In spite of how it is both the game’s visual presentation and the presence of Studio Ghibli that ought to attract many players towards Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, that audience is likely to discover there is far more to the title than those two elements
Oliver is a young boy who lives in the tiny town of Motorville, a place that is absolutely fictional but that looks a whole lot like a standard American town from the 1940s. Raised by a single mother, his life features all the staples one would expect out of the routine of a kid that has his age and that is part of such a quiet community: adventures in the neighborhood alongside his closest friends, encounters with the local adults whenever he runs errands, and the desire to break a few silly rules every once in a while. And it is precisely because of that last item that the adventure presented by Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is set into motion whilst Oliver is pulled into a world that is considerably more fantastic than the one in which he was born.
One night, the boy decides to sneak out of the house as his mother is asleep in her bedroom. His best friend, Philip, has built a stylish car in the comfort of his garage, and the two of them decide to give it a try during the hours in which Motorville is silent. Selected to be the vehicle’s first driver, Oliver speeds through the dirt roads of the town until, not too long after the start of his test run, the car suddenly steers to the side and the kid falls into the river. Unable to swim, Oliver is about to drown when his mother – who had woken up from a nightmare to find her son’s room empty – bursts into the scene, throws herself into the water, and rescues the boy. Due to her weak heart, however, and just as Oliver is regaining consciousness, she falls to the ground with intense chest pains, is quickly taken to the hospital, and dies a few days later.
Left totally alone in the world, Oliver cries over his favorite doll, which had been made and gifted to him by his deceased mother. Miraculously, the toy springs to life as it is touched by the boy’s tears; claiming to go by the name of Drippy, and boasting the wordy title of Lord High Lord of the Fairies, the creature says it comes from a parallel world in which Shadar, an evil wizard, has risen to power. Moreover, it states that, given the effect of his tears, which freed Drippy from a slumber imposed on him by the villain, Oliver must be the pure-hearted one: the person destined to defeat Shadar.
As Drippy urges Oliver to accept the daunting quest, the soon-to-be-hero refuses the proposal: he does not know much about magic, the recent loss of his mother has left him broken, and he doubts much of what the fairy says. He is swayed, however, when Drippy reveals to him a curious fact about the nature of the world where Shadar rules and the realm where Oliver lives: every person in one dimension has a soul-mate in the other, and since the boy’s mother looks exactly like Alicia, a mighty sorceress whose soul was imprisoned by Shadar, the Lord High Lord of the Fairies says that if Oliver saves Alicia, that could somehow work towards bringing his mother back from the dead. At that point, the kid promptly accepts the quest and Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch gets underway.
From a certain perspective, Wrath of the White Witch checks all the boxes of what makes a JRPG qualify as such. Nearly all items are present: a progression that is mainly fomented by plot developments; scenarios that, despite the occasional tiny branches, are as linear as possible; trips via a scaled-down overworld that connects towns with other major locations; and a gameplay that, outside of the battlefield, is centered around walking, meeting new people, and solving very occasional and basic puzzles that involve casting the right spell that will allow Oliver and his crew to overcome certain obstacles, which may range from a river of lava that can only be crossed if a bridge shows up or a fellow human that needs some sort of help. At the same time, though, the game puts a good amount of effort towards ridding itself from some of the genre’s vices.
Although, at many points, Wrath of the White Witch is rather obvious regarding what needs to be done next, there is an almost equal amount of points in which it leaves players some room to figure out the mysteries for themselves. It is true that, on its standard configuration, a star on the map will always display where the heroes need to go to in order to advance; yet, since the menu allows users to toggle the marker on and off as they see fit, those looking to sprinkle their experience with some exploration (at times inside a whole town or area, and occasionally across the entire world) will be able to do just that.
To boot, the game also sports a clever battle system that does some thinking outside of the traditional turn-based box. Taking place in real-time fashion, the combats have Oliver and his adventure partners – not more than two – freely roam around a decently-sized battlefield. The decision to give them such power does not go to waste; it is, in fact, vital in various ways, as it adds movement to the variables that players need to have under their control. Firstly, because it is by moving that melee attacks can be avoided; secondly, due to how positioning is key in giving heroes enough space to safely cast spells or use provisions; finally, for as enemies are hit, they drop orbs that, if picked up, can recover magic, life, and even trigger special attacks.
During those encounters, gamers select the move they want to make (which may be to do a standard attack, unleash magic, use an item, or defend) from an always-visible and appropriately cartoonish menu of balloons located on the bottom-left of the screen. Once active, the chosen action will be performed during a specific window of time, which can be interrupted by players whenever they want; and when that period is either done or cut short, a brief cool-down interval will have to pass before the move can be selected again, which does boost the title’s strategic value somewhat, especially because if attacks land just as a foe is getting ready to make its move or if incoming blows are blocked timely, there is a chance the bad guys will be stunned or even drop the coveted golden orb that powers special attacks.
Since, at any time, gamers will only be able to have control over one character, which can be switched with the press of a button, a handy in-battle strategy menu is available to let them determine what their partners will do, a configuration that includes attacking, defending, healing, and doing whatever it is they want. Fortunately, Oliver’s friends are pretty good at making decisions and, in a turn that is rather rare for games that go for a battle system that relies on friendly AI, Wrath of the White Witch is rather competent at making players feel like their artificial fellows are doing their best.
Furthermore, since a few regular enemies and all of the quest’s dozens of very good bosses tend to possess attacks – preceded by obvious cues – that hit all targets simultaneously, commands (triggered by the X and Y buttons) that tell all partners to either attack or defend are also present. On a tiny sour note, though, they are only introduced a few hours into the game and after a handful of battles in which they would have been useful.
Truth be told, Oliver and his human companions do not pack much of a punch outside of their magic-powered moves. As such, the stars of the show when it comes to battles are not the protagonists themselves, but the three creatures that each one can carry. Called familiars, the comparisons between them and the slightly famous beings that go by the name of Pokémon are inevitable and almost infinite: they are the enemies found in the wild and, once tamed, they join Oliver’s party as allies; if players capture more creatures than they can hold, they can store the excess in a centralized system that can be accessed from many points in the world; they evolve when they reach a certain level threshold and are put in contact with the right stones; they have types, and each type has its advantages and weaknesses; they gain new skills as they level up; and there are more than 300 of them.
Surely, there are points in which the familiars could have been improved. For starters, as they change forms, their shifts in design – though at times amusing – are not as significant as those of most Pokémon. More importantly, the form in which they are captured could have been better implemented, as it entails draining the creature’s energy and praying for the small chance that they will be infatuated with the heroes, which will then give Esther, Oliver’s female companion, an opportunity to sing them a lullaby that is guaranteed to make them switch allegiance. Yet, the value that familiars bring to the table is too big.
Registered on a creature compendium, they are sure to lure some players into going after the full completion of the list. Additionally, given nine of them can be deployed for any battle, the room for party customization that they give to Wrath of the White Witch is just utterly delightful. At last, all familiars have a stamina bar that determines they can only be used for thirty straight seconds before being forced to rest for a short while; although standard skirmishes rarely last longer than that, therefore making such a limitation useless in those cases, in duels against mighty bosses that feature means gamers will be forced into cycling through the familiars at their disposal, which turns having good knowledge over the strengths and weak points of each creature into a must.
More than being about solid matters such as a pleasantly sized world with many interesting locations, hundreds of tamable creatures, segments of genuine exploration, an interesting battle system, and numerous moments that fall into the JRPG tradition of linear progression, Wrath of the White Witch is mostly about something far more intangible; for it thrives on the sheer force of its heart. And even if there are quite a few games out there that also display a similar noble trait, in the case of Ni No Kuni that statement is specially valid because it is true in more than one way.
On a front that is plainly visible even to those that have never gone through Wrath of the White Witch, there is the subject of the absolutely lovely presentation that accompanies the entirety of Oliver’s quest. The soundtrack, of such a beautiful and clean scale that it could only have been recorded by an actual full orchestra; the graphics, of a cell-shaded colorfulness that treads on the most wide-eyed spectrum of the cartoonish; and the story, of a seamless junction between dire reality and escapist fantasy all meet at the pure innocence of child-like wonder. Wrath of the White Witch can be sad; it can be dark; it can be highly emotional; and it can be heart-wrenching, but it is throughly underlined by the playful absurd, as while in one world it deals with death and hopelessness, in the other it puts Oliver face to face with ridiculous figures such as goofy cat king.
Consequently, it merges characters like a Lord High Lord of the Fairies that is prone to constant jokes and talks in a heavy Welsh accent with the desperately uncertain quest for the resurrection of a dead parent by her young and lonely child under the same umbrella with impeccable smoothness and a high degree of sensitivity. It is an achievement that, in turn, makes it quite appropriate that the game features plenty of hand-drawn cutscenes animated by Studio Ghibli, which houses a team of artists that is not only accustomed to matching the visually grotesque and the purely beautiful, but that is also very delicate in balancing what is devastating and what is magical.
Wrath of the White Witch is, however, also about heart because it is on that part of the body that a good portion of its gameplay is based. As it turns out, during many points in the quest, Oliver’s progress will be stopped because he will come across characters that, as victims of Shadar, have had their hearts broken, which means that an essential positive slice of their spirit – such as courage, ambition, kindness, and a few others – has been taken away by the wizard, leaving them as shadows of their former selves. In those instances, the heroes generally have two courses of action to take: in some situations, they must borrow the stolen quality from someone that has it to spare so that Oliver can transfer it to the zombie-like target of Shadar; in others, though, they must travel between worlds (that is, back to Motorville) to find the soul-mate of the person that is in trouble, because – as explained by Drippy – what goes in one dimension affects the other.
From a plot standpoint, the two types of tasks are interesting, for other than diving into sweet bits of character development, they show a boy that ought to be broken by the tragedy that struck him doing his best to fix those in distress. However, quests of the second sort tend to be some of the finest moments of Ni No Kuni, as they find clever ways to integrate the two worlds in which the story unfolds. It is unfortunate, then, that there are not more of them, as at times – especially during a few points when the script is not evolving significantly and the protagonists are going through lengthy stretches of walking and battling – it feels Wrath of the White Witch could have used a few events to shake it all up; just like it could have employed the vast collection of spells that Oliver has in his arsenal to give the adventure a wider array of puzzles.
Still, none of the complaints that can be directed at the game have much impact, for Wrath of the White Witch is very well-done in pretty much all aspects. Its thirty-hour quest has a very balanced level of challenge, and it even allows players to switch between the normal and easy difficulties whenever they want. In addition, that gameplay time can be easily expanded whether it is by going after all familiars or by engaging in the title’s many quests, which make up for not being entirely creative in format (as they vary from killing enemies, collecting goods, or taking pieces of heart to those who need them) by being backed up by a very alluring reward system; one that has players accumulating points which can then be traded for numerous extra abilities that include a few very useful skills.
In spite of how it is both the game’s visual presentation and the presence of Studio Ghibli that ought to attract many players towards Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, that audience is likely to quickly discover there is far more to the title than those two elements. Even if firmly grounded on some of the genre’s traditions, it is an RPG that puts considerable effort into not falling victim to them, and it succeeds in that regard via a charming battle system boosted by thousands of party-building possibilities, the character development it unearths in the interactions between its two worlds, and – most of all – in the fantastic synergy between the hearts of its plot and spirit, which gives support to an adventure that delicately merges fantasy with reality; humor with tragedy; despair with hope; and what is violent enough to bring devastation with that is pure enough to deliver restoration.