E3 2012 Hands-On: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Level-5 RPG excels in creativity and gameplay.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a PlayStation 3 role-playing game epic launched in Japan last November, is coming to North America and Europe in January next year. It is developed by Level-5 – the same people who brought us Dragon Quest VIII, the Professor Layton series, and White Knight Chronicles – along with the infamous anime directors at Studio Ghibli – essentially the Walt Disney Studios of Japan. Namco Bandai, who are localizing the game, had a playable demo of the English version at E3 last week, which I was fortunate enough to check out. 

The story follows a young boy named Oliver, who is trying to bring his mother back to life after she died saving him from drowning. A doll she gives him, named Drippy, comes to life from his tears and, with the help of a magical book, he is transported to another world. Along with Drippy, Oliver sets off to this parallel land where magic abounds in an effort to find his mother, and befriends various characters along the way.

In the E3 demo, I was offered two scenarios: one where you’re able to explore the map and visit the city of Ding Dong Dell, or one where you can explore a dungeon. I chose the first option since, more than battles, I wanted to get a good look at the anime-esque visuals. The demo was timed at ten minutes, so I immediately set off exploring.

The map appears similar to a painted scenery you’d expect from a Studio Ghibli film, only more interactive. The enemies move around the map and you can trigger their attention by getting close by. Once the battle initiates, you can send out your creatures to do the fighting for you. Each character can use three creatures, for a total of up to nine in a single fight. The character Esther can subdue enemies and convince them to join your team. Once they’re a part of the team, you can help them grow by feeding them certain types of fruits and help them to evolve. It sounds a bit like Pokemon, but I find it’s more akin to the Dream Eater features of Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance.

Anyhow, I quickly avoided battling so I could explore the city of Ding Dong Dell. Again, I was greeted with a vibrantly painted environment, a fantastical city with cobbled streets and townspeople. The cat people were the most amusing to me, complete with cat puns. The dialogue is charming, and while the game in general is structured with simplicity and wholesomeness, it’s not dull at all. It promises nearly 40 hours worth of gameplay, not counting the numerous side quests, plus fully animated cutscenes that help keep the story cohesive.

Even though sales for Ni no Kuni were underwhelming in Japan, I know many people look at it as a return to what fans of classic RPGs miss about modern titles. Playing it reminds me of playing a hyper version of Breath of Fire, Chrono Trigger, or one of the Final Fantasy titles on Super Nintendo. The style is charming and the dialogue is witty, the characters are likable, the imagery is eye catching, it has a unique battle system, and above all else, it has a story to tell. When you consider Studio Ghibli’s influence into its presentation, it’s really more of an interactive adventure that engages players.

It’s been my impression that no matter how many die hard role-playing game fans are out here in the west, titles like Ni no Kuni are likely to be overlooked because they don’t offer high-spec graphics or intense action gameplay. But those aspects aren’t enough to make a good game. For me, it’s about creativity and battle systems, and Ni no Kuni excels at both.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is due for PlayStation on January 22 in North America and January 25 in Europe. Japanese speakers can import the All-In-One Edition starting July 19. If you missed the E3 trailer, find it here. Additionally, find the E3 screenshots here.

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