When I first heard that Level-5 and Studio Ghibli were teaming up to make a JRPG in all sense of the acronym, I thought the following: wow, so awesome, but never gonna reach the States. But here I am, covering the first hour of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Call me surprised, call me ecstatic.
To start, I am a huge fan of what both companies produce, ever since seeing Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Spirited Away (still haven’t seen Ponyo or Arrietty yet, wah) and losing myself in the wonder that is Miyazaki’s limitless imagination. On the flipside, Level-5 has been in my life for many years now, giving me fantastic timesinks like Dark Cloud 2, Dragon Quest VIII, Rogue Galaxy (yes, I enjoyed Rogue Galaxy, so back off), and more recently the Professor Layton puzzle games. Level-5 is great at stuffing games with things to do, and Studio Ghibli’s strength is in telling a story where rules do not apply, and together it seems like they could create something powerfully wonderful. Maybe even take over the world. I love what these companies do so much that I purposely went out and bought a PlayStation 3 to play Ni no Kuni.
With that heavy bias out of the way now, let’s see what I think of their joint concoction.
00 – Technically, before I can begin playing Ni no Kuni, I have to sit through ten minutes of “language selection” data installation for the PlayStation 3. After that’s run its course, I select NEW GAME, choose the NORMAL difficulty setting, and drop right into a stunning cutscene of a young boy and a strange critter being run down by a herd of bizarre beasts. They are unharmed, and as they come to the top of a hill overlooking a boundless landscape, the little boy says, “So, this is your world?”
01 – The game’s somewhat leggy title then takes over the screen, and we’re given the credits up front, first for Studio Ghibli and then for Level-5. Events and characters to come are forecast behind all the names.
03 – We’re now in a little town called Motorville. It immediately reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle, which is not a bad thing to be reminded of. Oliver, the young boy from the intro scene, is picking up groceries from Leila’s Milk Bar. Once outside, his friend Phil beckons to him eagerly from down the street.
04 – That in-game cutscene dissipates seamlessly. In control of Oliver now, but instead of running right over to Phil, I take my time and explore what I can of the small street. It really does feel like you are inside a Studio Ghibli film, with fluid animations and a fantastic sense of color everywhere. There are several locals to chat with. Seems like Phil and Oliver are planning to take something out for a test drive tonight; my bet is it’s a car. However, the curtain is pulled back a bit, and it’s revealed that Oliver is being watched from elsewhere, with some mysterious and grim-voiced woman deeming him “the boy who will save the world.” She doesn’t sound too happy about that.
08 – New task—head home to Ma!
10 – Again, when given the chance to explore, I will explore. Sorry, Ma. This section of Motorville is not huge, but there’s enough side streets and wandering locals to speak with to keep me looking. However, due to the nature of hand-drawn art for set pieces, a few camera angles are the kind of awkward where you can’t even see Oliver anymore. Back at home, Ma makes Oliver some breakfast—eggs and bacon!—and he tries to be smooth and see what she’s up to tonight since he has to sneak out later.
12 – Fast-forward to nighttime! The game lets me know with a pop-up message and chipper chime that I can now use the MAIN MENU option. Oh sweet.
13 – Right. It’s night, Mom’s asleep, and Oliver is off to sneak over to Phil’s garage. This is really just a short run around the corner.
15 – I was right. Phil and Oliver have been working on a race car of their own, and it seems like every nut and bolt is finally in place, ready for a moonlit excursion. Before they can drive it, Oliver must check that the coast is clear and the streets are empty of big folks. Phil also warns him to watch out for Starey Mary, a young girl who is constantly spying on him from her upstairs window across the street.
17 – While checking to see if all is clear, Oliver runs into a mysterious green-haired girl who is dressed oddly. She says some ominous words like “don’t do it,” but then Phil shows up, and the girl disappears, making Oliver seem like a total loon.
18 – However, that woman watching him—who I have to assume is the White Witch, but her birdy cohort calls Your Radiance—places a curse on the car from afar. That’s…not good.
19 –Suddenly, back at home, Mom wakes up and discovers Oliver is missing. Double trouble, if you know what I mean.
23 – Well, that was some dire happenings. All told via gorgeously animated cutscenes, of course. First, the race car goes forward for a little bit before losing a wheel and crashing into the river. Oliver is struggling to stay afloat, but his helmet is weighing him down. Phil tries to get to him, but trips down a hill, leaving the task to Mom, who is out on the hunt anyways. She dives in and pulls Oliver to safety, but unfortunately suffers a heart attack right after. Cut to a hospital bedroom, and Mom says goodbye to her son as it rains heavily outside...
27 – Upset, Oliver now sits in his room and justifiably cries. His tears touch a little doll that his mom gave to him, magically bringing it to life. Evidently his name is Drippy, High Lord of the Fairies, and he has a fantastically thick Welsh accent. Thank goodness for subtitles. Also, turns out Oliver has a cat named Timmy, which is the same name as my cat. Love it. Anyways, Drippy now fills Oliver in on who is he and how he came to be and what they ultimately need to do. Turns out, there are parallel worlds, and if they can save the duplicate of Oliver’s mom in that world, it might just bring her back in this world. Yeah, seems plausible.
32 – But first, we have to retrieve a magical spellbook from the fireplace.
33 – This spellbook is called the Wizard’s Companion. Drippy explains for a bit. It’s basically a book of Important Stuff, capable of holding your spells and other vital tidbits. I expect to reference it a lot during Oliver’s travels.
35 – Now that Oliver has the Wizard’s Companion, we’re closer to getting to Drippy’s world and starting this mother-saving adventure. The second item we need is a wand, or at least something close to being wand-like. Drippy says I should look for something “brown and sticky.” Um…no.
37 – Exploring the ups and downs of Motorville, but coming up empty on wands. That mysterious green-haired ghost girl makes another appearance, apologizing for being unable to save Oliver’s mom. She vanishes when Drippy reappears, leaving behind a wand for Oliver. Also, Drippy asked Oliver if he was okay with him being his sidekick, not getting the answer he wanted.
41 – Armed with both book and wand, Drippy and Oliver head to Motorville’s town square to cast the Gateway spell, which will transport them to Drippy’s world. There are plenty of humans around, but evidently they can’t see magic due to their lameness, though dogs totally can. The Gateway spell creates some steps and a hallway of blinding light, which brings us…
43 – …right back to that beginning intro scene, with the wild herd of ulk running down Oliver and Drippy!
44 – After the ulk run away, a different type of beast remains behind, looking for a fight. Forty-four minutes into Ni no Kuni, we experience our first battle. Combat is a mix of menus and real time-based, with Oliver running around enemies, but still issuing commands like “attack” and “defend”. This fight is rather simple, but I can see things getting much more complicated down the line, with a lot of menu managing happening at the same time as the action does. Afterwards, Drippy says we should go to Ding Dong Dell—yes, that’s a place—and see if the king can give Oliver a real wand.
48 – We’re now on the overworld map, which has the camera pulled back very far. Enemies are visible, but still really hard to see because of this. Couldn’t figure out if I could change the camera or not. At least there’s no random battles, something I’ve grown to dislike over the years. Games like Chrono Trigger and Dragon Quest IX really spoiled me on this. Oh, and Drippy gives Oliver three loaves of bread, which can replenish HP if the situation gets desperate. Anyways, Ding Dong Dell is visible right down the road, so it’s only a short, uneventful walk over.
50 – Well, we can’t get into Ding Dong Dell just yet. Seems like one of the guards is not himself, and without him, the gate won’t go up. Drippy suggests we then head to the Deep Dark Wood—yes, that’s a place—to see “an old man” for advice. Off we go.
53 – Whereas Ding Dong Dell was close, the woods are far. This gave me many chances to learn how to avoid monsters, but they are pretty fast when the spot you, and so I got to fight a few more battles, which are still basic. Attack until the monsters are dead. Oliver gained a level though, boosting all the usual stats.
55 – All right, found the Deep Dark Wood, which sports a bonus subtitle of “the Forest of Fairy Tales.” It’s lush and green and filled with some excitingly fresh plant designs. You can see Studio Ghibli’s child-like imagination here clearly, and it’s a joy to behold, as well as move through. At the beginning of the Deep Dark Wood is a save spot, as you can’t save anywhere when inside levels like this. Also, the save spot restores HP and MP whenever you use it, which will surely help with grinding down the road.
57 – Chasing after Drippy. Turns out that “old man” he wanted Oliver to meet is actually…an old tree. Which can talk. Not gonna call it an Ent, as it looks more like a duck’s face merged with a tree. He’s got a great booming voice, and Drippy has some adorable styles for him, such as Your Tallship and Your Barkship.
60 – Regardless, the tree does help out by providing a new page for the Wizard’s Companion, a spell called Form Familiar. What’s a familiar? Well, a bit like a Pokemon actually, and this spell allows Oliver to summon one from his very own heart. The one I got looks like a small, orange goblin, and you can give them nicknames, but I stuck with the default, which is Mitey. They can help Oliver out in combat, which I just begin to learn about as the first hour of Ni no Kuni comes to a close.
Minutes to Action: 4 for controlling Oliver, and 44 for baby’s first combat
What I loved: The fusing of two great elements, like peanut butter and chocolate. Studio Ghibli’s visuals and Level-5’s mechanics for this case. Everything in-game moves fluidly too, and there are a ton of tiny details to really immerse yourself in the world. Like when Oliver runs near Drippy, he’ll sometimes knock the High Lord of the Fairies over. Or when you walk near NPCs, you can pick up small bits of their dialogue before speaking with them. There are a lot of systems at work already, but the main menu has everything categorized well and easy to dive into. Also, bottles of iced coffee restore magic points—just like in real life!
What I hated: Nothing so far. The opening hour is a bit heavy on story and set-up, with Drippy’s long explanations of every system vital, but maybe not needed just yet. There are some obvious JRPG clichés at work here, but I’m more curious to see if Studio Ghibli and Level-5 use them like every other game developer or spin them around on us.
Would I keep playing? Oh, yes, absolutely. This adventure is literally only just beginning, and I played for maybe another thirty minutes more after the first hour concluded and was able to get inside Ding Dong Dell, which opens up a number of side quests and things to do. Oliver got some new clothes, too, so he fits in better and can visit the king properly. Right now, I have many options, such as helping a kitty person find flowers for her shop, hunting down a specific beast in the wild, or figuring out what’s wrong with the king. I am definitely going to keep playing; I just worry more that I won’t have enough of the time this game needs to be fully experienced.