If you’re a fan of JRPGs, you probably know what to expect from the genre — a sprawling open world map, a rich engrossing story, and colorful characters. Of course, the dark side of JRPGs tends to rear its ugly head as well — long hours of tedious level grinding, difficulty spikes, and superfluous, pointless content.
Roughly translated, “Ni No Kuni” means “The Another World.” But it had another meaning for me. Not only was I whisked away to the wondrous world inside of the game, but it actually brought me to a world of wonder within myself. It was enough wonder, in fact, to make me completely forget about the dark side, and embrace all of the light this game had to offer.
It sounds hyperbolic, but I haven’t seen a world like Ni No Kuni‘s for quite some time. Simply put, I didn’t want to stop exploring once I gained access to the game’s world map, as there was something to find and discover at every turn. It’s been years since I was compelled to keep going and find out what was next in a JRPG — if you’re a former genre fan, this is the best thing to reignite that spark.
White Witch’s summary is pretty simple — in addition to our world, multiple “Other Worlds” exist. Oliver, the game’s protagonist, has just become acquainted with the world of Ni no Kuni, by way of the “Lord High Lord of the Fairies,” Drippy. Oliver’s mother has just died in the real world saving his life, but hope exists in the other world, through finding the person with whom his mother’s soul is linked to.
The narrative straddles the line of serious and goofy on a constant basis, but it’s gripping throughout. One minute you’ll be crying right alongside of Oliver on account of coping with his mother’s death, and the next, you’ll be laughing at his fairy companion Drippy’s absurdity. The dichotomy of Oliver’s world and the Other World parallel many similar works of fiction like The Wizard of Oz, but it’s a bit more complex than that.
For starters, once Oliver becomes acclimated to his apprenticeship, he’ll return to his world to solve riddles in the Other World on occasion. It’s not quite as cheeky as “these people look just like their counterparts!”, as the lore and reasoning are all given for the setup. You’ll start to develop a relationship with Oliver and both worlds as you make your way through the game’s lengthy story.
In Japan, a real book called “The Wizard’s Companion” was sold with the game, which was literally a tome of information that not only gave you tips, but also fleshed out the game’s lore, and offered a few DRM-like required answers to various riddles. On the surface, it seems like it’s an instruction manual — but it’s much more than that.
The Wizard’s Companion will probably be overlooked by many people, which is a huge shame, because I can’t really describe the inclusion of it anything short of “amazing.” You could spend hours flipping through the digital pages of this thing, and find something new every time you read it. From the cryptic riddles hidden inside of the text to the fairy tale chapters that feature tall tales from the game’s world, there’s pretty much something for everyone to enjoy reading. It’s seamlessly incorporated into the story, as Oliver carries around his very own copy in-game.
If you’re curious to learn a bit about the game’s creatures, there’s an entry on every single familiar (creature) in the game. If you want to get more out of the game’s world, research a potential world map location, or up your alchemy skills, it’s all there at your fingertips — and that’s just one small facet of the work that went into making this game feel like it inhabits a living, breathing universe that feels real.
Combat is handled in a very traditional manner, with freedom of movement similar to an MMO. Abilities are chosen from a menu similar to a Final Fantasy game (or most JRPGs for that matter), and players have the ability to attack, defend, use spells/abilities, depending on the chosen unit.
Various things like “pits of fire” and projectiles can be avoided, and attacking an enemy from a certain angle may provide a tactical advantage. At first, combat distilled down to a simple “mash X to keep attacking” strategy, but as the game progress, I was pretty surprised at how deep it really was. I was constantly moving, switching party members, and using certain abilities to best boss fights, which are more often than not extremely challenging. At first, you’ll just control Oliver and up to three creature companions (think Pokémon), but eventually, you’ll be tasked with managing two other autonomous AI party members with three familiars of their own.
The AI can be extremely troublesome if you don’t know how to handle them, even if you can switch to any of them individually at any time. For instance, if you stick a high-cost MP familiar with one of your AI partners, they’ll tend to be very lenient with their usage of spells, and usually run out of mana very fast. To combat this, you can carefully choose their starting familiar, and kit them with low-cost spells, or make them mostly physical, and take it upon yourself to be the magic runner of the group.
It’s a fundamental flaw, as the game should give you many more tactical options in terms of customizing the AI, but with the “all out attack” and “all out defend” commands, you can bend the AI to your will well enough, provided you’re willing to work with the mechanic and prepare for it.
Like most RPGs, party composition usually boils down to the holy trinity of damage dealing (DPS), damage soaking (tanks), and healing. But given the game’s recruitable 400 familiars, you can easily mix and match your own strategies, and usually come out on top with the help of a little bit of grinding from time to time. There’s also a symbol system to worry about, which is basically a “rock, paper, scissors,” scheme involving creatures with Sun, Moon, and Star types. All in all, creating and forming your party can be a puzzle, and one that’s extremely rewarding to solve.
Once the game opens up, it really opens up. You’ll have the ability to tame and recruit new familiars, customize them to your liking, create new items, and more. Similar to how Pokémon allows you to raise creatures from level one all the way to completion, you’re pretty much given full reign over how you want your party to turn out.
Beyond combat, one of the striking things about Ni No Kuni is that somehow, Level-5 has made side quests interesting. In most JRPGs, fetch quests would amount to nothing more than a meaningless reward and boring subtext. But in Wrath of the White Witch, you actually feel like you’re helping the world, while gaining increasingly powerful, useful rewards. The Stamp Card system facilitates side quests (known as “errands”) by giving you a running total for every side quest you complete — no matter hows big or small.
In addition to gaining a reward right then and there, accumulating stamps will allow you to save up for really useful power-ups, like extra experience points or faster movement on the world map. “Bounties,” which allow you to hunt down special named NPCs on the world map, also contribute to your Stamp Card.
As you can see, all of this adds up fast, and when you add it on top of all the other nuanced optional additions to the game, you’ll see why you can spend as little or as much as you’d like frolicking around the world. The game makes you want to complete these side excursions, which is not something I’m used to in the slightest. After around 10-15 hours you’ll gain your first mode of transportation (boat), and after that, you’ll gain the ability to fly around the world map. Again, a very traditional mindset.
As is the case with any JRPG, there’s tons to do. There’s a Casino, an arena, a fully explorable world map with tons of hidden items, tons creatures to catch and raise, and a heap of post-game content, including extra bosses. You could easily spend over 80 hours in the world of Ni No Kuni and not get bored.
If you’re not a fan of JRPGs, Ni No Kuni will do little to change your mind on the subject. But for those who are willing to put up with some of the genre’s trappings, they’ll discover one of the most feel-good, deep, and wondrous games of all time.
Ni No Kuni knows what it is and it never betrays that fact. It’s a JRPG, and in my book, it’s an instant classic.
This review is based on a physical copy of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for the PlayStation 3