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Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Score: 95%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: NAMCO BANDAI Games America
Developer: Level-5
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Level-5 has returned to form with Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a game that is beautiful in more ways than one. It's stunning to look at, yes. But it's also unapologetically sweet, a quality that most games wouldn't touch with a stick. This is a game that makes you feel good. It's also an excellent role-playing game in its own right.

One of the major selling points of Ni no Kuni is how beautiful it is. And man, is it beautiful. If you have ever hoped for a three-dimensional rendering of the work of Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki's internationally-revered Studio Ghibli, here it is. This world is absolutely bursting with color and imagination. There's some classic Ghibli animation in some of the cutscenes, as well. While many of the environments themselves have been well-represented in countless games that came before, there is just so much life and beauty in every frame. Character designs are distinct and endearing, especially those of the beings that are not really human. Some enemies vaguely resemble beasts from our own world, while others are wonderfully original.

Ni no Kuni just might have the best soundtrack I've heard in a game yet. Joe Hisaishi has graced the films of Studio Ghibli with work that hits every possible emotional cue, and he brings his A game -- and the immensely talented Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, as well. The battle theme isn't what you'd normally expect for a JRPG, but it's epic and sweeping enough to use in a movie. While several JRPGs are slammed for their English voice acting, Ni no Kuni's is nigh-on perfect. Drippy is a particularly talky critter, and that's a very good thing: his strong Welsh accent contrasts wildly with his tiny, cutesy appearance, and that makes him instantly endearing from the moment he opens his mouth.


Gameplay:
Oliver is an ordinary little boy who lives in Motorville with his mother. Ollie is an earnest and adventurous youth, and his mother is the kind of woman who would die for her son. Unfortunately, she does just that when she saves Oliver from drowning in a car accident. Her heart gives out on her, and Oliver is left alone to mourn. When his tears fall on his doll, a gift from his mother, Drippy, the self-proclaimed Lord High Lord of the Fairies, is released from a curse. He springs to life and informs Oliver that because his mother has a soul mate (an alternate self) in his world, there's a chance that she can be rescued from her fate. All he has to do is become a powerful wizard and defeat Shadar, the Dark Djinn. Easy, right?

Ni no Kuni is a classic-style Japanese role-playing game that takes you on a long, epic quest through an enormous fantasy world. You battle monsters, visit towns, upgrade your equipment and abilities, take on quests, and hone your wizarding powers. You've got overworlds, stores, and monsters aplenty. In a time where too many Japanese role-playing games strive to be as outrageously complex as possible, this kind of purity is more than a welcome change of pace: it's borderline nostalgic.


Difficulty:
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch may be a fairy tale starring a young boy and his tiny fairy companion, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's an easy game. The gameplay is deep and nuanced, and some of the boss battles in particular might slow your journey down, but as long as you keep playing, you'll eventually get to the deeply affecting endgame.

Most of your frustrations with Ni no Kuni will come from simply not being strong enough to proceed any further without something taking you out. In these situations, you'll simply have to bite the bullet, travel to an area teeming with tough monsters, and grind away. This usually works, but when it doesn't, your strategy is probably to blame. Enemies and familiars feature elemental alignments, and these can be either used to your advantage or ignored to your disadvantage.


Game Mechanics:
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is all about wizardry, but not the shoot-to-kill wizardry of the Harry Potter universe. Instead, most of your magic will be used for truly good deeds. Shadar's influence over the people in the other world causes them to be brokenhearted. But it's not the kind of brokenheartedness that afflicts people in love. Certain positive emotions are stripped clean away from certain people, leaving them bereft of courage, enthusiasm, kindness, and other valued qualities. Oliver's magic allows him to recognize individuals who are overflowing with these qualities and borrow just enough of it to bring balance to a brokenhearted individual's soul.

Your travels will invariably bring Oliver and his friends into peril, but your options for fighting back are many. The battle system is unique and familiar at the same time. All the action occurs in quasi-real time; you have complete control over your movement, but once you issue a command, the game takes over while the command is carried out. It works well; enemy attacks can be avoided by running away (unlike in most games that crib elements from MMO combat systems) or even canceled with a well-timed attack. It can feel very cumbersome at first; the circular menu that contains all of your actions can be tough to navigate while running around trying to get into a good position.

Oliver and his companions are equipped to defend themselves, but that's a task you'll usually leave up to your familiars. Taming, growing, and caring for familiars makes up a large part of Ni no Kuni, and it's probably the most rewarding mechanic in the game. Some people have likened it to Pokémon. While many of these comparisons are valid, they do this game a disservice. Ni no Kuni is much deeper and much more involving. You can build their attributes (and their rapport with you) by feeding them treats, and once they level up enough, you can feed them a special gem to initiate a metamorphosis. There's a small risk element here; once you metamorphose your familiar, its level is reset to 1. But it's not that bad; experience earned from each battle is applied to every person and familiar in your party, and it doesn't take much time to get them back into fighting shape.

A few hours into Ni no Kuni, Oliver meets a girl named Esther. She has the ability to tame wild familiars with her magical harp. Actually taming familiars requires a bit of luck, but as long as you get into fights on a regular basis, your Familiar Retreat will eventually rival the Audubon or San Diego Zoo. It's as simple as beating the crap out of them and waiting to see if they get back up with hearts over their heads. Then, all you need to do is switch to Esther and Serenade them before they run away. Collecting and growing familiars is a joy, and it may even distract you from the main quest.

Do you have fond memories of the Golden Age of JRPGs? Are you a fan of Studio Ghibli's work? If you own a PlayStation 3 and can answer either of those questions in the affirmative, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a must-own.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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