Sunday, July 21, 2013

Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan
This is not the console generation for JRPG’s. After the Playstation 2 era, the presence of quality JRPG’s has receded from the mainstream. From the short lived support on the Xbox 360, to increased digitally distributed releases, to the shift over to mobile platforms, these elaborate full console games has since waned in the light of western titles such as The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect. But joining the small ranks of games such as Eternal Sonota and Xenoblade Chronicles, the minds behind the old classic Dark Cloud series and Nintendo’s handheld hits in the Professor Layton franchise, brings a significant addition to the JRPG genre with Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.
This significance that Ni No Kuni contributes is multifaceted. JRPG’s are known for their extravagant art directions, but this game sets itself apart with the famed Studio Ghibli’s soft yet expressive visual style. As childish as the aesthetical narrative may be, it effortlessly captures that Ghibli magic, able to engage anyone capable of withholding a youthful perspective and imagination. And as a game, it’s referential yet unique, pulling away from turn based and even Tales-style combat, and fuses Pokemon’s monster variety with a command based battle system.
Ni No Kuni’s presentation hits several high points. Its whimsicalness saturates the world, overflowing it with popping vibrancy that completes some of the truly magnificent locations from the imperial city of Hamilen to the claustrophobic yet cozy Fairygrounds. Its orchestral score is uplifting, and the voice acting -- when it’s there -- is jovial and endearing, even amongst some of its more dire moments.

Gorgeous fantasy.

Oliver’s quest to revive his late mother with the power of his new found wizardry is admirable, even adorable.  To fulfill his wish, he must cure the land of broken-heatedness and face the one who’s brought blackness to this world; the Dark Djinn. But the bits in between the story can be a chore to digest, especially if you’re not used to the chattiness of text heavy RPGs. While Level 5 and studio Ghibli have nailed the art and music, the voice acting is sparse, cutting in with only brief moments before returning to laborious reading that never really allows Ni No Kuni to stand as an interactive Ghibli project.
At no fault of the game, but rather my predisposition to haste, I found myself resorting to mashing the X button attempting to avoid the inexcusable amount of text-fluff, only then missing vital information needed to complete side quests. This over consumption doesn’t do any favors in its later stages as Oliver nears the end of his adventure. At times, Ni No Kuni can equally be a test of patience as well as imagination.
There is an overarching staple of innocence to the tone of Ni No Kuni. Any young child can relate to Oliver's quest to bring his mother back to life. The game also emphasizes the importance of human character through kindness, courage, love and ambition among several others, all in which are tangible and can be given to those who are lacking.
This light heartedness is fittingly matched by the game’s childlike language, with special moves such as “Upsey-Daisy” which revives unconscious enemies, and “Yoo-Hoo” which attracts all enemies’ attention to a single character. It's a cute, charming, and heartwarming game in a lot of ways, despite its clichés.

Cute and ugly at the same time.

Ni No Kuni, while the vibrant tone, consumable script, and frequent hand holding is geared towards children, challenges abound that match its complex battle system fittingly. Level 5's latest is one of the most brilliantly designed and rather important JRPG’s this generation.
The difference from hour one to hour fifteen is staggering. You’ll be introduced to the basics with Oliver trekking through his venture alone, battling with his wand and one familiar – the strange name for the monsters you collect and battle with. You’ll familiarize (that was not intentional) yourself with basic commands such as attack, defend and the use of special abilities all while having direct control of Oliver and the familiars he calls into battle. The game then eases you into using a second party member, and then a third, which turns simple exchanges of two individual opponents into complex battles with six units on the field that’s most reminiscent of Final Fantasy XII.
Here, the battle system proves to be an intensive trial of focus, micromanagement, and your ability to respond to rapid changes. Once the system's full gamut is at your fingertips, at its most challenging, you'll have to prep both your reflexes and your strategic battle awareness.
The battle system’s allows for nimble and immediate involvement, enabling you to jump in and react to the tide shifts in combat. To soften the blow of powerful and devastating attacks, you can -- and will often have to -- immediately cancel your offensive barrage and order your unit to defend. Familiars perform at their best so long as they’ still have stamina, so you’ll have to swap them out before paying a short inactive penalty. Dramatic spikes in the flow of battle will call for the participation of your entire team where you can initiate a team wide defense or attack order regardless of your party's activity. Ni No Kuni requires you to build swift and precise decision making skills in battle, all while it’s happening in real time.

Enter the fray.

Layers unravel themselves with multiple considerations. With a full party, you’ll be able to assign combat tactics that drive the basic behavior of your teammates. Attack the weakest enemy or the strongest. Use abilities for maximum effectiveness or put a restriction on using them to conserve MP. Provide basic backup, or be the designated healer when allies are in trouble.
Once assigned tasks, allies are largely capable of holding their own, regenerating health and even collecting HP and MP orbs when needed. But even though you’ll expectedly have to provide your human intervention, it becomes a problem when they don’t commit to direct commands, and having to deal with their reluctance to call back their familiars without letting their stamina run dry.
Familiars require a different angle of attention. Equipment customization is expected, but monitoring their stats and metamorph phase shows direct results in battle and becomes one of your top priorities. You can feed your crew of adorable monsters treats that will boost their status efficiency. I found myself conserving goodies to compensate for my familiars’ lack in, say, accuracy, and overpowering my front creature’s attack and defense so that they can more than hold their own in battle.
Ni No Kuni’s interesting take on the “evolution” aspect of your familiars demands more effort on your part. Once one of them reaches a certain level, they become “Metamophable”, which in English means ‘ready to evolve’. In order to complete the metamorphosis, you’ll have to feed them specific drops that are exclusive to their signs. Depending on how many familiars you metamorph, you may run low on a specific type of drop. In such circumstances, you’ll have to craft them or earn them through other means.
Capturing familiars happens almost purely by chance so long as Esther -- the only party member capable of recruitment -- is available. Once you give them a proper butt whooping, they may become impressed and susceptible to her Serenade ability, which works 100% of the time provided you don’t down the familiar, or allow it to change its mind and flee.
The catch here is that capturing familiars doesn’t happen very often which can discourage some from indulging in the natural collecting pass time expected in a game with full catalogue of different monsters. It’s a shame because on top of the rarity of recruiting familiars, all of the have two separate final forms to choose between. After maxing out my Mighty Might, I shuddered at the idea of long grinding sessions just to capture a second, and then training it to metamorph into its alter ego. Catching, training and growing your familiars is a much more complex system than your Pokemons and other monster gathering RPG’s.

Reminds you of that Pokemon poster you might have had in your room.

Side quests, appropriately dubbed Errands, hold your typical mundane tasks of ‘collect this’ and ‘kill that’ along with the game’s thematic exchange of characteristics – love, courage, etc -- to rid those you come by of their broken heart. Back tracking is required with Oliver’s ridiculous amount of one-time use and otherwise useless spells in tow, but trips aren’t as tedious as they could be as weaker enemies flee at your presence. But the incentive is more enticing than the tasks themself.
Along with reciprocated rewards of cash and items, you receive stamps for your Errand Cards. Each mission awards a certain amount stamps that complete Errand Cards, which then can be exchanged for special rewards. Errands exist if you’d like to earn a little bit extra, but I never felt that they were necessary to party development. This can be a good thing of you do not wish to contribute over 50 hours into this experience.
The Bottom Line
If you’re not ready to spend hours upon hours investing into a JRPG, then that may be the only reason why I’ll hesitate giving Nino Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch a full on recommendation; and that’s a very shaky ‘may-be’. It’s a heartwarming and beautiful JRPG that delivers enough charm to elicit a new experience. However, that novelty crystalizes in its revolutionary battle system, influenced by the best aspects in the genre. And because of that, it would be criminal for any die hard or passive fan of role playing games to miss the opportunity to play one of the best JRPG’s in years.
+ Endearing Ghibli artstyle
+ Robust battle system
+ Adorable premise
- A tad too text heavy

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