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January 28, 2014 / Jett

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Impressions

I’ll be the first to admit that Japanese role-playing games are not my cup of tea. I’m generally not a fan of menu-based combat, level grinding or stories that take dozens of hours to complete. The only JRPG I ever played and loved was Super Mario RPG on the SNES. Pretty much everything else from Chrono Trigger, to Final Fantasy VII and everything up to this point has completely passed me by. Quite frankly, I don’t even regret being mostly oblivious to that whole aspect of gaming, because it’s just not my thing.

So why even bother with Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch? Well, for one, its phenomenal visuals went a long way towards grabbing my attention. Then, the positive word-of-mouth just wouldn’t go away. I figured that if I was going to give this genre a fair shake, I might as well try the best.

 Ni No Kuni puts you in the shoes of Oliver; a common boy from the real world who is destined to save an alternate dimension from evil. Yes, the game’s premise and ongoing story beats don’t necessarily break new ground, though this classic JRPG tale has never been told with this level of presentation quality. Backed by animation sequences created by Studio Ghibli using their signature art style, this game during the cutscenes look amazing. Maybe even more impressive are the in-game visuals, which do an incredible job of bringing the cutscenes to life. Save for the camera angles and slightly lower resolution, it looks like you’re playing a cartoon.

Adding to the game’s presentational splendor is the incredible voice work. The entire cast is very well acted, though extra kudos are in order for the person who played the role of Drippy. As your sidekick, he’s a joy to listen to as he’s so animated. It also doesn’t hurt that his accent is so not what I expected for a character that looks the way he does. I also love the orchestrated music throughout. When it all comes together, this is a marvelous game to see and hear.

Once you embark on your grand adventure, you’ll partake in a lot of combat. All of it takes place with an Active Time Battle system, which in itself isn’t new, but it is new to me. There’s definitely a learning curve for grasping the concept of navigating through menus while moving your characters in real time, but I really like the level of engagement it provides once you’re in it. In particular, the boss fights really push your ability to manage everything to the test.

Maybe I just suck, but once the game introduced the concept of having to manage multiple allies, but the combat started to get problematic for me at this stage. By default, you’ll have direct control over one character while the AI handles the others. They fare reasonably well against standard fodder, but I found their performance against bosses to be lackluster. There are a handful of behaviours that you can set for your allies, though I don’t find them to work as well as I would like in tense situations. During most boss fights, they would die fairly early on, leaving my one remaining character to grind it out in a slow battle of endurance.

You can micromanage it to the point where you control every single action for all of your characters, but you then sacrifice your ability to maneuver characters with precision. I find that there are huge benefits to controlling one character around so that you can cut actions short to move out of harm’s way or to re-target when they’re attacking the wrong spot, but this is much harder to do when you can’t focus on one character. Maybe if the AI were a bit smarter or if there was a better way to manage all of the action, it may help resolve this issue, though that would add another layer of complexity to the mix in an already complicated game.

The other wrinkle to the combat involves Familiars, which act more or less like Pokemon. You’ll start with one Familiar of your own and will fight many others along the way. From there, you’ll get the opportunity to capture more, level them up through battle and nurture them with treats. Like Pokemon, each one has its own strengths and weaknesses, while some fare better against others. Including evolutions, or metamorphosis in Ni No Kuni terms, there are just over 300 different Familiars in the mix. Between this and the Active Time Battle system, there’s a lot of cool gameplay nuances to explore and master.

On top of all of that is a ton of items and gear to outfit your characters and Familiars with. It’s great to have so many options for tricking out all of the different characters at your disposal and I love having the ability to manage all that. However, the menu system for handling all of the transactions shows its seams when you’re shopping at a store. The act of buying, selling and equipping your items requires you to needlessly jump through a lot of menus when it really shouldn’t be this complicated.

Despite being a self-professed Japanese role-playing game hater, Ni No Kuni won me over with a killer mix of style and substance. It’s presentation value is remarkable and there’s enough depth in the gameplay to keep things interesting throughout. Sure, I have my misgivings about certain aspects of its combat and menus, but they’re minor when compared to the pleasure I got out of embarking on this epic adventure. I’ve still got a ways to go, but I do hope to finish this game someday.

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