Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a game made by artists. This is evidenced by the meandering story that occasionally threatens to get interesting, only to lose its way again almost immediately. This is also evidenced by the mediocre gameplay full of systems that are flashy and complex but lack any sort of depth but also by the beautiful world and stirring score that conjure a genuine spirit of adventure out of nothing.
You play as Oliver, a good hearted boy whose mother suddenly dies of a heart attack. Then your doll comes to life, and very quickly you find yourself caught up in a quest to save a fantasy world and resurrect your mom. There’s an earnestness and innocence to the story that’s refreshing. It feels more a child’s fable than a serious story of war and evil, and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately the plot gets lost as soon as you leave the real world.
It feels like there’s only a half hour worth of story in the first six hours of gameplay. Sure, you meet people, you go places, you learn about the world, but all of this is a narrative diversion. You want to see the king and progress the plot? First, you have to open the gate to the city, but first, you have to mend a broken heart, but first, you have to talk to the old man in the forest, but first, you have to fight the forest guardian, etc. The game is structured so that most of the story quests feel like side-quests. You’re constantly being diverted from your main objective by some petty, arbitrary problem that doesn’t add anything to the story. You have to carve a horn from a magical piece of wood, but then the wood goes missing and you spend the next hour tracking it down. When you find the wood, you’re right back where you were an hour ago. Ni no Kuni is a long game, but not because it tells some epic story. It’s long because it keeps stuffing pointless fluff in between the genuinely interesting plot developments.
Aside from its story, an RPG lives and dies by its combat, and the combat systems in Ni no Kuni are odd at best. You fight with creatures called “familiars.” You can carry three of these guys at once, but you can only use them one at a time in combat, forcing you to switch them in and out depending on the circumstances. You have direct control over your familiar, except when you select an action. Then it starts moving automatically. Every now and then colored orbs will pop out of enemies that regenerate your health or magic, and a rare gold orb will allow you perform a powerful Miracle Move.
Between you and your familiar, your teammates and their familiars, the actual enemies, and all the orbs everyone is trying to collect, there’s a whole heck of a lot going on at any given moment, but most of it is out of your control. You only ever control one person. The rest of your team is controlled by an AI, and they spend their time doing their own thing. There’s a “Tactics” menu where you can give the AI general directions, but the commands are too general/ My healer burns through her magic if I tell her to “Keep Us Healthy,” but then she doesn’t heal enough if I say “Provide Backup.” This lack of fine-tuned control makes it hard to use your team as a team and adds to the unnecessary complexity of combat.
Take, for example, the “Defend” command. Early on, your avatar can defend but your partner can’t, so she usually gets the full brunt of an attack and there’s nothing you can do about it. Eventually you get a one button command that makes all your teammates defend, but not your avatar. For him, you still have to select “Defend” from the menu.
Defending is important because it’s probably the only consistent tactic that you need to apply in combat. Most normal battles are so easy that you can just mash the X button to select “Attack” over and over again until the enemy dies. Bosses are harder but only because they use a lot of powerful group attacks, forcing you to do the overly complex button dance that makes every character defend. At first, this dance is engaging as there is a thrill in canceling whatever else you’re doing and trying to input this button combo as fast as possible. But over time that engagement fades as you come realize the simplicity of what you’re doing and the overall simplicity of combat. Defend and attack, there’s nothing else you need to know.
You can also recruit more familiars, but they always start at a low level, and there’s rarely enough of an incentive to train them further. You’ll quickly recruit a core group of familiars that you’ll use for the rest of the game. There’s a whole system of natural affinities and planetary signs that supposedly make some familiars more or less effective against their counterparts, but any benefits or drawbacks are negligible. As long as you equip a familiar with top-of-the-line gear, they’re good to go in any fight against any creature. Essentially, these are more complicated systems that never amount to anything interesting.
However, despite all that egregious mediocrity, it’s hard not to like Ni no Kuni. Even after 30 hours, I still wanted to play it, I was still excited to play it, and that’s purely a result of the art by Studio Ghibli, which establishes a sense of childlike wonder that never wanes.
The presentation is impeccable. The world is conversely minimalistic yet lovingly detailed. Towns never look full of people, but they look lived-in. Every brick and door and lamp convey the sense that there exists a much wider world than just what you can interact with. Your Wizard’s Companion is a meticulous encyclopedia of every animal, flower, location, and item, as well as a set of maps, historical notes, stories, and an ancient alphabet filled with beautiful illustrations and laid out in such a shockingly logical manner that you’d think it was made created professional editors. It’s one of the most singularly impressive pieces of world-building that I’ve ever seen in a game.
Over the course of the game, you’ll travel to all the standard locations that you expect to see in a JRPG, but when filtered through the fairytale lens of Studio Ghibli, these clichés take on a renewed awe and capture the essence of adventure. The excitement of seeing something new, and the desire to push forward into danger for no other reason than to see what’s ahead. The art succeeds where the story and mechanics fail. I want to see every inch of this world. In Ni no Kuni, style doesn’t just make up for a lack of substance, style is its substance. The style—alone—evokes all the emotions a good adventure should evoke.
This all makes for a very weird game, one that veers from disappointment to greatness every couple of minutes. It’s boring, except when it’s exciting; it’s dumb, except when it’s brilliant; it’s not very fun, but I don’t want to stop. It’s a painfully average game, but Studio Ghibli pulls such a wonderful wool over your eyes that you won’t care.