When “Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch" was announced as a collaboration between the famed Studio Ghibli and respected developer Level-5, my eyes lit up. Level-5's hits take classic gameplay systems and turn them inside out, while Studio Ghibli's films journey through fantastical lands with breathtaking visuals and deep life lessons. For months now, my imagination has been overflowing with “Ni No Kuni's" possibilities — but the reality doesn't match up to its potential. “Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch" is a respectable experience, but it's far from a Ghibli or Level-5 masterpiece.
“Ni No Kuni" transports you between a real world and a fantastical one, the heart and soul of the game. It has childlike wonder around every bend — mushrooms grow as staircases, animals rule kingdoms, and Ghibli-inspired monsters meld creativity into every encounter. The vast environments have stunning visuals, and you're rewarded with a ship for sea exploration and eventually your very own dragon to control.
Sadly, the story and characters don't have the same allure as the world. Because Studio Ghibli's name is attached to it, I was expecting strong characterization and narrative. Unfortunately, characters have a dearth of personality and exist only to help the main character, Oliver. The one stand-out is Mr. Drippy, Oliver's stuffed-toy-turned-sidekick, who has a quip for every occasion. Even he starts to feel like a one-trick pony, though. Oliver's journey to give his mother life again should be an emotional one, yet it doesn't tackle the complexity of the situation in any profound way. Instead, the dialogue is as cheesy and predictable as an after school special.
“Ni No Kuni" features many battles, but most trying is the player's struggle against old-school mechanics. First off, every area contains an absurd amount of random encounters, and while enemies are visible on the field, they charge instantly once spotting you. Avoiding them is next to impossible, even after upgrading Oliver's speed.
This problem is exacerbated by limited save points in dungeons (although the world map allows saving at any time). If you die before reaching a save point, you're transported back to the dungeon's entrance, grinding through the same enemies again. When you perish, “Ni No Kuni" also fines you 10 percent of your money to keep earned XP. Death is a possibility in every battle, keeping you constantly alert and forcing you to learn the battle system. Initially, that's what I liked the most, but the aforementioned issues made this process almost unbearable.
Most actions by characters or recruited familiars execute on a cooldown. The traditional battles aren't purely spamming “attack," because you need to strike at the right time to cancel enemy actions or counter attacks. These tactics, along with defending, are vital in every encounter. Use the battle system correctly and you're more likely to see “glims" on the battlefield, which restore health and magic power and occasionally unleash special attacks.
Despite the adrenaline-pumping intensity, the battle system has its frustrations. Sometimes the window to defend passes far too quickly. Not only must you select defend for your character, you must also order the sub-par AI companions to protect themselves as well. Other times, aggressive tactics are required to cancel a special attack, but the consequences for missing are too dire, forcing you to turtle.
“Ni No Kuni" is a mercurial experience. One minute I was exploring the world with adoration, and the next I was cursing a cheap boss battle. The journey can be fun; I liked collecting and growing familiars and watching the breathtaking world before me, but “Ni No Kuni" doesn't come without frustration. Enter for the beauty, but know it comes with a price.