Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Review (PS3)

Oliver's quest doesn't begin with the greatest streak of luck. One second our harmless hero is sneaking out of the house during the night, all in the aid of trying out a handmade vehicle created by his friend. The pair get overexcited, and before you know it, Oliver is being pulled out of the local river by the reliable hands of his mother. Unfortunately for the boy, his only parent suffers from a weak heart. Stress overcomes her, leaving him orphaned from the off.

It's lucky Oliver loved his mother. If he didn't, his journey would never take place. Weeping silently in his bedroom one night, Oliver's tears plop onto the only doll his mother ever gave him. As any Studio Ghibli fan will know, taking such items at face value is a foolish thing to do. Within seconds, Oliver's useless toy is transformed into a Welsh speaking fiend called Drippy.

This is your first Familiar. Reminds us of Ponyo

Known as the Lord High Lord of the Fairies, Drippy immediately brings a sense of humour to the title. He reveals Oliver can save his mother if he travels to a faraway place, setting the scene for a traditional tale of helpless youngster rescuing the world. Once Drippy asks to accompany Oliver on his quest, it's clear the tiny chatterbox is going to play a vital role in the upcoming journey. He provides advice, details key gameplay mechanics, and often tells Oliver to follow his path.

From here on, Ni No Kuni takes the route of a traditional JPRG. The adventure is a linear one—but that's not to the detriment of the game. In an era of convoluted open-world titles and needlessly excessive side quests, Level-5 have struck a balance that will appeal to those who are looking to explore and those who fancy a linear route to the finale. Plains may be available to search round, but your next objective is never too far away.

Despite being a little over two weeks into 2013, I'll be shocked if we see a game that outclasses Ni No Kuni's visual prowess this year. Level-5's decision to team up with Studio Ghibli is an inspired one that many players will lap up from the beginning. Vivid colours reinforce a sense of wonder, animation is smooth, and sudden cuts to cartoon footage amounts to a real treat.

In these moments it's easy to realise just how Studio Ghibli-fied this game really is. Players may feel like they are watching the unrelenting weirdness of Spirited Away or learning to live with Ponyo. Ghibli's influence is huge, and plays a vital role in outlining Ni No Kuni away from the selection of average JRPGs we have experienced across the last couple of years.

Plenty of memorable characters stumble into Oliver's view. Away from Drippy, a quirky cast keep the humour rolling throughout. An early encounter with a talking tree immediately establishes the norm, as Ghibli's designs easily surpass the dull and often infuriatingly clichéd character selection of many contemporary RPGs. You don't need to care for angst-ridden teenagers 'smartly' quipping their way past opponents, nor do you have to worry about overly spiky hair poking out your eye. Ni No Kuni introduces a set of loveable and interesting characters that allow Oliver to react with the naivety of a child.

Bosses are often intimidating, and appear to have a '70s haircut

This realisation is perhaps key to much of the game's premise. Drippy knows Oliver needs help. From the moment he teaches the game's basic battle system, it's clear the lantern-nosed companion is more than moral support for the hero. Drippy is your main tutorial guide, and usefully, is written with such panache that he ensures basic tasks remain fun. Scrolling through reams of text isn't entertaining gameplay, but when it's scripted in such a charming manner, it's difficult to pass by without a snigger.

Battles aim to conglomerate the best aspects of previous JRPGs together. A real-time system is employed, even though actions remain on a timer. While not quite turn-based (as quick thinking players can sneak a couple of extra hits if they endlessly wallop the attack button), there is an order to everything.

Final Fantasy meets Eternal Sonata might sound like a faultless concept, but minor pitfalls hamper the battle system's ability to get players engaged. Once Familiars are introduced, switching between characters isn't particularly intuitive. These creatures act as an extension of the human characters' powers and carry out moves dictated by the mind of their owner.

Pokemon fans will undoubtedly feel at home here, although battling with Familiars and a full group of allies means your brain and hands must work together in complete unison. Press the wrong button and fail to defend at the right time, you'll be wiped out instantly. Battles are undoubtedly fun, but up against the tougher foes, the hecticness of Ni No Kuni's middle ground is likely to frustrate more than it should.

This criticism shouldn't put players off. Familiars are a fantastic addition to the game that liven battle scenarios up. Although their powers can only be used for a limited time during each conflict, they tend to become the main route of attack, especially once you've played around with partner combinations. An array of spells and items can be used during each fight, and Drippy often scatters goodies around the battlefield for you to capitalise on. A minor boost to your HP/MP may seem trivial, but collect all during each battle and you're likely to maintain fighting shape.

Should you receive too much damage during an encounter, it is worth nothing this game doesn't hand out the function to save anywhere. If you come across a save point, always take the opportunity to do so. It's fortunate the sound of Tokyo's Philharmonic Orchestra is so soothing, as a couple of times, I lost important progress by failing to save and heading into a boss fight with no hope of winning.

Locations are beautiful from start to finish

Although side missions are available, none will ever take you too long to complete. Level-5 want you to meet the wacky minds of its world, as even the briefest encounters can yield a moment or two of magic. I can't remember the last RPG that featured such an extensive array of interesting shopkeepers, pedestrians and other characters that are usually overlooked. This title takes place in a wonderful world, so it's only right you help the citizens by completing any errands that crop up.

Ni No Kuni is the type of product that reminds me why I love gaming. We've been treated to a great selection of Western RPGs across the generation, so it's brilliant to see the JPRG alive and well. Not only that, perhaps stronger than it's ever been. Level-5 have crammed this game with scenes that are thoroughly unique and will live long in the memory. So much so, it would be a shame to spoil them. Despite a battle system that has the ability to irritate, Ni No Kuni should be experienced and enjoyed by all types of gamers. January isn't finished yet, and already we have a title that will make it onto many Game of the Year lists. As Drippy would say, “tidy!”

Best Game Moment: Getting to know Drippy. The Welsh doll will become a firm favourite between gamers and Studio Ghibli fans alike.

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By nocutius (SI Elite) on Jan 16, 2013
I need a PS3 :(
By stealth20k (SI Newbie) on Jan 16, 2013
"We've been treated to a great selection of Western RPGs across the generation, so it's brilliant to see the JPRG alive and well"

JRPGS have kicked so much ass this gen on so many different platforms. 2013, is all about the jrpg