. It should be said, however, that Ni no Kuni succeeds in these terms where most other modern adaptations and homages to classic children stories fail: this game doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve. The world it has created is unique enough, with its own languages, cultures and creatures, that it doesn’t feel like a carbon copy or (God forbid) modern “reboot” of a classic franchise. It stands on its own.
Ni no Kuni is a very long game, but the premise is as follows:
Oliver is an ordinary boy living in perennial and ageless Motorville in the ordinary world. He and his friend Philip love cars and have built their own little racing car, but when their taking it for a spin, Oliver nearly drowns to death. His mother, Allie, saves him. Then the strain on her heart kills her, leaving Oliver an orphan. Oliver weeps alone in his room, clutching the doll his mother had given him as a gift. His tears fall on the doll and it leaps to life, claiming to be a fairy named Drippy.
He tells Oliver that he has come from another world (“Ni no Kuni”), and there an evil dark djinn named Shadar is terrorizing the people. But Drippy also says that in this other world there is a “soulmate”, someone who shares a link with someone in the real world, that Oliver’s mother resembles the great sage Alicia of this other world, who has been kidnapped by Shadar. Together the two realize that Alicia is Allie’s soulmate, and Oliver sets out on a journey to the other world with Drippy to save Alicia under the shred of hope that saving Alicia will also save his own mother and bring her back. So instead of becoming Batman, Oliver loses his mother and sets off to become a wizard to save her.
In Oliver, young players will find relatability for their deepest fears of losing a parent, and older players will feel in Oliver that part of themselves that they’ve silenced with adulthood. It’s enough to bring even the most calloused and embittered gamer misted eyes with its sense of innocence, loss and purity.
In the other world, Oliver must seek out the four great sages to assist in his rescue mission, but he finds that Shadar has left the people brokenhearted. Oliver is introduced to magic by Drippy and he is able to use his new abilities to mend the hearts of the people by gathering pieces of heart. He can carry several: Enthusiasm, Kindness, Restraint, Courage, Confidence, Belief, Love, and Ambition. Throughout his journeys, Oliver will need to restore characters’ hearts in order to proceed with the story or to unlock secrets.
An example of mending hearts as well as the dynamic of soulmates comes when Oliver reaches the catty city of Ding Dong Dell (heh, ding dong). Oliver and Drippy seek an audience with “His Meowjesty” King Tom. Unfortunately, he’s one fatigued kitty and doesn’t care to help the little boy and his fairy. You’ll still need to find some enthusiasm in order to share it with the meowing monarch to cure his laziness and bring him back to his former self.
After that, the king disappears and Oliver must return back to the real world to find Tom’s soulmate: the shopkeeper’s cat, Timmy Toldrum. Finding the cat there will help them locate King Tom in the other world, since the two are mystically linked. This is generally how the game progress, helping others and traversing between worlds, then running errands and crawling through dungeons.
As a child stranger in a foreign land who comes to mend the brokenhearted, Oliver is immediately thrust into the role of Messiah. He is a savior who is not of this other world, a beacon of hope for those who have none, and this immediately places him under the attentions of the forces of darkness: the Dark Djinn and the White Witch. It’s an adventure in the truest sense of the world, and it thankfully avoids feeling like many modern RPGs by not boiling down to mere fetch-questing.
Another characteristic of the other world is that it is populated with fantastic creatures known as familiars. A few of them are given to Oliver throughout the storyline, and he can raise them, feed them, train them, teach them abilities and use them in combat.
The battle system allows each character in the party (there are only four, with three allowed in battle at once) to use up to three familiars at once, though each character is allowed to fight for themselves. That means a single battle party can consist of twelve possible playable characters, three simultaneously. If this all seems like a step up from the original Pokemon concept, that’s because it is. Except where the trainer from Kanto could only use one pocket-monster at a time in one v. one combat, Ni no Kuni allows three “trainers” to use one of three monsters against multiple enemies.
Something similar to the gambit system from Final Fantasy XII is in place here in order to allow you to keep some control over your characters and their familiars, though you can switch between any of them during battle whenever you like. Different character abilities like Oliver’s magic, Esther’s songs and Swaine’s thievery create a lot of different possibilities for gameplay, but coupled with the characters’ capacity to wield three familiars each there’s a large degree of customization. And add to that again the fact that certain familiars work better training with particular characters, the fact that certain familiars occupy different battle roles (tank, damage, etc.), and the fact that these familiars can “evolve” like Pokemon can… you begin to realize that the battle/party system in Ni no Kuni is capable of sustaining the length of such a huge RPG. It never becomes unenjoyable.
And that’s really what Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is. I feel like there’s so much more to say about it, considering all of its wealth of content, its lovable characters, its challenges and secrets, its aesthetic.
According to president of Level-5, Akihiro Hino:
“…we wanted to create a theme that would resonate with children in particular. First we thought about how to express the fun of having dreams and adventures to children, and then we considered who would be the greatest influence in a child’s life. We soon realized that it would have to be their mother. To lose one’s mother would be the greatest of all tragedies for a child. So it made sense for us that the desire a child would have to help his mother would serve as motivation to continue a long journey.”
I don’t care who you are, how grumpy or grizzled you are, or how much you love rated-M games and headshots. What makes Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch so special isn’t just its magnificent visuals and presentation, its collaboration, its fun gameplay, or its characters: it’s the heart behind all of that. It’s the frail, beating heart of a little boy.
The 8-Bit Review
The first thing that strikes you about Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is This is an interactive re-creation of the worlds of Studio Ghibli, the masters of Japanese animation. Everything in the game has been visualized to resemble as closely as possible the artwork of those animated films. The fluid cutscenes, storyboards, even mo-capped characters were under the care of Studio Ghibli artists to craft something “heartwarming” and everything else followed suit. The backgrounds, overworld, cel-shaded characters and monsters’ designs all replicate the Ghibli vision. The result is one of the best looking games in the industry. Ghibli’s attention to detail went into Ni no Kuni, bringing characters in this strange new world to life in a way that they simply can’t in other RPGs.
Because the world of Ni no Kuni is so expansive, players are treated to a wide variety of different environments. All of them are rendered in gorgeous color and creativity. The problem with a lot of fantasy/medieval RPGs is they all draw from the same pool of the same old “high fantasy” cliches. While Ni no Kuni includes those, it draws in a great many others from a range of different cultures and unrelated fairy tales. It’s like it re-invented the wheel to give us something distinct and unique in a genre of storytelling where distinction and uniqueness have been run into the ground and are buried six feet under. I’ll say it again. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is easily one of the most beautiful games in the industry. Of course. It’s based on real anime that is more art than mass-production.
I was sitting once at a symphony (Lord of the Rings) and an elderly group in the row in front of me were talking. One of the old men said “It’s good to hear something so melodic for a change”. He might have said it about the Ni no Kuni OST, as well. It was nurtured to fruition by Ghibli’s resident composer Joe Hisaishi, who of course is used to scoring films and writing his own original music. Hisaishi brings an orchestrated score to Ni no Kuni that could’ve been found in Ghibli’s animations. All of the charm that Hisaishi employed with those films he revisits here. It’s not afraid to be fun.
It’s also melodic and sweeping and distinctive, it’s Asian and European, catchy and soothing and powerful. It feels bigger than your television. The recurring character themes like the high-lone voice and flute mean it’s moving, too, grabbing you right from the start with the music that plays over the opening cinematic. Prepare your tear-ducts for imminent release!
Following the traditional formula for RPGs serves Ni no Kuni well and the involved and highly customizable combat system with raising familiars. As mentioned, they can not only be caught but fed treats to raise their stats or rare items to achieve metamorphosis. For example, your “starter” familiar, Mite, can become Mighty Mite and then a Dynamite or Mermite depending on your decision-making. There are 352 Familiar species in the game. That’s the most accurate number I could find, and that’s a lot. The real-time combat of controlling a whole team at once is complicated and enriched for it.
Another gameplay element, which is more innovative, is the fully readable Wizard’s Companion, a manual/ebook of sorts for young magicians. Of course, when I say “fully readable”, I’m stretching the truth just a little. Most of it is in English but portions of its list of spells, monsters, familiars, items and lore are written in an ancient language known as Nazcaan. Here is the script:
So, rather than just set this aside as indeterminate and indifferent fluff, the whole language is decipherable by learning the Nazcaan alphabet and doing the translations yourself, revealing a bit of this other world’s history and myths in what is essentially a digital encyclopedia. That level of detail and this amount of totally irrelevant backstory being included is paramount to a phenomenon. Some of the game’s riddles and secrets require interpreting the ancient tongue and scouring the 340 pages and 7 chapters of the Wizard’s Companion for answers. That’s just incredible.
These characters, even the most minor ones, are instantly endearing. I was just remarking on that element in Kiki’s Delivery Service, an animated film by Studio Ghibli. There’s an old dog that’s hardly a character at all but Ghibli and Miyazaki are so adept at building lovable characters that even a dog with barely a cameo steals one’s heart. Of course we get to know Ni no Kuni’s main players and watch them grow and develop as we learn more about them, but many of the minor characters are creative, unforgettable interpretations of classic fantasy concepts or new characters entirely. The fairies, Old Father Oak, Drippy, King Tom, the Cowlipha, Supreme Sage Solomon, Kublai, Horace the ghost, the Telling Stone, even the villain Shadar are endearing and engrossing. They seem like old friends with whimsical, if not always wholesome, personalities.
Ni no Kuni’s story is about its characters and their interactions, and that raises the bar of its narrative. Further, because the story isn’t about fantasy-politics or power struggles and the details of the other worldly cultures are secondary and not primary to Oliver’s quest to save his mother, the narrative is enriched rather than simply overcomplicated. Fantasy stories get bogged down in names that are too hard to pronounce and in histories that are far too vast, but because this other world is seen from a child’s perspective, the richness of names and culture and history is present, but its not the focal point.
That merely leaves us with the naked emotion of a boy’s love for his mother. And Ni no Kuni succeeds in crystallizing all of the sentiment, wistfulness and emotionalism we’ve enjoyed in Ghibi’s films. That’s a rare accomplishment for a video game and something which many RPGs have attempted to reach while only grasping at straws.
Even though the essentials of Ni no Kuni as an RPG are tried and true, there is still a lot to learn. How spells work, how familiars work, how battle works, how pieces of heart work, it’s all pretty complex but you’ll learn one thing at a time and it never seems totally overwhelming. What keeps the score from being a perfect 10 is Drippy’s incessant tutorial-ing, interrupting battles with a heckuva lot of explanatory dialogue. Holding my hand is never something that feels natural when learning, but at least they couched it in his character’s voice and not cold, emotionless words. What’s marvelous about Ni no Kuni’s accessibility then is just how much it manages all of its features without being totally condescending.
Errand board jobs, mixing items, capturing and raising familiars, sidequests, treasure hunting, magical secrets and learning new spells, interpreting ancient runes, the skeleton casino, bounty hunting, challenging bosses, and ghost riddles come together to extend the lifetime of the game. The story itself is pretty lengthy, but there’s enough to do otherwise that keeps it replayable. I never platinum’d Ni no Kuni as that would be quite a feat. Capturing one of every familiar would be quite an undertaking in and of itself.
Sometimes it seems like JRPGs are a dime a dozen, rife with infestations of anime tropes just as much as anime itself. Ni no Kuni rises above all that by collaborating with the anime studio that has stood in opposition to the direction that the anime industry is taking (SEE “Anime was a mistake” Miyazaki memes). This is a work of art and not just another JRPG. There is more than enough content here to satisfy the most die-hard of role-players.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Reaching level 99 in Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was a delight. This game deserves to be one of the highest rated on our blog! It instantly rose to the top 10 of my list of favorite RPGs ever. Mr. Miyazaki himself may not have played any major part in making the world of Ni no Kuni a reality, but his fingerprint is there. He, along with other directors like Isao Takahata, have given humanity heartfelt animated films that feel like personal memories, that capture a sense of wonder, of dreams, of innocence. Like their films, this game makes me think “it’s good to be alive”. Not perfect but tangible, substantial, impactful, emotional, alive. It’s a very human fantasy world. I will be overjoyed to revisit it in the coming sequel.
Aggregated Score: 9.4