Outside of an exception like Xenoblade Chronicles on Wii, almost all of the RPGs I play are on handhelds. Even games like Final Fantasy VII and Persona 4 found their way into my hands because of PlayStation Vita. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, though originally a DS game, is the first console JRPG I’ve played in some time, and after drilling through it, I can’t help but wonder why these kinds of games don’t come out as much anymore.
The story follows a boy named Oliver, a friendly kid who, after a tragic family event leaves him lonely and depressed, accidentally triggers a magic spell that summons a colorful fairy named Mr. Drippy. Mr. Drippy, in his cartoonish Welsh demeanor, convinces Oliver to come to a parallel world to save it while potentially reversing the great tragedy he endured.
When Oliver visits this world, he discovers that it is a magical, medieval version of his own, and in which each person is a parallel version of a person in Oliver’s. The plot, while well-written and filled with wonderful characters, is very much an RPG plot. There are spells, there is “the chosen one” (guess who that is!), there is an evil wizard, and much more. This is great though, because seeing a fresh take on a plot many of us know well carries a warm familiarity to it.
The game itself, like many JRPGs, is split between overworld, town, and dungeon. The overworld is simple enough: fight monsters, find treasure, and explore the zoomed out landscape of this vibrant world. While the overworld itself isn’t that deep, its function is to connect the player between towns and battle areas like dungeons, and it’s very effective in that sense.The locales are varied between volcano, desert, plains, and much more, so an overworld that is this big and vibrant is practically necessary to make the game feel like the journey that it is.
Towns, meanwhile, are the same colorful towns you’ve seen in games before. There are shops, there are sidequests, there’s an inn, and there’s a castle or something that makes it unique and connects it to the rest of the story. They all have unique characters (like a town filled with anthropomorphic talking cats) and an interesting setting, so the obvious inspiration Ni No Kuni is taking is much more a positive than a negative.
Dungeons, as you may expect, are where you fight, progress the story, and fight bosses. Not to sound like a broken record, but Ni No Kuni, once again, fills a part of the game with all of the tropes you can think of. Expect clever puzzles, semi-linear corridors, hidden treasure boxes, lots of random encounters, and a predictable open area where a super-hard boss can be fought. Despite familiarity, they’re all fun in their own ways. One cool dungeon is less of a dungeon, but actually an area where Oliver and his accomplice must prove their prowess as a wizard. To do so, they need to go through a test of friendship, a test of brains, and ultimately a test of brawn (against the boss). Likewise, the bosses are all very well-designed mammoths, with their own attacks, tricks, and even elusive weaknesses.
While much of the game feels inspired by JRPGs, the combat is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Almost like a combination between Xenoblade and Pokémon, Oliver (and his companions that you meet throughout the story) can move freely inside the battle area. While Oliver and co. can use magic, items, guard, and basic attacks, he isn’t that strong by himself. To remedy this, Oliver gains access to familiars, Pokémon-like creatures (which you are originally given, but others can be befriended in the wild) which have a range of unique abilities and strong attacks. What makes this different from the other monster catching series is that familiars share the same life bar as their owner, so reckless attacking isn’t permitted. Furthermore, they each have a stamina meter that becomes depleted as they are used, and as such, making effective use of your familiars is key.
The leveling system is even more interesting. While traditionally divided, experience gained after battle by one user is distributed equally to everyone, regardless of whether they are used or not. Even cooler is that familiars, after leveling up enough, can actually evolve into stronger monsters with better moves like their Nintendo brethren.
The mantra of taking inspiration from the classics further spreads to the gameplay. As a very traditional JRPG in many ways, leveling, grinding, and exploration are the keys to surviving. It hearkens back to a simpler time when RPGs were charming grindfests where the difficulty got so high that we could only come back to the game each and every day to grind a bit more and try fighting the boss again. This game has a lot of that. Expect to fight enemies and bosses that completely kick your ass and break your spirit, inevitably requiring you to rise above the challenge and grind until you overcome (and feel immense satisfaction). If you are more familiar with more forgiving, modern RPGs, you might want to stay away from this game. Even with two difficulties (Easy and Normal), and having a very easy introductory ten hours, the difficulty ramps up immensely around hour 15 or 20, and shows its true colors. If this sounds as good to you as it does to me, then you’ll be in hog heaven.
Adding to the presentation is a wonderful soundtrack and art style. The soundtrack, orchestrated entirely by Joe Hisaishi and the Tokyo Philharmonic, the soundtrack is packed with pieces that are memorable, beautiful, and even quite catchy. And as you may know, Studio Ghibli (of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and other such memorable films) had a heavy hand in the art direction. As such, the game looks like a living-breathing anime. While the rendered cutscenes look vibrant and fantastic, Ghibli also included many cutscenes in their traditional hand-drawn style, which look similarly great.
And yet, for all of the stuff Ni no Kuni does that is unoriginal, everything is done with such quality and freshness that I can’t even see it in a negative light. If you like role-playing games that are reminiscent of a time when the difficulty was the reward and the characters had character, pick this game up. You won’t be disappointed.