Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was supposed to be my perfect game, yet I knew nearly nothing about it. The beautiful offspring between beloved Studio Ghibli of [insert every Ghibli production here] fame in the feature film world and proven Japanese game developer Level-5, I didn’t need extra information or exposure. With those attractive origins, anything else would be ancillary at best. It goes without saying that Ni no Kuni has long held the honorable position of my most anticipated game of 2013.
And after playing through the just-released PlayStation 3 demo, it’s a pity that’s no longer the case.
To provide a spoonful of context before being tossed into the very abbreviated downloadable trial, the demo opens with a short storybook explanation of the situation at hand. Oliver, a boy as immediately adorable as everything else Studio Ghibli has ever done, has recently lost his mother. By the means of nonsensical no-explanation-needed magical circumstances, though, his tears of longing bring his doll to life, revealing the creature to be Lord High Lord of the Fairies. Yes, dear reader, you did see the word Lord used twice in the same official title, and it certainly wasn’t a typo on anyone’s end. This blatant childhood silliness immediately brought a smile to my face, and the introduction to other kid-friendly names like the Ding Dong Dell and Deep Dark Wood made me believe that I had been correct all along in expecting perfection. In Oliver’s search in another world to save his mother from her tragic no-longer-final fate, my feelings toward Ni no Kuni would evolve from anticipation to delight, eventually culminating into an easy Game of the Year status.
But when I actually played it, everything changed.
I had barely begun to move around the carefully-crafted cartoony environment within the demo when I was confronted with a towering forest guardian. Being so early, I assumed this boss encounter would be a cakewalk and presumed to button-mash repeatedly. My mistake; I was dead in less than a matter of minutes. A fault of my own, for sure, but after retrying and exploring beyond this intimidating giant, I soon realized that I wasn’t enjoying even a second of my time. In a 25-minute demo, that straightforward fact is cause for alarm.
Having now experienced the thing in its entirely, consider myself alarmed.
To tighten in on the nitty-gritty, Ni no Kuni is a JRPG that takes advantage of a ton of traditional tropes characteristic of the genre. Traveling from location to important location, you’ll come across evil creatures to fight and helpful NPCs to speak to, all the while collecting items and leveling up. But Oliver isn’t the only one doing the leveling here. Rather, he acquires a team of little quirky-looking critters to beat the baddies for him. Think of the structure like Pokemon-lite, albeit with more active combat in fully-3D environments.
Emphasis on the “more” in that previous statement. You see, Ni no Kuni doesn’t incorporate truly active combat by the strict definition. Instead, it chooses the Final Fantasy XII-esque approach. Enemies inhabit the explored environment (although we might as well have random encounters, given my apparent impossibility at avoiding these buggers) and coming in contact with them transitions gameplay into a separate combat arena. Movement is completely free, yet all actions are dictated by shuffling through a limited list of options like “Attack”, “Defend”, or some special ability requiring MP. Pick whatever action is most appropriate for the situation at hand and the results are automated onscreen. If you’d like a repeat, wait a bit before that action is able to recharge.
Perhaps it’s entirely personal, but I didn’t like it in FFXII, and I don’t like it now.
My controlled character, be it a creature or Oliver himself, felt incredibly slow, and especially when considering the large, flat, and uninvolving battlescapes where you’re sent with every enemy encounter. As such, I had an incredibly hard time getting away from my attackers. With a combat system that requires strategy to some degree (see the aforementioned failed button-mashing from before for reference), this complaint is more than a minor note. When playing within the chunk of later-game content, I either accepted a reduced sliver or two of HP to overwhelm my adversaries with sword swipes or stayed stupidly far away from bosses for an absurd amount of time, always awaiting an opportune moment to safely engage. These moments rarely arrived, and I either ended up getting lucky or utterly destroyed.
Hey, at least it’s pretty, right? I mean, come on! Studio Ghibli! We’re talking Totoro and Spirited Away! Woo-hoo for the weird eye candy!
…Yeah, I guess it’s pretty. But not overly pretty. Not uniquely pretty, and surely not in that iconic Miyazaki way. I don’t even believe this disappointment is an issue on the design side, but an effect from the jump between entertainment media. In children’s film — even more so today with the rise of 3D animation — Studio Ghibli productions have always been distinctly different, always recognizable amongst other feature-length cartoons. Yet games like Dragon Quest (a few iterations of which, coincidentally, Ni no Kuni developer Level-5 also created) have been giving us goofy monsters for more years than I’ve been alive — literally! And I’m only naming one series in a sea of hundreds of others. Unlike the movie space, video games are no strangers to creatures with crazy appearances and varying designs, and Ni no Kuni will have some difficulty standing out as an extremely original sight to see.
But I still hold hope in my heart, and you should too.
Because a JRPG should never be viewed from a vertical slice. In these isolated instances, I have not nurtured my relationship with these characters. I cannot care about them or their cause. In other words, I’m unable to experience the core of every great game within the genre using only a quick demo. Additionally, I was roughly shoved into combat situations without any sort of tutorial and am likely lacking adequate knowledge to take advantage of every engaging battle aspect to devise a satisfying strategy. Still, impressions are impressions nonetheless, and this hour-or-so left enough of an impression on me to dethrone Ni no Kuni from its privileged position as my most anticipated title for 2013.
I wish to be wrong, to be pleasantly surprised when Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch lands stateside late next month. Until then, let’s set our expectations low to give the game ample opportunity to blow us all away.