Not owning a PS3 when Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was originally released in 2011, I never played it until it came to Switch recently. While its graphics have aged well and the soundtrack is gorgeous, a messy, cumbersome battle system and long-winded story keep it from being a truly wonderful experience.
Ni no Kuni is fundamentally a JRPG with real-time battles, with the addition of a monster-taming mechanic. While battling, each of your party members can fight, or send out one of their familiars to fight instead, bringing more variety in attacks, spells and strategic play. I found the manoeuvrability during battles to be awkward and only useful if you need to gain some distance from an enemy in order to have time to heal. On the Switch, battles are made still more awkward by having to use the D-pad to select moves while needing to use the L/R buttons to switch familiars, and using the left analogue-stick to move, making for a very unintuitive control scheme that leaves very little time to focus on, or react to, events in battle. This also goes for the overworld gameplay, where you cannot intuitively use the analogue stick to navigate menus, but must use the D-pad.
Given that the overworld play is just like any other traditional JRPG, I couldn’t help feeling that the whole experience was bloated. The price to pay for having expansive towns and fields to wander around in and show off the graphics is to make quests take three times as long to complete as the same quest would take in a much older game.
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The dialogue was fine but there was simply too much of it. I probably wasn’t supposed to be giggling when the kid’s mum died, but that’s probably more a reflection of my messed up sense of humour than of the game’s writing. I was giggling because … well, look. I realise having different types of cutscenes is common in JRPGs, but this was the first time I’d stopped to think about it. So there are three kinds of cutscenes:
A. Ghibli-animated and voiced
B. 3D animated and voiced
C. 3D animated with text boxes
–And there is nothing more jarring than the sudden transition from beautiful, fluid hand-drawn animation (A) to the comparatively more rigid and lifeless 3D models (B or C), even as well made as they are in Ni no Kuni. And for some reason, they decided to hand-draw the scene before, and after, Oliver’s mum dies at the beginning of the game, but not the scene where she actually dies. And it’s really funny.
The Wizard’s Compendium, basically the fictionalized manual for the game, might be my favourite thing in it. While I wished they had stuck to the faux-Early Modern English used in the book’s opening pages all the way through, I thoroughly enjoyed looking through all the different items and creatures of the other world, and recognising them when I finally met them in-game.
Graphics / Art Direction
As an eight year-old game, Ni no Kuni demonstrates another victory for visual style over graphical power. The colourful, Ghibli-inspired landscapes, character designs and architecture show only slight signs of age and are never ugly; although, the character animations, especially the human NPCs, do often look a little dead, with vacant faces that, when spoken to, animate more like marionettes than people.
Music / Sound Design
The orchestral soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi is a joy to experience, with lyrical, memorable melodies and gorgeous orchestration with an almost John-Rutter-level of sentimental yeet. You can tell that Hisaishi is not used to writing for games, however, as many tracks are written with an internal sense of narrative, making you feel as if something is about to happen while exploring an otherwise uneventful area. A particular mindset is needed for writing music that is interesting without inadvertently building a sense of narrative expectation that is incongruent with what is happening on screen.
Usually I can’t bear the voice acting in RPGs (whether sub or dub), so the fact that I had very little reaction at all to the voice acting in Ni no Kuni must mean that it is exceptionally good.
Final Score: 71%
Over the course of writing this review I realised I enjoyed Ni no Kuni more than I thought I did when I started. As an introduction to the genre for younger people, which I suspect is what the developers were going for, it is probably best suited, but there is a lot to enjoy for long-time Ghibli fans too.
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