Ni No Kuni: The Wrath of the White Witch (released in 2011 in Japan, and in January 2013 stateside), was a PS3 JRPG made by Level 5. Level 5 at the time was known for the Dark Cloud series, Rogue Galaxy and Dragon Quest VIII. As far as JRPGs go they are one of the premier developers of the games in the genre, and with that in mind it is high praise to say that Ni No Kuni is perhaps their best work.Or perhaps we should say a refinement of one of their best works: (Japan only) 2010’s Ni No Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn for the DS.
The DS version was praised by Japanese critics, earned high sales, and awards. It is was one of the best looking games that pushed the limited DS hardware, but perhaps Level-5 didn’t feel confident in bringing such a game to the West especially with the imminent arrival of the 3DS at the time.
However an important RPG such as Ni No Kuni couldn’t stay confined to a single system, and to a single country, and as such the game was remade and expanded for a PS3 release. Though maybe, “remade” isn’t the correct word as development for the eventual PS3 version began along side the DS counterpart of the game.
Ni No Kuni went on to find both critical (Metacritic: 87), and commercial success with over one million copies sold on the PS3 alone. Considering that JRPGs had been a niche genre for the greater part of the 00s, Ni No Kuni found as much success as a game of its kind could in last decade’s market place.
Which brings us to 2019’s Switch Remastered version of the game (the subject of this review) which pretty much brings an exact copy of the stellar PS3 version as a 720p on the go experience and while a boost to 1080p docked would have been expected, it wasn’t meant to be as the game remains outputting in 720p even when docked. So what you get is an exact copy of the PS3 version that you can now play on the go.
Hasn’t aged like fine wine simply because it hasn’t aged at all
The game’s cell shaded, nearly hand drawn look has kept the game as a good looking piece of software even as it approaches its 10th anniversary. Simply put, it looks nearly as good today as it did back in 2011.
The game reminded me of Rogue Galaxy, and DQVIII, but obviously much prettier than the aforementioned titles. Perhaps Breath of the Wild, and the newer Tales games are a more appropriate comparison.
There is an undeniable imprint of Studio Ghibli’s influence in the game’s art direction. The anime cutscenes were done by the legendary studio, but even the character design seems to be influenced by their work, which gives Ni No Kuni a unique look in which it distinguishes itself from most of the other Japanese RPGs that still (against growing odds) to this day periodically make an appearance on home consoles.
Every location is distinct, and while it follows the traditional ‘101 JRPG world design’ formula (Desert town? Check. Forest village? Check. Steampunk city? Check. Etc) their design is unique enough to remain fresh throughout the adventure even for long time 2 to 3 decade old JRPG enthusiasts like me.
The game features the traditional miniaturized Japanese RPG over world map in full 3-D glory. By ‘miniaturized’ (for those born at or after the year 2000) I refer to the fact that while inside the towns, and dungeons the game world is rendered at a proper 1:1 scale in relation to the main characters. Once you leave a town to make your way to another place in the world the characters traverse a detailed world map rendered in 3-D, but it is a world much smaller in relation to the characters. This is a staple of the genre as the Japanese have done over-world maps this way since the 80’s.
This was the most common and most ‘realistic’ way of creating believable game worlds back when console hardware was incapable of rendering massive chunks of land in real time.
For the most famous example; back in 1997 Final Fantasy VII’s world map gave the illusion of big world, and it was impressive quite simply because worlds in real proportionate scale to the characters like the ones in games like Skyrim, RDR2 and even 1998’s Ocarina of Time were not conceivably possible in most people’s minds.
Obviously Nintendo would shatter conventions, paving the way for future action RPGs and open world games with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but that’s a story for another day. The main take away here is that most JRPGs resisted the trend of going with an overworld of real proportionate 1:1 ratio. Thus in 2019 Ni No Kuni looks and plays the same way that FFVII did in 1997 when traversing its over world. While I still welcome 3-D overworld maps even if they are miniaturized, the immersion in this type of graphical style has lost its potency over the last two decades.
The logical explanation as to why Japanese developers stuck with that type of overworld is perhaps a simple one: For all the realism, and epic size of RDR2’s and Zelda Breath of the Wild’s open worlds, both take place in contained regions (South West US, and Hyrule). No one has yet rendered a full planet in real 1:1 scale quite simply because even with current tech, it is an almost an inconceivable goal.
With this knowledge in hand,we can accept that miniaturized over worlds are a staple of JRPGs, and Ni No Kuni proudly carries on with that tradition. To Level-5’s credit, this game might have the best looking one I have ever seen.
Dynamic shadows, wind, and the consequential moving foliage are present in the overworld. Moving water, and a pretty impressive draw distance makes traversing the over-world an enjoyable experience. While Ni No Kuni’s over world is not up to real 1:1 scale, the actual size of it is larger than most worlds in JRPGs, and it can take a few minutes to get from one location to the next on foot…or by ship. Perhaps if there had been an option to close in the camera during these overworld sections, the immersion and the feeling of living in that world would have greatly improved. All things considered, Ni No Kuni’s over world is certainly beautiful.
The towns and dungeons are rendered at the proper 1:1 ratio as mentioned before. Their texture work is decent, though the cel shading direction that the game went in doesn’t necessarily make this (Textures) one of its stronger points. The artwork is fantastic I doubt that anyone who plays this game even today will be disappointed in the least with the artistic visuals.
The character design is beautifully done, Ollie is one of the most charming characters you will ever see, and Mister Drippy one of the weirdest fairies to have ever graced a work of fiction. Ni No Kuni as a whole is a mix of different art styles. Some characters will remind you of Akira Toriyama’s designs and others of more conventional anime troupes. It all blends together. The ‘Familiars’ (Pokemon like creatures) are numerous, though their design is recycled throughout the game. I wasn’t particularly bothered by their designs but save for a few exceptions they lack the charm and cutesy of most Pokemon.
If you ever wanted to go on an adventure in a charming anime world, there are very few games, if any that can offer a better experience than Ni No Kuni.
A Childish looking game designed for adults
Ni No Kuni’s developers have been quoted saying something along the lines of wanting adults to reminiscence, and nostalgically relive their own coming of age while playing as Ollie. It was a strange admittance that maybe the game’s potential market didn’t reside with the 13 year old kids of 2013, (or 2019 for the same matter) but with the 20, and 30 something year olds who lived through, and perhaps were fans of JRPGs during their golden era from 1994 to somewhere around the early/ mid 00s.
After playing a few hours of the game, I realized that indeed, the Fortnite generation, and those who will experience FFVII for the first time when the remake is finally launched perhaps won’t get Ni No Kuni at all. Perhaps they won’t even try it out, and those who do might find themselves quitting the game not a quarter way through.
Ni No Kuni feels like a throw back to the golden era, it plays exactly like the great RPGs of yesteryear did, and it is not apologetic about it. It is a love letter to those of us who for nearly two decades wondered: “Where have the great console JRPGs gone to?” In order to have asked your self the former question, you either had to be locked up in a room playing only 90’s RPGs, or you are at least in your late 20’s- early 30’s. So yeah, Ni No Kuni might look like a kid’s game (art wise) but it is indeed a game made for adults.
The difficulty of the game in “normal” mode is the biggest tell tale sign of this. Grinding is a must, periodically capturing new “Familiars” (which are enemy monsters turned to allies) after “serenading” them during battle, and micromanaging every stat and aspect of said creatures is paramount to success. The creatures and the main cast also need equipment and certain items which can only be attained through an alchemic process, which adds depth and complexity to the proceedings. Ni No Kuni finds the right balance between the accessibility of the Tales series and the Complexity of Star Ocean the 2ndStory.
By saying Ni No Kuni was made for 90’s kids, I am not trying to insult the intelligence of today’s younglings, but rather to question their patience. In an era of instant gratification be it by likes, comments, and free to play games with social components, the methodic process by which a JRPG like Ni No Kuni abides by, will most likely turn away most of the few kids that do give the game a chance. In order to get anywhere in Ni No Kuni grinding (constant battling) and an understanding of the game’s systems is required.
While your party eventually gets large enough to support three main characters, each character has a collection of ‘Familiars’ or monsters to be used during battle. These familiars have some distinct properties and also distinct abilities. Some familiars are naturally gifted in swordplay, and others in sorcery. Each familiar has three stages of evolution. A base form, a stronger mid form, and lastly a final form. Depending on the familiar’s level you can feed it a special orb and transform it into its next stage of the development.
There is strategy involved in the timing of such transformations. You can have a powerful familiar at a high level, but once you evolve the critter, it will reset back to level 0. So it is not recommended to evolve your familiars right before a boss battle unless you want to get you rear end kicked into a game over screen.
The upside of evolving a Familiar is that it will reach a level of strength ( and new skills) that would have been impossible in the previous form. This process requires a constant amount of battling. The game does a decent job steering you into new areas containing proper leveled main world enemies. Rushing the through these areas will result in losing to bosses.
The system works well enough, it is difficult to cheat it by seeking out stronger foes than the ones that you are meant to fight. You get a ship early on, and a dragon that can take you anywhere in the world, but going out of your way to fight dangerous (high leveled) monsters will result in a quick death. At least on my experience those tough overworld enemies that I did manage to topple didn’t offer a substantial amount of Experience in comparison to the easier foes that I should been facing at that point in time. The ones that probably would have offered a vast increase in Experience points were almost impossible to topple making this particular strategy a fruitless one. Unless you find spots to farm Tokos (which are rare and difficult creatures to find if you don’t know where to look, and lack the ‘Veil’ spell), gaining levels will be a long and time consuming process in the game’s Normal mode.
Some familiars are given to you during the story, and others (most of them) have to be captured during battles by serenading them with Esther. The Familiar component is very deep, and it gives the game some Pokemon vibes, though for some reason it brought back memories of pedestrian PS1 RPG Eternal Eyes in terms of using monsters to fight. The critters need be fed in other to bond with your main cast, and achieve more slots for growth. The familiars can also be equipped with weapons and armor from shops and the Cauldron by following the Alchemy recipes in your Wizard’s Companion.
While your main cast has different abilities during combat, (Oliver can cast a variety of spells, Esther can capture familiars, and Swaine can steal items from enemies) it will be the familiars that do most of the fighting as they are more powerful than your main cast both in offensive and defensive prowess.
The battles are turn based, but there is total freedom of movement in the battle areas, you will just take turns choosing attacks and selecting which Familiar to use in certain situations, and which ones to pull out. Since only your main cast can use items during a fight, you will find yourself carefully managing time fighting with your familiars and switching back and forth between them and your main characters. Also familiars have a Stamina meter that keeps depleting, and it doesn’t matter how powerful your critter is, during a long battle it will need to take breaks from time to time. Thus Ni No Kuni offers more strategic opportunities to make battles interesting than most turn based games in the market.
The bosses remain a challenge even when you are at the proper level, defending from special attacks is crucial as they can be devastating to your party. At times the difference between losing a boss battle, and winning it depends solely on your proficiency at seeing the boss’s special attack coming (you have a second or two to react properly) and defending yourself. The combat is faster than in most turn based RPGs mainly because there is a waiting period between selecting a command and your character performing it. In that waiting period you can get hit by an enemy attack which can possibly cancel your own move. It is a difficult game, especially if you don’t take the time to constantly grind on the field.
The difficulty is augmented by the fact that the party A.I. Is very incompetent. This is one of the flaws of the game. The non player controlled party members won’t defend themselves unless you quickly command them to (with a single button press) but their ineptitude left me fighting plenty of bosses with Oliver alone. It was frustrating at times, I can’t remember a time when I had been annoyed at my party members with this much fervor since Xenoblade Chronicles, in that game my party kept jumping into a poisoned pool during a boss a battle. There is a solution, pressing the all out defense button will solve the issue (mostly), but it seems like the game unfairly adds another thing to keep track off during battles that shouldn’t have been added on top of what it already was a complex system.
The game is such a throwback to the 90s that you are forced into a three consecutive final battle stretch, without the ability to save or replenish your items in between said fights. So my advice? Grind to your hearts content, and then some more. My characters were at level 80 upon game completion and I still had some scary moments in those final battles.
A wonderful world filled with extra curricular activities
Considering Ni No Kuni strictly adheres to the JRPG traditional blueprint of yesteryear, it is refreshing to see that it offers more things to do (apart from sticking to the main story line) than most games in its genre.
There are plenty of side quests that earn you “merit stamps”, these stamps fill cards which can then be traded at bounty hunting/guild shops in each town in order to get points which can be used to unlock different skills. These skills range from useful (Get more EXP points in battle) to useless (Oliver gets a hoping ability at the touch of a button that does nothing to aid you in your quest), but the extra content is a nice touch.
Most of these quests are of the “Fetch” variety. An NPC might want you to get him/her something, or the guild may have a few specific monsters in the world map that you have to hunt down. Ni No Kuni doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, but going around mending people’s hearts (By collecting a trait like “love”, “faith”, “courage” etc. from an NPC and handing it over to an NPC in need of one of those attributes) is a fresh take on a timeless tradition of mostly monotonous side quests present in JRPGs.
Some quests like Horace’s, offer rewards that greatly help Oliver through the progression of the adventure. You will need the ‘Veil’ spell from the former’s side quest in order to successfully farm Tokos later in the game.
There is a casino, and a coliseum in the game world if you wish to spend time in trivial activities in order to get some interesting items. There is an Alchemy game were you can create powerful weapons and armor among other useful items by learning recipes from the Wizard’s companion and mixing the right ingredients together in a Magical Cauldron. Basically Ni No Kuni can easily become an 80-100 hour quest for the true completist.
A light hearted approach
While Ni No Kuni’s difficulty and requirements for grinding my turn away some of the younger players; the story much in harmony with its artwork seems geared towards children or at the very least young teens.
That is not to say that Ni No Kuni’s tale isn’t interesting as it is probably Level-5’s best work, at least in comparison to their games released before 2013. The dialog is incredibly well written. Mr.Drippy might be one of the best characters in terms of his written lines that I have ever seen. His welsh accent and personality had my chuckling more than once. The issue with the plot is that there are very little serious themes on display, and the game really centers on Oliver and his quest to resurrect his dead mother by saving a parallel world from an evil Wizard.
Mr. Drippy your fairy side kick, Esther the beautiful (if standard) female companion, and Swaine the ‘old man’ in the group round out the cast that will accompany Oliver throughout the adventure. There are some important twists here and there. Swaine is an interesting character, and as senseless as it might sound (because of their age difference) he has tremendous chemistry with Esther, who would other wise be a boring character if left alone to interact with Oliver and Drippy.
Because he story deals with a boy of about 12-13 years old, the developers said in numerous interviews that they wanted adults to return to their childhood and experience a coming of age story. I guess the game succeeds partly in that goal, but not nearly enough to feel magical after the first 10 hours or so. By contrast the Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild had a much more easier and effortless time in returning me to that magical feeling of playing games as child than Ni No Kuni did. There is no shame in that, Nintendo is Nintendo, and Zelda is Zelda, and very few things in life can touch the magical feel of playing a Zelda game.
However I wasn’t necessarily hooked on this tale as I had been to others in that particular genre. Tales of Vesperia comes to mind as a game from the same era that really hooked me on its plot and characters; never letting me go. What’s interesting in all of this is that I had an emotional connection to Oliver and his predicament. My mother died in 2011, and I would love to have Oliver’s opportunity of trying to save her, even if I have to travel to a parallel world accompanied by a middled aged Welsh fairy in order to do so. Event though I could relate to Oliver, and the game has some deep messages about love, suffering and simply learning how to live in an imperfect world; I was never enchanted by the its story.
The closest I came to enjoying the story came during the first third of the adventure in the sections where you got to see Swaine’s background explained. Once Swaine’s background story bits are done, the game returns to Oliver’s conflict with the Dark Djinn, and the plot is too cliched and predictable to elevate its cast. The Wizard’s Companion offers a great deal of lore on the game’s world and its history, but even that doesn’t really make the proceedings any more fun or interesting.
In the time frame in which the game’s story takes place, the game world is at peace. Hamelin, Ding Dong Bell, Yula and Al Mamoon are at peace. The game hints at an interesting war ridden, politically influenced past that seems very interesting, but it is all mostly shown to us in flashbacks. Oliver’s journey is of a personal nature, and it mostly remains so throughout the totality of the adventure. In some ways I am disappointed that the party’s development wasn’t extensive. The ending itself is a tad disappointing. After devoting 60 hours of playtime to reach the credits I expected much more in the way of closure.
Ni No Kuni doesn’t feature a bad story, but considering all of the diligence that went into crafting its art, music, and game systems it was a bit of a let down that the most important part of a gripping golden era RPG is simply above average.
An aural masterpiece
Joe Hisaishi, best know for his legendary film scores, is the game’s composer. The music present in Ni No Kuni is fully orchestrated, and it lifts the presentation of the game to the highest levels seen in that particular genre.
The voice acting itself is superb. Mr. Drippy easily stealing the cake with his Welsh accent. Oliver and the rest of the crew perform convincingly enough; at the level we are accustomed from English dubbed Anime.
Ni No Kuni’s presentation still holds up wonderfully some six years after its initial American debut. Certainly, on the increasingly growing Switch catalogue, the game doesn’t feel out of place, and much less outdated.
A must buy for 90’s aficionados
There are newer (DQ XI) and better (Tales of Vesperia) JRPGs available on the Switch. The term “better” is subjective, and in truth if you prefer turn based combat over a free flowing action system Ni No Kuni might suit your taste better than Vesperia. However the game’s storyline never completely gripped me, and in that sense I was a bit disappointed by the experience.
That said, Ni No Kuni remains one of the top JRPG games available today, and a nostalgic trip down memory lane for those of us who were obsessed with the genre during its golden age in the late 90s. That alone might be worth the price of admission for most.