I dove into Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch over the weekend, despite my long history of dislike when it comes to Japanese RPGs. It’s not as bad as all that, though. I’ve developed a sort of love/hate relationship with the game.
You play as this kid Oliver who loses his mother early on in the game. Shortly after he finds out there’s a parallel fantasy world, and everyone in our world has a duplicate over there. If he can save his mother’s duplicate in the fantasy world, he may be able to save her in his own.
Ni no Kuni is definitely a love letter to the traditional Japanese RPG. At it’s core it seems like an amalgamation of a few different titles… there’s certainly a very strong Pokemon vibe to the game’s battle system, wherein you collect and train “familiars” to fight with/for you, and you can level them up, and teach them new “tricks” But of course they can only have X number of tricks learned at a time, and if you want to learn a new one you have to forget an old one, yadda yadda you know the drill.
The Big Bad of the fantasy world is going around breaking people’s hearts. Not in the love ’em and leave ’em sort of way, but instead people’s hearts are apparently made up of a number of elements like courage, and kindness and enthusiasm, etc. This sorceror is breaking their hearts into pieces, and, I guess, stealing parts. So instead out just killing someone he simply leaves the, I don’t know… mopey.
But fear not, because if someone has too much courage, Oliver can use a spell called “Take Heart” to bottle up some of that excess, and then use another spell to give it to someone that has a deficiency in that area. And thus they are cured.
In all seriousness, the earnest innocence and positivity of the game is absolutely charming, as ridiculous as it all is. I will admit that it is nice, amongst all these brooding, tough guy “holding a gun walking away from explosions” protagonists, to play a game where you’re just a kid that wants to help and do good.
So that would be my first ‘love’ about the game. It’s just simply charming. It’s optimistic, and upbeat, and while incredibly cheesy most of the time, that’s okay. Sometimes you just want to play a game where you do good things and you feel good.
The look of the game is gorgeous. I’m not a huge fan of anime, but I’m a huge fan of how the game blends the 3D gameworld with the 2D animated cutscenes. The world is beautiful, the people are interesting, the monsters are cute and/or slightly less cute. The colors are vibrant. It’s just a beautiful game to behold.
There’s a lot to do. You can collect, level and befriend your familiars, you can carry out side quests, hell, you can sit and read through the 200 page Wizard’s Manual in the game, full of stories and lore that flesh out the world. The game has a lot of systems, and you can definitely spend some time here.
Combat is quick and easy to learn, but there’s some depth to be had in regards to setting up your familiars. Again, if you’ve ever played a Pokemon game, it’s pretty much just like that.
The story is neat. While not everything is voiced, and when it isn’t it can be a little tedious, and the jokes/puns can be eyeroll-worthy, it’s still all very entertaining. You actually start to care about Oliver and the characters you’re interacting with, which makes the adventure that much more meaningful.
The handholding. Oh my god, it drives me fucking nuts. You will literally spend the first few hours of your game time being led by the balls through every little minute detail, and clobbered over the head with how things work and why you’re doing them, even though you saw it coming from a mile away. I’m still early in the game, and it’s just starting to ease off and trust that maybe I can figure some shit out for myself, but it made it very difficult to enjoy those first couple of hours. Given the two extremes, with a game like Ni No Kuni explaining and pointing out every little menu and game mechanic in great, drawn out depth, and a game like Demon’s/Dark Souls, or Dragon’s Dogma that gives you a couple of pointers and then throws you into it to learn for yourself, I’ll take the latter any day of the week. Let me discover shit on my own.
The repetitiveness, my ancient Japanese RPG archenemy. Why the Japanese love to just grind the same fucking thing over and over and over again I have no idea, but I hate it. Battles can be interesting, but I went into a dungeon, and fought my way down a short corridor to a treasure chest. Then I turned around to backtrack and all of the enemies had respawned.
That’s not a problem in and of itself, but every time you get into a fight, you have to go through the same “bwarrr” distorted screen effect that brings you into the fight arena, and the same “We can do this!” battle cry from Oliver. And then when it’s over, the same “victory pose” and the same tedious menus showing exactly how much EXP you got and how much money you found. And you can only skip through it so quickly, so when you have to fight four, five, six battles with less than ten seconds in between, reach a dead end and turn around and do it all again, it gets really obnoxious.
I feel like the whole “run into a single enemy, get ported into a separate battle arena with a whole group of baddies” RPG trope just needs to be retired. Perhaps it started due to a design decision, or a technical limitation, or whatever, but I see no reason in this day and age that an RPG needs to still do that. Outside of “it’s traditional”, but that fuck that.
So, I’m trying to enjoy the game despite my deep seated dislike of what typically makes a Japanese RPG a Japanese RPG. It’s a neck and neck battle. At this point, I don’t know which side will win out. Perhaps now that I’m starting to get past the super slow and tedious intro hours, I can get the ball rolling fast enough that it will be easier to ignore some of the pointless grind involved.
Regardless of that, there’s no denying that Ni no Kuni is a wonderfully crafted game, and if you loved Final Fantasy and Pokemon and all those others growing up, chances are you’ll fall in love with Ni no Kuni as well. But if you’re like me and never really connected with JRPG’s, then you’ll likely find yourself in the situation I’m in. It’s up to you if you want to roll the dice. There’s an awesome game here, but you’ll have to choke down a few things to enjoy it.