Mar 11, 2013

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Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Review

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What do you take when you mix the beauty and imagination of Studio Ghibli with the tried-and-true familiarity of the Dragon Quest games, add a splash of Pokémon, a dash of Zelda, and a hybrid turn-based, action battle system reminiscent of the Tales of series? Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a lengthy interactive fairytale JRPG for PS3.

Ni No Kuni was released in Japan originally as a DS game, bundled with a spellbook you could reference to draw the spells with your stylus, Okami style. While that game was never localized, hype and anticipation for the console counterpart were high. The game was delayed a few times, and upon release faced some controversy when the killer collector’s edition (the Wizard’s edition, which, among other things, included a hard copy of the Wizard’s Companion spellbook) faced shortages, meaning many who preordered not only didn’t receive their CE, they didn’t get the game, either.

Despite these issues, many still picked up the title, diving into the world of Oliver and Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies. Still, some wonder if the game was overhyped. Is it really a worthwhile experience, or is it hiding a shallow RPG beneath a beautiful, shiny presentation?

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch tells the story of Oliver (Ollie), a young boy from the town of Motorville, set some time in the 1950s, it seems. He lives with his mother, but due to a bit of mischief (and the interference of the evil Shadar from the Another World), his mother ends up dying as a result of saving his life. Devastated, Ollie cries over the strange doll his mother had made him, and his tears break the spell that had trapped Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies, bringing him back to life. Drippy soon explains how Oliver’s world is only one of many, and Drippy’s world is in danger of being destroyed by the evil wizard Shadar. It is up to Oliver (who of course has been fated as the pure-hearted one who can save Drippy’s world) to become a powerful wizard and defeat Shadar. Thus, Oliver and Drippy soon embark on an incredible journey.

I’ll be honest: I have mixed feelings about Ni No Kuni. I would love to start this review saying it simply blew me away and call it a must-play experience for every PS3 owner. However, as huge a fan I am of both Studio Ghibli and JRPGs (Dragon Quest in particular), my initial impressions of the game were lukewarm. Granted, the presentation is fantastic–most of the game is presented in a CGI mimicking Ghibli’s hand-drawn style, and though it is possible to tell the difference between the few (hand) animated cutscenes and the rest of the game, the world of Oliver and The Another World still look and play beautifully. One thing that impressed me from the beginning was how naturally Oliver moves through his environment–he leaps and hops over obstacles smoothly, and runs down stairs like you would expect a young boy to, instead of the usual stilted movement of a video game character. He and his companions even react to their environments to a certain extent–huddled over and shivering when you visit the cold northern islands (until you’re kitted up with warm winter wear).

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Likewise, the audio is excellent–the music is composed by Joe Hishaishi and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the voice acting–as to be expected–is on par with any other Ghibli film. However–and this was a huge disappointment for me–so little of the game is voiced, and there is a lot of dialogue. Before you get up in arms about how I’m just another one of those lazy gamers who hates to read, let me explain myself. First of all, I am OK without voice acting, and I am perfectly happy to read reams of text–if that text is worth reading. For example, Super Paper Mario is still one of my favorite games of this generation, even though it had no voice acting (well, it had gibberish voices) and tons and tons of text. But the story was engaging and the text was funny and interesting.

Ni No Kuni‘s issue is complicated by several factors. First, because it’s a Ghibli production, in a sense, you expect full voice acting. Second, the way the voice acting is used is disorienting and strange–sometimes a single word and then the rest is text, even in cutscenes. I would have expected at least to have fully voiced cutscenes, even if the rest of the game was text only, but this isn’t the case. Third, there is so much text, and it feels like it most of the time. As an editor, I really wanted to take my red pen and just slash about half of it as unnecessary. When the writing is on, it’s on–and Drippy in particular is endearing–but this game often suffers from a serious case of not understanding that sometimes “less is more.”

The Japanese audio track is included, which you have the option of installing and using in-lieu of the English, which is always a nice feature. However, I wonder if this option meant having less overall voiced dialogue? If so, I personally would have preferred having to download the Japanese audio from the PSN store separately in order to have more voiced sections. It’s a minor niggle in the end, but it also means the game will likely be far less playable for younger gamers, which is also a huge disappointment.

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About Rebecca Quintana

Currently playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I've fallen in love with twitter; follow me if you're interested in some good game-, writing-, or book-related conversation: @rrquinta.