Studio Ghibli and Level-5's beautiful JRPG finally makes it to Western shores, but has anything been lost in translation?
Published on Jan 15, 2013
Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch and its Studio Ghibli art design are working proof that there's life in the JRPG yet.
For a few years now Western developed action RPGs, such as BioWare's Mass Effect series, have combined story, character and stunning visual design to create worlds that just begged to be explored leaving many to criticise the JRPG of stagnating, relying on predictable characters, predictable stories and, ultimately, predictable games to try and compete.
With Ni No Kuni Level-5 and Studio Ghibli prove that it might not be the JRPG format itself that's been stagnating, but Japanese storytelling itself.
And that's really Studio Ghibli's speciality and exactly what makes Ni No Kuni such a joy to play. Like with many of Studio Ghibli's animated movies Ni No Kuni deals with complex characters and thier perception of the world and how it (and life) can change in an instant.
In the same way that Spirited Away's Chihiro Ogino is thrust into a fantasy world as her parents transform into slavering pigs, Ni No Kuni's protagonist, Oliver, finds himself walking into a bright fantasy world, only his mother's transformation is far more traumatic.
Oliver becomes an orphan after his mother dies saving him from drowning and it's the tears he sheds as he mourns the death of his only parent that brings to life a childhood toy that sends him on his fantastic journey.
Oliver's doll, hand-made by his mother, springs to life and exclaims in a terrific broad Welsh accent that he is Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies and there is a way of saving his mother.
It's not hard to see why Studio Ghibli's art work is so highly praised.
And so, in slightly less than conventional JRPG fashion, Oliver's journey to become a wizard, save the world and save his mother begins.
In a gameplay sense what follows is a largely traditional JRPG, too. It's been emboldened in intelligent ways by Studio Ghibli's character and world design that simply makes many of the conventional JRPG mechanics feel fresh and much more inviting than they have done in the past.
Becoming a wizard isn't easy for Oliver, but under Drippy and the Wizard's Companion's guidance spells quickly form a central part of pushing Ni No Kuni's story forward.
Unlike the Japanese DS original (not to mention Japanese the PS3 port), the English language version comes complete with a digital version of the Wizard's Companion.
It's in here that you'll see many of the spells that would have originally required to be hand-drawn with the DS's stylus, but now you're reduced to selecting them at the appropriate times.
The spells form a central part of the problem-solving Oliver is tasked with throughout his adventures and though Ni No Kuni's skin is wrapped around the JRPG framework, it's such a beautiful and well-conceived skin it's easy to work with the game.
Oliver travel's the world, meeting new people, pushing the story forward in a largely linear fashion with the only chance at digression through side-quests that only offer simple distractions.
What impresses the most about Ni No Kuni is the fabulous world in which it takes place and the central story of Oliver and his friends as they battle the evil that grips both Oliver and Drippy's worlds.
This well-developed storytelling should really come as no surprise give the pedigree of Studio Ghibli, but when everything has a natural order and an explanation, it's easy to get caught up in Oliver's struggles.
The world from which Drippy hails is connected to Oliver's in many ways. Each character he encounters has a 'Soul Mate' within the real world and many of the games more complex puzzles task you with traversing back and forth between the two worlds.
Combat's fast and frantic, but comes with its own unique set of problems.
Oliver's relationship with this new world opens his eyes to his grief, but equally gives him hope (potentially false) that saving his mother's Soul Mate will bring her back to life.
Ni No Kuni's story is beautifully told through a mixture of Studio Ghibli's traditional animation and Level-5 in-game cutscenes.
There's not quite as much animation as you'd expect with most of the game relying on the game's engine to relay its story, but this isn't a bad thing considering how stunning the actual game looks.
In fact, Studio Ghibli's cinematic moments are sprinkled rather sparingly throughout Ni No Kuni, but it is testament to Level-5's in-game designs that the two meld seamlessly.
With Oliver's child's eye-view of the world painting a colourful and yet seemingly harmless vision, Ni No Kuni perfectly captures the essence of Studio Ghibli's films.
But, this is still a traditional JRPG and as such it brings with it many familiar issues that Japanese developers have been dealing with for years now.
Combat for instance, and the insistence of levelling up, are core tenets of the JRPG and here Level-5 finds an interesting balance between action and strategy that only marginally misses the mark with a few irritations.
Like any half-decent wizard, Oliver relies on magic and 'Familiars' to fight in battle for him. Familiars are parts of a person's heart or creatures so impressed with your battle prowess that they can be convinced to join your ranks.
As such, battles are given a Pokemon twist as you eye-up potential fighters to be converted to an ever-growing arsenal.
This is Drippy, possibly the best videogame character for some time. Plus, he's Welsh.
Levelling-up is central but, unlike many RPGs, whenever Oliver does gain a level his stats automatically increase with the bulk of the customisation occurring in the paths and tweaks you choose to apply to your Familiars.
With three characters eventually filling up your party, and with each character bringing with them three Familiar's slots, the decisions you make here can really make a difference.
The system ultimately begins to feel limited. Though you can have a number of different Familiars, the fact that they can only 'Metomorphise' a maximum of three times (increasing their level cap after a brief reset) means there's only so much that can be done with them.
The true breadth to the combat comes with the number of Familiars you get through to the final evolutionary stages and what they can do for you in battle, but its simplicity can feel rigid.
It's not the only problem you'll face with the combat, though. With three characters to jump between and unreliable AI, depending on your companions during a fight can hamper your progress.
Micro-managing becomes unrealistic when all you really need to do is focus your attacks on an enemy's weak point. When relying on Oliver's skills to block and parry attacks is the only thing you can count on, the later battles that prove a real challenge can end up feeling unfair.
Never mind the frustrations that can arise from characters failing to move through a hectic battlefield or becoming stuck underneath a larger foe's feet.
As in many JRPGs boss battles will test your skills and believe us, they will test you.
But these a trifling criticisms in the grand scheme of things; Ni No Kuni and its translation from Japanese into English is a real triumph and it's only now that the game has been finished that it's understandable why it has taken quite so long.
Written dialogue, of which the game primarily relies on, has been given a stunning treatment.
With characters, like the Welsh-tongued Drippy, pulling Oliver and the player through such a striking world, it's proof that taking the time to treat a translation with the care and attention it deserves can pay dividends.
Ni No Kuni's storybook style, wonderful characters and traditional gameplay focus on Japan's strengths. This is a JRPG with Studio Ghibli's blood running through its veins and though you might baulk at the idea of grinding or question Level-5's decision to make you wade through so much written dialogue, Ni No Kuni makes the journey more than worth the effort and deserves a captive, thankful and willing audience.
8.5 / 10
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8.5 / 10
A stunning JRPG, Ni No Kuni's brilliant art design, loveable characters, decent battle system and compelling story are reasons enough to return to the JRPG.