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Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Graphics: 9.2
Gameplay: 8.1
Sound: 9
Control: 8.3
Replay Value: 8.4
Rating: 8.5

Like most of my fellow JRPG aficionados, I am of the opinion that there has been a shortage of top-quality JRPGs this generation. If you enter the handheld and downloadable realm, you can find more offerings but for the most part, it seems painfully obvious that the golden era of the sub-genre is past. That’s why I was excited to play the highly anticipated production from the extraordinarily talented teams at Level-5 and Studio Ghibli. However, although this is indeed a great game, I steadfastly refuse to be blinded by my staunch desire to see games like this flourish once again.

But before I dive into the nitty gritty concerning the gameplay and story, let’s focus on the graphics, which are undeniably spectacular. Studio Ghibli are masters of the art form and they have crafted a singularly appealing world, a meticulously detailed and animated adventure that never ceases to amaze. I still think more could’ve been done with the enemies and Familiars but that’s more subjective than anything else. The bottom line is that this game emits a certain charm that instills in one a true-blue sense of childlike wonder. Gorgeous color, fantastic design, plenty of visual variety, and a cleanliness of form and style that downright shines.

The sound is another highlight, as Ni no Kuni is technically superior in most all facets of a video game presentation. Not all the voices are spectacular but many are, and the soundtrack is one of the best you’ll hear this generation. It can be haunting and strangely subtle at times, while at others, the original score will embrace the lighthearted majesty of your quest. The music enhances and bolsters, it elevates our immersion without being intrusive. There’s a minor balancing issue between the effects, soundtrack, and voices, but it’s no big deal. All in all, when combining the nigh-on unparalleled visual and audio presentation, one understands the supreme effort put forth by the developers.

Welcome to one of the prettiest worlds you will ever see; it’s brimming with life and wonderfully drawn characters, and you’ll likely fall in love with this landscape. That’s a given, especially if you’re an old-school fan and a great lover of top-notch Japanese animation. It’s also interesting to see how the industrious pair of Oliver and Drippy actually travel across two worlds that are inherently linked; there’s the magical dimension known as Ni no Kuni and Oliver’s hometown of Motorville. It’s not all that complex but it adds an extra layer of depth and involvement to an otherwise straightforward quest.

Now let’s talk about the combat. Just so all the veteran role-players understand, this is not a traditional turn-based mechanic, in which you simply select commands from various menus. You control your characters in real-time, so you have to move them about the battlefield and if necessary, utilize careful timing to prepare your party for particularly damaging attacks. Yes, combat pauses when selecting a command but then again, a whole lot of games pause when choosing a skill or ability; Dishonored did that, and that isn’t even an RPG. Ni no Kuni's battle is similar to systems found in Final Fantasy XII and Dragon Age.

But in this case, you actually control both a human character and his or her Familiars. These are little allies that handle most of the physical heavy work, while the human fighter typically relies on different magical attacks and support capabilities. You are linked to your little buddy in combat; whatever damage he incurs, you incur. Furthermore, your allies can only withstand abuse for a certain amount of time; they’ll eventually get tired. Thankfully, you can carry multiple Familiars into encounters, and more depth can be found in the types of Familiars you employ vs. the types of enemies you face. There's much to consider.

It’s also fun to feed your Familiars outside of battle so they can grow in strength. The mechanic works relatively well but I have some significant problems with it, problems I hadn’t anticipated. Firstly, there are too many small nods to the action/RPG realm, what with the necessity to time defense maneuvers and special counters. I don’t recall ever doing any such thing in my beloved old-school RPGs, nor do I remember having to move my fighters about and try to combine movements with commands on the fly. With multiple characters and multiple Familiars and multiple enemies flying around all at once, I often found many battles to be too chaotic and disconcerting. And the boss battles can definitely feel cheap.

Sometimes, it’s just hard to see precisely what everyone is doing, and just how well they’re faring. On top of which, the random encounters are absolutely through the roof and there’s little chance of avoiding enemies, even though they’re visible on the screen. Oh, and let’s not forget that there are few save points in dungeons and if you die, you have to return to the dungeon entrance. I don’t have as big of a problem with the game fining me 10% of my money to keep earned XP upon death (that bolsters the challenge), but even I find far too much in the way of grinding and general annoyance associated with the combat here.

That’s significant because I rarely have a problem with grinding. I never did if I wholeheartedly enjoyed the battle mechanic…and unfortunately, I don’t in Ni no Kuni. It’s not turn-based and personally, I’m not the biggest fan of this Pokemon-like style, where creatures are doing most of the work for me. I spend too much time focusing on them and not enough on my characters, although Oliver and Co. get stronger spells and skills over time. And although I don’t mind a stiff challenge in battle, there are just too many instances where I had to say to the screen, “Well, that was just cheap.” Why? Partly because the AI isn’t too bright.

This leads me to the biggest problem, and the one issue that I’m willing to bet the RPG fans will voluntarily overlook, simply because they’re desperate for a perfect title. Look, the AI isn’t very good, there’s more action in the combat that most fans of traditional mechanics will want, and the story – I hate to say – is clichéd and not well written. I suppose you could argue that that’s the way a lot of old RPGs were, but A. That’s not 100% accurate, and B. I expect more from this generation. The dialogue, general plot, and character development are all average at best, and that’s a fact. I wish it wasn’t, but it is, and I can't shy away from it.

This all being stated (and with no small measure of disappointment, I promise), the game is still well worth your time. Not only are the technical elements fabulous and almost beyond compare, but there are plenty of traditional old-school RPG elements that we’ve been missing this generation. Yeah, you know what they are; I won’t list ‘em off, but so many are right here in all their glory. This proves to me great games can still be made with “old-fashioned” ideas and indeed, maybe those “archaic” ideas aren’t so inferior to the systems we’ve created for a faster-paced industry today.

And really, this is a heartfelt, wondrous journey that puts a smile on your face every time you load up your save file. You always wish to see what’s coming next, to explore and fight tough new foes, to nurture your Familiars and make ‘em formidable opponents, to meet new characters in your travels and learn more about your magical surroundings. In terms of environment and design style, there are few other titles this generation that can match Level-5’s most recent title as it pertains to a cohesive, in-depth, feel-good quest that enriches and entertains. Such traits lie at the core of this game and that absolutely cannot and should not be ignored.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch isn’t the resurrection of a dead tradition and it doesn’t necessarily scream “evolution,” either. The story is clichéd and even boring at times, the writing isn’t anything special, and the AI and some design decisions are questionable. There’s just no denying any of that in my eyes. But it’s so beautiful, so likable, so charming, and so well prepared with such loving care, that it’s impossible to come away unimpressed or unsatisfied. Personal opinions notwithstanding, I imagine JRPG followers everywhere will love it and it does come highly recommended. Anything else that was said…well, it just had to be said.

The Good: Achingly beautiful graphics. Some great voice work and a beautiful score. Plenty of depth and engaging complexity. Dynamic combat. Bright, well-designed, immersive world. Traditional RPG elements are a plus.

The Bad: Story is disappointing, and the writing is barely average. Questionable AI and design decisions. Too many action-oriented elements in combat.

The Ugly: “Every last shred of this game is the exact polar opposite of the term ‘ugly.’”

1/23/2013   Ben Dutka