The few times a year I shell out cash for a brand new title on the PS3 or Xbox typically coincide with the release of a new JRPG that has a promising team behind it. I devour JRPGs, the longer the better, and the more sidequests the happier I am. I play through to the very end. For 2013 so far, none held quite the amount of interest for me as Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a beautifully rendered, and highly imaginative game within the world of Studio Ghibli animation as developed by Level-5. The artwork and world building in that regard alone make Ni No Kuni worth a look, and the entertaining story with plenty of things to do and places to see makes the game almost beyond reproach. Almost. Unfortunately, a few hiccups arise in the story pacing and the game's mechanics and AI that could greatly hinder the average gamer's appreciation for the mechanics of it all. However, if you can get past those drawbacks, there's a healthy 70-100 hours of gameplay to be had here for the JRPG enthusiast willing to put in the time.
The story of Ni No Kuni starts with a tragedy compelling the young Oliver to join up with a comical, Scottish-ish faerie and travel to a parallel world of three kingdoms imperiled by the apocalyptic ambitions of a mysterious White Witch and her Djinn servant. The story is surprisingly long, almost dauntingly so at times, but the characters are entertaining and endearing enough without ever being annoying (something Tales of Graces F suffered from). In fact, this might be the most enjoyable cast of characters a JRPG has had in a long time considering the number of laugh out loud moments written into the impressively charming script.
If one was going to take issue with the story it's that it feels a bit lopsided in how 80% of the game builds up to your showdown with the White Witch's number 2 man and then hastily adds in a final act that plays and feels far too quickly considering it's supposed to be the grand revelation of the story's true antagonist (a revelation spoilt for us by the game's title, but which comes as breaking news to the characters). The brevity of the final act feels unfulfilling when it's all said and done even if defeating the final boss does open up new sidequests. It's just far too quick, and you can't help but feel that the final chapter should definitely have been twice or three times as long as it was if it was going to be in any way proportional to the amount of story that led up to it.
Visually the game is extraordinary. If you've ever seen a Studio Ghibli film, you know the worlds created within them burst at the seams with creative characters, locales, and creatures, and Ni No Kuni is no exception to that rule. The worlds are beautifully rendered with rich colors and the cell-shading keeps the characters looking every bit like a 2D Ghibli illustration while at the same time making their conversion into a 3D world flawless and smooth. For that, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is something of a work of art that needs to be seen to be believed, and it only makes your appreciation of the story, flawed though it may be, that much deeper when you see it unfold in all its creative glory in the Ghibli world.
It's the gameplay and logistical side of the game where Ni No Kuni falters, and if you're a hardcore RPG lover looking for a really challenging experience you're likely to be disappointed on two fronts. First off, the hardest setting the game offers will feel like a cakewalk to any seasoned RPG lover, and that's including the major AI flaw. Which brings us to the second front of disappointment: the AI, both in your allies and enemies, is hugely flawed. When it comes to instructing your teammates how to fight in a given battle, whether it's all-out or as a healer or whatever, their ability to ration their noticeably scarce MP is non-existent. Your allies will burn through their MP as fast as they can with no attention paid to whether you really need healing or not and whether using their most powerful offensive attacks are really necessary on a vastly weaker foe. The game's strategic components simply aren't advanced enough to take that into consideration and consequently, more often than not, you'll find yourself as the only member of your party with any MP left halfway through a big boss fight. I never thought I'd miss the overly detailed battle programming of a game like Final Fantasy XII but Ni No Kuni reminds us exactly why the ability to dictate how your allies fight is a very valuable tool to have.
Of course, it's not just your allies that aren't the sharpest tools in the shed: the bosses are pretty dumb too. Nevermind the age-old RPG catch-22 that the final boss of the game will really only be a challenge if you haven't spent time completing all the available sidequests and bounties and a bit of time level grinding (and if you haven't done that, why even play a JRPG at all?). But even if you haven't put in those hours, the bosses tend to have another major flaw: they're painfully predictable. Many of the bosses run along an almost linear track of thinking that makes it easy to beat them using the game's All Out Defense and Offense tactics even if they vastly overpower you. It might take longer to beat them, but beyond their menacing appearances most of the bosses are far from threatening. Ni No Kuni is still a very fun game to play through, but it's never all that challenging.
An interesting function of the game is its integration of a Pokemon-esque stable of monsters fighting on your behalf which are capable of leveling up with experience as well as with snacks you can feed them from the menu. The snacks let you boost their stats beyond what the typical leveling up would, but it takes forever and creates something of a self-defeating system if you're not playing the game with the mentality of completing all the sidequests and monster bounties. By the time you gain the ability to capture new monsters, chances are the one you've been playing with up to that point in the game has gotten strong enough that switching to one of your newer, weaker monsters will be a serious handicap to you in battle. This means it's more than likely the monster you first choose at the game's outset will be your go-to monster all the way through, thus making the monster capturing somewhat pointless unless you're going for trophies and sidequest completions.
Ultimately, the gameplay issues of Ni No Kuni become a minor nuisance when weighed against the enormous amount of content offered in its story and sidequests. They prevent it from being a perfect JRPG, but Ni No Kuni still earns a hearty recommendation for any JRPG lover or anyone who loves the Studio Ghibli style.
"Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch" is on sale January 22, 2013 and is rated E. RPG. Developed by Level 5, Studio Ghibli. Published by Namco Bandai Games, Level 5.