To what lengths would you go to see a loved one again? Would you go to the ends of the earth, or travel to a different world entirely? Would you be willing to face uncertainties around each corner and, more importantly, brave all of the above at the ripe age of 13?
This is the burden of Oliver – or “cry baby bunting” to some – the hero of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a JRPG originally released in 2011 on PS3 and is now available on Nintendo Switch. If an RPG that puts together the wit, charm, and wizardry of Harry Potter, monster collection mechanics of Pokemon, and the visuals of a high caliber Japanese anime sounds like a good time to you, then there is a lot to enjoy from this unique, coming-of-age journey.
Ni No Kuni stars Oliver, a boy that is dealt a tragic hand that would challenge anyone’s beliefs, let alone those of a mere child. Through this event, he discovers that he may be the key to saving a parallel world – one which could lead to a potential course-correction in his own. This other world has its own set of problems though, as the dark djinn, Shadar, renders the hearts of his victims vulnerable to impurity and corruption.
He is truly evil incarnate, as he’d rather debilitate the masses and watch the madness unfold rather than giving his victims a swift death. Shadar, thus far, has proven to be a formidable foe to even the greatest sages of this parallel world, so much that he has succeeded in breaking their will to continue such a “pointless endeavor.” If it wasn’t for the potential that some see in Oliver, and the hope he has in himself to right the wrongs in his own world, Shadar could very well continue on breaking the spirits of people for eternity.
But there are two sides to every story, and Shadar is no different. Does he commit these vile acts by his own volition, or is someone else pulling the strings? He may rule these two worlds with an iron fist, but it seems that even he has a superior – the White Witch. Little is known about this White Witch and her Council of Twelve though, and you can’t help but wonder how they fit into the equation. It seems Oliver may have more than one fish to fry, and many more mysteries need unraveling beyond what is outlined here.
Some of these resolutions you might anticipate, but others can easily catch you by surprise. In other words, don’t think for a second that this story, starring a wizard kid and his doll-turned-fairy, lacks its share of interesting twists and turns. The narrative should appeal to a wide spectrum of players, doing an excellent job balancing out moments of hilarity and innocence with more mature, troubling situations. Don’t forget, Oliver is but a boy – he must grow in order for his journey to succeed, and so shall you through his exploits.
As nice as it is to see Oliver develop from “cry baby bunting” to a highly respected wizard, the real strength lies in the supporting cast. What Ni No Kuni offers is an array of characters from a variety of unique backgrounds, most of which are developed thoroughly over the course of the adventure. In fact, many of their individual story arcs play an integral role in the overarching narrative, simultaneously giving you a better connection to the individual characters, as well as the main scenario. The game’s cast is extremely memorable, especially the adorable Mr. Drippy. Ultimately, in regards to the story, Ni No Kuni embodies every child’s dream of becoming the hero – or heroine – of their own fantasy tale, but spins it in such a way that is inviting to even the most seasoned of adventurers.
The heart of the gameplay in Ni No Kuni revolves around its combat – a system which was considered rather proprietary in its prime and remains pretty unique to this day. It is an action-oriented, encouraging and rewarding properly-timed commands. Any given battlefield consists of the enemy, Oliver, his companions, and their familiars, with familiars acting as the Pokemon of this world, complete with training and capturing.
Oliver and his companions can have up to three familiars at their command, though only one of them can be on the battlefield per human party member at a time. Like Pokemon, these familiars are aligned to certain signs and elements, which makes them susceptible to certain species and abilities and more powerful against other combinations. A familiar has but a finite amount of time before they must be called back into reserves, meaning you cannot always complete a fight before having to swap them out for a fresh familiar. This is especially true in boss encounters, which can last upwards to 10 minutes.
Fortunately, a familiar’s timer refills any time they are on the bench, meaning you can put them back into the action after a short period of time. But again, the key to some fights is juggling between your familiars in order to take advantage of enemy weaknesses, or to boost your own defenses. After a certain point in the main story, wild familiars will become tamable after you slap them around a bit. There are no guarantees that wounded familiars will become tamable though, so repeated fights are often necessary when aiming to tame specific enemies.
If taming isn’t your thing, you could get away with doing a minimal amount of it and still clear the main story, especially when weaving in Oliver and his companions. The player isn’t required to actively use a familiar all the time – in fact, taking control of just Oliver or one of his companions has numerous benefits depending on the situation. Unlike familiars, human characters can be controlled for an infinite amount of time, but tend to not excel at taking hits forever.
In regards to the aforementioned timed commands, the player is able to select from a menu of abilities that vary depending on the character (or familiar) currently active. The basic “attack” makes the unit beeline to the target enemy and then initiate a string of auto attacks for a few seconds. These regular attacks can be canceled at any time in case you need to swap to a different command, but bear in mind that every command, including the basic attack, has a short cooldown after execution that limits their potential for abuse.
In other words, if you cancel an auto-attack early, for whatever reason, you may not immediately be able to attack again. The same principle applies to defense moves as well. Most familiars (and human party members) have some form of defensive maneuver. Fortunately, defensive actions in Ni No Kuni do not fall victim to typical JRPGs practices, where they are thrown in without making them actually useful. Timing your defenses against powerful attacks, more often than not, can be the difference between life or death.
These layers of depth make for a truly unique combat experience that remains thrilling throughout the entirety of the adventure. But it is also in these strengths that you begin to see some cracks – party AI, to be specific. Ni No Kuni does a lot of good with its innovative combat system, but things fall apart a bit as your team grows in numbers. Any character the player is not actively controlling will be at the mercy of the AI, which I dub Skynet because it never really has the player’s best interests at heart.
A “tactics” option gives the illusion that there are choices when it comes to programming the AI, but none of them seem to work right. For example, I had both of my AI party members set to only focus on healing, but they would continue to use whatever they felt like. This was partially remedied through removing all but healing commands on their familiars, but that doesn’t stop them from assuming one of Oliver’s companions only to spam their assortment of irremovable abilities.
The problems run deeper than that though, because an AI party member with a self-heal spell might continually cast it on themselves, thinking that they are pushing those heals out to an ailing party member. Not only that, it takes way too long for the game to introduce the command to force the entire party into defensive mode. But even when used, your team won’t always defend themselves properly. The combat in Ni No Kuni is both a blessing and a curse as a result. The originality here is to be commended, but the player’s patience should also be rewarded considering how awful the AI can be at times. Either way, it is a lot of fun if you’re looking for a battle system that is essentially never passive.
Oliver and his companions (including familiars) have a few forms of progression at their disposal. The human characters can level up, equip gear, and master new abilities, while familiars can do all of the above, as well as eat treats for stat bonuses, and evolve into more powerful creatures. The evolution system is quite similar to that of Pokemon, right down to there being certain advantages to halting the process until a specific time (though this is entirely unnecessary for a regular playthrough). Evolving a familiar will reset its level back to zero, but their power will almost always vastly exceed that of its predecessor once its level is back up to par. Be prepared for lots of grinding though, because most base familiars can evolve twice, meaning many have to level some base familiars three separate times.
Although this is not a huge deal in the early game, the overwhelming amount of grinding one must do later makes the idea of experimenting with other familiars quite the undertaking. A filled out party can house 12 total familiars – three for each human character and three in a reserve that do NOT get a cut of experience. As a result, one may find their ideal party early on and be skeptical about swapping in too many newcomers because of the potential hassle involved with change.
The normal difficulty in Ni No Kuni is surprisingly balanced, considering many games tout a similar difficulty that proves rather easy for many players. Random battles can be just dangerous enough that they demand your attention, and some boss battles can be quite nerve-wracking if you go into them blind and/or underleveled. Ni No Kuni offers a boat load of side content that, while appreciated, often feels required rather than optional, simply due to how invaluable the experience and rewards are from said endeavors.
This is not a complaint by any means – I absolutely love how well you are rewarded for partaking in side content. Rewards are twofold – errand givers will pay you for your troubles, but you’ll also receive merit points on top of that. Merit rewards are a group of extremely useful perks that can be unlocked after accumulating a certain number of merit points. With so many useful rewards at stake, and the fact that you’ll need as much experience you can get, there’s no real reason why you should skip these tasks.
The bulk of side quests boil down to killing specific enemies, or mending the hearts of the broken. The Dark Djinn, Shadar, loves to sow weaknesses in the spirit of the world’s inhabitants, and wizards are the only way to make them whole again. This is performed by: identifying what exactly troubles the person in question – a broken heart can have many culprits – finding another that is willing (and able) to share a shard of their spirit in which they have ample supply, extracting it, and finally infusing it into the spirit of the one in need. While the brokenhearted quests are not the most exciting mechanically, they do show you just how sinister Shadar is, furthering your investment into the world, its inhabitants, and what continues to plague their land.
Fortunately for Oliver, Wizards become capable of synthesizing components via alchemy and a cauldron. Once unlocked, Oliver can create a wide assortment of goods and gear, should he first have the necessary components. It is a feature that is welcome, but not incredibly useful to those not completely dedicated to the art. Many ingredients are exclusive to certain areas and can be hard to reach, especially before fast travel and flying becomes a thing. Additionally, Oliver starts out with very few recipes and must refer to the Wizard’s Companion to find out how to create most goods.
The problem is not that you have to look these recipes up in a separate menu, the issue is that they aren’t “remembered” once you craft them a single time. Oliver will eventually fill out his recipe book with lots of stuff, but even then, the missing recipes will always have to be referenced rather than permanently binding to your book after you craft them successfully on your own. Let’s not skim over the Wizard’s Companion though, because it is an extremely impressive in-game reference that details lore, familiars, spells, alchemical recipes, equipment, and more. It can be accessed any time from the main menu, and the quality of its contents easily rivals other noteworthy in-game manuals, such as the Codex found in Dragon Age games.
Presentation and Performance
Ni No Kuni presents itself as if it was a high caliber anime film, much in thanks to teaming up with famous Japanese animation company, Studio Ghibli. It is a vibrant, colorful experience that’s art direction grants itself a certain “ageless look” by design. It certainly helps that Oliver can travel the world, visiting a variety of biomes, like the thicket-dense Ding Dong Dell with its haunting, but beautiful surrounding forests, the desert paradise where milk flows – Al Mamoon – the frigid land of Yule thats sky is lit up by a stunning aurora borealis, and many more awe-inspiring destinations.
When it comes to the soundtrack, I believe – and I don’t say this lightly – that Ni No Kuni has one of the best in the business. Joe Hisaishi, of Studio Ghibli fame, serves as lead for what can only be described as a truly epic score. A viewer on one of my most recent livestreams put it best by saying, “did they get freaking John Williams to do this soundtrack”? Both of these composers are legends in their field, and the comparisons of the grandiose, emotionally-charged compositions found in Ni No Kuni to other iconic works is likely one of the greatest compliments possible.
It’s no secret that Ni No Kuni looks and sounds great, but what about performance? Other outlets have suggested that the game is riddled with performance issues, notably crashes, but I was fortunate enough to not experience much of any of these faults myself. The framerate remained rather consistent throughout, and I only succumbed to two crashes in nearly 50 hours of gametime. The hiccups were annoying, but not enough to really dampen the feel of my experience as a whole.
It is fortunate for RPG fans that Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has made a home on Switch, because it is absolutely a title that every fan of the genre should have on their shelves. The epic, yet sentimental story, conglomerate of interesting game mechanics, and exceptional presentation puts this title in the upper echelon of RPGs. It isn’t perfect – none really are – but the overwhelming amount of positive traits present more than outweigh those that aren’t so great. If you give it a chance, you too will discover for yourself that the adventures of the wizard boy, Oliver, are not to be missed.