Studio Ghibli and Level-5′s Collaborative magic – Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

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  Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch – Art of Studio Ghibli Developers

Photo: ''Must-play'' game of the year - Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PlayStation 3)</p>
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Platforms:PS3, DS
Genre:Adventure
Publisher:Level-5
Developer: Namco Bandai Games
ESRB Rating:Rating Pending
Release Date:01/22/2013
Also Known As:Ni no Kuni, Ninokuni

Tokyo’s Studio Ghibli is the creator of beloved animated feature films like “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “Ponyo.” It hasn’t made many forays into video games, although its influence is all over popular Japanese series like “Final Fantasy” and “Dragon Quest.”"Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch” (Namco Bandai, for PlayStation 3, $59.99), a collaboration between Ghibli and Fukuoka, Japan-based developer Level-5, is something special. Every frame of it feels suffused with Ghibli magic, to the point where it overcomes any resistance you might have to its old-fashioned gameplay.The tale begins in dark territory: A boy named Oliver is heartbroken when his mother dies of a heart attack. When Oliver’s tears soak his favorite toy, Mr. Drippy, it springs to life. Turns out he’s a fairy from the alternate world, where Oliver’s mom is a powerful sage. (“Ni no kuni” translates to “second country.”) If Oliver can stop a dark conspiracy that threatens Drippy’s world, he might be able to save Mom as well.

With Ni No Kuni: Wrath OF The White Witch, Level-5 have gone in the complete opposite direction to the current trend of JRPGs. Thankfully so, because with Ni No Kuni there is a return to the roots of JRPGs and to a focus on innocence within the genre. This is where Ni No Kuni thrives as a game and as a challenge to the norms of modern JRPGs set by the current slew of games coming from Square Enix, for example. It is a refreshing counterpoint to see a game which isn’t afraid to return to a more charming period in JRPG history, where characters are motivated by purely innocent and honest reasons, which works well for the game, as will be explained.

You see Ni No Kuni is for all intents and purposes an ‘intended’ throwback to the previous generation of JRPGs. The game purposively take the elements beloved from those series, the really good elements mind you, and combines them. It uses a few modern developments in the genre to push forward to a game which highlights the best of JRPGs. The game reminds me of so many titles such as Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IX, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King and games from the Tales Of series. Except, in the case of Ni No Kuni, these are all visually integrated so well with the help of Studio Ghibli whose visual designs, colour choices and overall aesthetic. This helps differentiate Ni No Kuni from what came before, and what is currently happening at present with JRPGs.

The visual aesthetic is what will draw many people into playing this game, or wanting to play it. Ni No Kuni is a real first for Studio Ghibli who are known worldwide for producing some of the most beloved anime films including Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Laputa: Castle In The Sky and Princess Mononoke. All of which have received acclaim from critics and fans alike. As such, it was no wonder that the game looks so good. It of course has the trademark Studio Ghibli style, but it is an anime visual design that is so suited to the fantasy narrative and characters of Ni No Kuni. The game is atypical of the current trend in JRPGs of having morose depressing protagonists and contrived storylines, and plotholes so wide no amount of fixing could solve such problems.

Ni No Kuni avoids this by having simple cel-shaded characters. They are not overcomplicated as is expected from JRPGs which currently seem to go for flash over solid and sound design. The characters and the world of Ni No Kuni are immensely colorful and welcoming which suits the tone of the game’s story is about youthful adventure, childhood innocence and the most basic storyline of good versus evil. Most of the characters in your party are children, and young adults, including the protagonist Oliver himself which works well with the visual style that Studio Ghibli has crafted for this game. Studio Ghibli pays great attention to the smallest of details meaning that visually this game surpasses many others in the genre through its sheer simplicity.

Now to be successful you will have to constantly grind in Ni No Kuni. This is a reality with many old school JRPGs and Ni No Kuni is no different. You have to grind in order to gain levels and enemies become increasingly difficult and challenging as you make progress in the game. Ni No Kuni is old school in that it follows a traditional turn-based combat system that has been utilised in countless JRPGs, but allows you to move around the battle screen and maneuver party members. You can then select the necessary command you would like to use and commence the chosen action. Commands are available in a wheel-like interface which can be selected by pressing the back left or right triggers on the controller. You can also use the analogue sticks, but this becomes cumbersome and the triggers are more effective. It is a slightly faulty implementation with the analogue sticks, but it doesn’t mar the experience in any way.

Some of the commands included are spells, battle tactics, attack and defend. These can vary from character to character, as each character has unique battle traits that you can take advantage of such as Esther’s ability to play songs that affect your battle state. Spells include the basics like freeze spells, fire spells, wind spells and cover nearly all the elements. You can also use provisions to bolster your HP and MP when needed respectively. If you need any type of provision it can be easily crafted when you obtain the alchemy skill and you also receive useful spells from people you help along the way, which become very useful in story missions. Battles are a mix of turn-based combat which is normal for the genre. But you can also cancel commands and block enemy attacks, and liven up the battles. There are also no random encounters as enemies are displayed on the world map, and you can choose how and where you encounter your next enemy. When you reach a high enough level enemies will run away from you. So it is nice system for indicating whether you have grinded enough to proceed onwards with the story. Then there are also the familiars which you can summon into battle which are very useful.

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The summoning system for familiars is taken in many ways from Pokemon and will probably remind you of that in many ways. You are given a few familiars from story missions within Ni No Kuni and when Esther joins your party you can tame familiars after you have beaten them up a bit. Just like Pokemon, certain elemental creatures have an advantage over other creatures, which you have to work out. You can equip your familiars with armour, weapons, shields and the like. They can take on different roles and fulfil different requirements you have when battling. You have to be careful with your familiars and how you use them because each familiar has its own stamina meter which counts down as soon as you summon one of them into battle. As such, it is very easy to switch between the humans in your party and the familiars you have collected along your journey. There are a huge variety of different familiars to collect, so if you’re a Pokemon master this might interest you a great deal.

All in all, the battling system has great depth and is quite easy to get into from the get-go. Greater depth is given to the battle system as you gradually progress through Ni No Kuni and there is a fountain of knowledge accessible from the menu, and your Wizard’s Companion to help you along the way. It combines the freedom of more modern JRPGs with an old school turn-based combat system that operates efficiently and effectively without overwhelming the player with complexities. It caters itself quite well to beginners and hardcore JRPG fans. Hardcore ps3 gaming fans will be pleased by the boss battles which even on normal are quite challenging and require you to think on your feet, and expose the weakness of the boss. This could be an elemental weakness or in the attack pattern of the enemy at hand. As a result, in Ni No Kuni you’ll have to save periodically as enemies can become challenging as you make your way through the game’s world. To make your way through satisfactorily and without constantly facing an uphill battle you’ll have to do sidequests which consist of fetch quests, bounty hunts and tracking down loot. They are interesting enough and a necessary evil in a JRPG such as this, and are a great substitute to constant random encounters as seen in other JRPGs.

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The game’s world is brilliantly detailed and each region on the world map has its own atmosphere that makes the game even more engrossing. Each town has its own thematic element, be it a Middle Eastern influence or Medieval in feel. Each part of the game’s world feels different and blends well together at the same time. Studio Ghibli and Level-5 have pulled out all the stops for this game and it shows throughout. On top of this, the score for the game is breathtakingly amazing with the composer from Studio Ghibli, Joe Hisaishi, accompanied by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra providing all the musical chops for Ni No Kuni. The english voice acting needs a mention as well, as it was superior in every way to many other JRPGs out there, and each character’s voice never felt out of place. Ultimately, the animated sequences in the game seal the deal and make this a special kind of JRPG

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