Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch review: sitting a spell

by Steve Watts, Feb 11, 2013 11:45am PST

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch makes a strong first impression. The adorable fairy tale boasts a truly gorgeous presentation, striking score, spirited dialogue, and stand-out voice performances. The hero of the story, a young boy named Oliver, is unfaltering in his earnest kindness, giving the proceedings a sweetness that stays just a hair's breadth from saccharine. Despite all its luster, though, the spell it casts is ultimately too short-lived to sustain such a lengthy adventure.

The game isn't all syrupy-sweetness. Underneath the whimsy and gee-whiz earnestness, there is a current of severe melancholy. It is about a boy's magical adventure in a faraway land, but it's also about the first time he learns how suddenly life can be severed. Once you cross that threshold of knowledge, you can't go back. Oliver learns this lesson from the death of his mother. The trappings of childlike wonder seem almost cruelly juxtaposed against this stark reality. It presents a state of untapped imagination and innocence while reminding us that we can never return to it, at least not in any permanent state. This is a fairy tale, but it's a fairy tale in the classical sense, and that imbues its themes of loss with a tragic finality.

That premise, which hints at a profundity rarely found in games, immediately hooked me. But then, the story quickly lost focus and its momentum ground to a halt. Therein lies the primary flaw of Ni No Kuni's epic scope. Oliver's journey to another world, hinged on hopes of saving his mother's alternate-universe "soulmate" and therefore his real mother as well, got lost amid the long stretches of world-building that had nothing to do with the heart of the story. It seemed that Oliver himself lost focus on his goal, which compromised my own emotional investment. Somewhere between helping a giant cow queen and finding three missing pieces of a magic wand (which was subsequently replaced by a better magic wand anyway), I found it difficult to care as much as I did in the game's first few hours.

In fact, the game's final stretch feels like it was once the seed of a sequel, compressed and stapled awkwardly onto the game as a sort of quasi-epilogue. The motivation to wrap up the story neatly is understandable, but I would have preferred some loose threads and unresolved thoughts of what could be. A good game that never got its sequel is still a good game. One that overstays its welcome while rushing through remaining plot lines can taint memories that would otherwise be much fonder.

This story tedium is matched by mechanics that start strong and then settle into a complacent inertia. Comparisons to Nintendo's Pokemon series are apt, as the game borrows the capturing, training, and evolution of "Familiars" wholesale. It's a more active battle system than Pokemon, including the ability to freely move and even switch back to Oliver for spell-casting. It also streamlines and automates some of Pokemon's processes. All special abilities use a shared MP pool, and all the bench-warming creatures gain some XP from battle even if they weren’t utilized in it. Swapping equipment and giving stat boosts by feeding the Familiars treats fuse more traditional RPG systems onto the creature-capturing milieu.

But the monster-leveling process is painfully slow and that pace discourages experimentation. I found myself usually unwilling to try out new Familiars, since they would always arrive significantly under-leveled compared to my current ones. Given the choice between repetitiously grinding for hours using my current Familiars, and grinding for many more hours with a creature that has more potential, I tended down the quicker path to continue the story.

Once companions join, each with their own Familiar in tow, they are inadequately equipped for the nuances of combat. You as the player only control one character at a time. This leaves the two others to run through pre-scripted AI routines via the Tactics menu. When I told them to do as they like, they would often let me or each other fall without sufficient attempts to heal. If I told them to prioritize healing, they would waste MP too quickly on minor wounds. None of the options gives any kind of consistently desirable rule set, and the frenetic pace of battle doesn't lend itself to keeping careful watch over everyone's actions. The frustration is akin to trying to perform a symphony with a game of Simon. The tool might grasp the rudimentary task of note-making, but it isn't up to such high demands.

Between battle and story sequences, Oliver and company come across a multitude puzzles and townsfolk to help--though calling them "puzzles" may be too generous. These don't require any kind of creative thinking or intuition. Instead, the game has always granted one specific spell to solve a situation, and which one to choose should be obvious. If for some reason it isn't, the game doesn't give any penalty for an errant spell solution -- it simply informs you that nothing happened, so you can move on to trying another.

As I reflected on Ni No Kuni, I was reminded of one of its quest mechanics. The game sets up constant fetching tasks for the "heartbroken," townsfolk who have some personality trait like courage or restraint in short supply. You're tasked with using a special amulet to find others who are overflowing with those qualities so you can pass on some of their largess, but the game simply highlights and informs you each time you discover someone with a little extra heart to give. The concept of retrieving lost sparks of humanity is fantastic, and just the sort of magical realism that the game does so well. In practice, it's emblematic of the type of dull monotony that fails to add to the game in any meaningful way.

In many ways, I admire Ni No Kuni's early ambitions and nuanced tweaks to genre conventions. Its first few hours are bursting with promise. By the time I reached the conclusion, though, I was exhausted. I found its story mired in its own mythology, its clever RPG twists weighted down by staid tropes, and the experience as a whole missing a bit of its own heart. If only someone like Oliver could cast a magical spell to give it back.


This Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch review was based on retail PS3 code provided by the publisher.





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