Earlier this year, the highly anticipated “Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch” was released in North America exclusively for the PlayStation 3. Created by Level-5, the developers of the popular “Professor Layton” games, “Ni no Kuni” employs many familiar elements from other popular franchises. It employs a battle system with a similar construction to the successful “Tales” series and a monster-catching system reminiscent of any “Pokémon” game.
“Ni no Kuni” draws its popularity in part from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese film company that created “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” The story was crafted to feel like the player is watching a movie while playing the game. Like in many of Studio Ghibli’s films, Joe Hisaishi composed an amazing score to further bring the worlds of “Ni no Kuni” to life.
“Ni no Kuni” begins in Motorville, a town resembling an average American neighborhood, with the young Oliver. He is an average boy who hangs out with his friends and listens to his mom. The story picks up when Oliver’s mother dies of heart complications after saving him from drowning. Oliver goes back to his home and mourns his mother while clutching a doll she had given him. When Oliver cries on the doll, it comes to life and it introduces itself as the King of the Fairies, Mr. Drippy.
Mr. Drippy tells Oliver there is a way to save his mother. The only way to save her is to travel to Ni no Kuni and save it. After Oliver agrees, Mr. Drippy teaches him the spell to go to Ni no Kuni, and the real adventure begins. Right away, Oliver learns he has the ability to heal those with a broken heart, anyone with anything from a lack of enthusiasm to a lack of kindness. Most of the story revolves around mending the hearts of people in both worlds.
The real challenge is the innovative battle system. The first battles of the game are very basic: the player controls Oliver and can cast magic or strike the enemy with his wand. The battles take place in a circle battlefield with free movement of Oliver allowed. Level-5 makes the battle interesting by making each action take a set amount of time. This creates the need for strategic timing during the battle. After some progression in the story, Oliver will get a familiar, a monster companion to aid him in battle that gains levels as Oliver does.
The familiar system adds another level of strategy to battle. When Oliver calls on a familiar to fight, the player loses control of Oliver and gains control of the familiar. Each familiar has a time limit for how long it can remain on the battlefield at one time. Being able to switch between Oliver and his familiars is essential to surviving battle. Unfortunately, the learning curve is a little steep.
Eventually, Oliver can begin to recruit more familiars, but each human character can only have three familiars at a time. Each of these familiars can be fed in the menu to increase various stats. It works a lot like a pet game where the more a pet is fed the stronger and healthier it becomes. The familiars, much like in Pokémon, can evolve to new forms. Unlike Pokémon, once a familiar evolves, it reverts back to level one.
To throw one final wrench into the battle system, Level-5 added other playable human characters that battle with Oliver: Esther and Swaine. One big challenge is that only one player controls all three of these characters, and their subsequent familiars, at the same time. The player must learn to effectively switch between them and their familiars in order for the battle to go smoothly. This is where the addition of multiplayer would be incredibly convenient. Level-5, however, did not provide any form of multiplayer gameplay, so the player must quickly adapt to the triple control.
To make the game more player-friendly, Level-5 included two different types of gameplay: easy and normal. Although this may be a game more directed toward a younger audience, normal mode should not be taken lightly. It has a level of difficulty that can make average gamers have a difficult time with boss battles.
“Ni no Kuni” is not without its problems. The story itself is rather simplistic and is almost too much like a children’s movie for average gamers to take part in. The battle system, while unique, has a steep learning curve that can halt story advancement until the player has a decent grasp for switching between humans and familiars. The explanations in-game are very basic and don’t really give the user a sense of what battle is like.
Although the game is childlike in many senses, fans of Studio Ghibli’s movies and fans of complex battles will not be disappointed with “Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.” It holds all the magic of a Ghibli film while maintaining the strategy expected of games today.
Christian Moberg is a junior studying computer science and Japanese.