Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a collaboration between the games developer Level-5 - a Japanese role-playing specialist, known for Professor Layton, White Knight Chronicles and the last two Dragon Quest games - and Studio Ghibli. The film animation studio is a national institution in Japan, and has had a number of worldwide hits like Spirited Away.
Two big names in their respective fields, then, and Ni no Kuni doesn't disappoint. Fans of Level-5's work will find the fun characters and gentle storytelling of Layton and the finely-tuned RPG gameplay of Dragon Quest here. Meanwhile, Ghibli aficionados will get to enjoy some beautiful animated cut-scenes, another lush orchestral score by Joe Hisashi, and the thrill of stepping into one of the studio's magical worlds and heading off to explore.
In fact, this game is more Level-5's work than Ghibli's - the game studio wrote the storyline and script - but the two companies have collaborated closely enough, especially on the gorgeous look of the game, to make sure it retains the feel of movies like Ponyo, Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbour Totoro. Perhaps more importantly, this PS3 exclusive is a great epic role-playing game in the classic Japanese style, blending a strong storyline with gameplay elements from Pokémon, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, the Tales series and more into a nostalgic adventure that will delight kids and adults alike.
The story concerns a young boy named Oliver who lives in a slice of Americana called Motorville. After an accident, his mother dies and he's left an orphan - but then a toy his mother made him comes to life. Mr Drippy, a funny, big-nosed creature with a Welsh accent and a lantern in his nostrils, tells Oliver that he's a lord of the fairies from a parallel world, and that Oliver is a pure-hearted wizard who can save that world from evil - and maybe bring his mother back into the bargain.
After they journey to the other world, Oliver discovers that many characters there look like people back home - the king of one town is actually the shopkeeper's cat - and he can solve their problems by travelling backwards and forwards between the two worlds. In fact, you don't do this that often, but it still works brilliantly as a storytelling device, giving the fantastical events of Oliver's adventure a touching human dimension.
Otherwise, the story is a colourful fantasy romp in which Oliver contacts the Great Sages of the world to learn new magical powers and ultimately challenge the Dark Djinn, Shadar. He travels by land, sea and eventually air around the world map, fights monsters, gathers a party of friends, explores dungeon-style areas and runs errands for people in town - including, in a rather sweet touch, restoring the enthusiasm or kindness of people who have been "broken-hearted" by Shadar's spells. It's lovely, traditional stuff, reminiscent of the old 2D Final Fantasy games - but with a twist.
As well as wielding his own magic spells in battle, Oliver and his friends can capture and train "familiars" to fight for them, just as in Pokémon. There's a huge number of these creatures, they come in all sorts of wonderfully bizarre designs and have a wide range of skills, from magic to healing to defence to physical attack.
This is where Ni no Kuni reveals itself to be a surprisingly deep and tough game. There's an enormous amount of flexibility in how you set the familiars up: each of your three characters can switch between three familiars in battle, you can keep reserves, you can equip them with items, you can train them up in certain attributes, you can change their skill set-ups, and so on. It's really absorbing stuff.
It's not just fun to tinker, but it's great fun putting it all to use in the game's battle system. Although fights take place in standardised arenas in the old-school JRPG style, they're not random or turn-based. This is a real-time system where you need to move and think on your feet, where timing is important and where using the right skill against the right creature at the right time pays off big-time.
In so many RPGs, battling becomes something you do in autopilot. Not so in Ni no Kuni, where there are frequent tough bosses and the enemies' level keeps pace with your own, always keeping you on your toes. Everything in this game is perfectly balanced, right down to how much money you earn and how often you need to buy and use items or stop at an inn. No slacking at the back there!
So Ni no Kuni is not just a beautiful game (although it really is) with an affecting storyline that will touch your inner child - it's actually a seriously involving and fun RPG which you feel like you're always mastering, and in which it seems there's always something more to discover. It's an absolute must for any PS3 owners with a love of the genre.
- A stunning-looking game that brings the imagination of Studio Ghibli films to life
- The storyline is touching and real without being overly sentimental
- Deep systems and fun fighting will keep you absorbed for hours on end
- There aren't enough of the animated cut-scenes, and too much dialogue is done in text
- The design of some side-quests is a bit basic
- After a great start, the game and story are a little slow to really get going.