How jealous was I back in 2013 when the PS3 received an RPG created by Bandai Namco and Level 5 in part with Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli? Very. How peeved was I when the PS4 and PC received a sequel, with no hint of it ever coming to a console I was ever going to own? Much. How overjoyed was I when the news came that a remaster was in the works and the Switch was going to get a slice of the action? Well, a little; at that time I didn’t own the console yet but the fact that it was there, hanging over my head like a carrot, meant that I was a little bit closer.
Having bought a copy and played it through from start to finish I can truly say that it was worth the wait. For the uninitiated, ‘Ni no Kuno: Wrath of the White Witch’ is the story of a young boy named Oliver. He lives a quiet life in his hometown of Motorville with his mother. One day the worst happens and after a tragic accident his mother dies, just like that. If you’ve ever seen the beginning of ‘Up’ by Disney Pixar then you can imagine the level of emotional upheaval to the player within the first ten minutes. On his own, with nobody really left to take care of him, a magical thing happens and his cuddly toy, Mr Drippy, comes to life. He follows him into an alternative world in order to bring order to it, to master magic and, ultimately, to find his mother’s “soulmate”, a duplicate of her residing in this world that be can be with.
You begin as a child with no discernible skills to speak of. Oliver is ten years old after all; what kind of skills did you have at that age? I ate marshmallows and read the Beano, I don’t think they count. With the help of Mr Drippy and some other kind souls, Oliver is given a Wizard’s Companion and learns about magic. His strength lies in magic and casting incantations. As he goes about acquiring different spells, he also discovers the ability to adopt and use monsters living in the kingdom. They can use weapons and magic of their own, making for very useful additions to your party. Along the way you meet and recruit other members to your team including Esther, the daughter of a sage, Swaine, a thief with a swaggering attitude and a cloudy past, and towards the end Marcassin, a young prince from the town of Hamelin.
To begin with your main tasks are to find the evil lurking in the various destinations on the map, battle your way through to the end of a dungeon and then fight a boss. Mr Drippy is both your friend and guide for this. He offers you advice during boss battles, some of which can be painfully obvious but on occasion he does provide you with something to help change the tide of battle. Fighting is done through an amalgamation of action and turn-based menu systems. Rather than you punch and then they punch (rinse, repeat), you have a menu of options at your disposal as does the enemy. You are all thrown into a circle and choose what you want to do (attack, defend, magic etc.) and either Oliver or his familiar will carry these out. Say, for example, you choose to attack. You approach the enemy, you attack, a set amount of time passes until the action is over and you have to choose something else.
It is easy to understand and after a few fights you’ll know when you’re doing. You are also free to move about within the allocated space so you don’t have to stand still when massive overbearing robots and ghouls are threatening your existence. More often than not I would cast a powerful spell and move Oliver back as he floated in mid-air (albeit slowly) as he was doing it to avoid being beaten to a pulp. It was nice to have the option there even if sometimes it is only delaying the inevitable. As a player you want the battle system to be accessible and fluid, which it is and never once did I feel bored at entering into yet another section of combat. You can choose to give enemies a wide berth on the over-world map rather than running headfirst into potentially fatal rumbles especially if you’re running low on health or magic.
As this is an RPG there has to be side quests and ‘Ni no Kuni’ does not disappoint. In each town you visit there is a shop called ‘Swift Solutions’ where people put up problems on a noticeboard and you can offer to help them. These can be anything from beating some monsters, finding an item, training a familiar to a certain level and many more. It is nothing that you won’t have seen in other games of this kind. Upon completion of the tasks you are rewarded with money, items and stamps. When you acquire ten stamps you complete a card and these can be used towards special abilities. As well as this, you can go on standard bounty hunts to kill tough monsters and receive similar rewards.
Eventually you will be given a genie. You have no choice in the matter, you have to take him. He lives in a giant cooking pot and encourages you to starting mixing items together. You will pick up all sorts of ingredients, flowers and health items hiding about as you travel the world map. The recipes given to you by certain NPCs can then be used to craft more items, weapons and armour. The player is also given the option of chucking random bits together in the hope that they make something new. Some can be figured out (meat + bread = sandwich, hooray I’m an alchemist!), others make little sense when you look at the base materials.
Shaking things up, after fulfilling some tasks you eventually open up the option to navigate the world using a boat and, later still, on the back of a dragon. You can go almost anywhere and start searching outside of the predetermined point the game wants you to travel to although granted you may come across monster who are several levels above you, and reduce your team to a quivering wreck after one or two hits. Tengri, the aforementioned dragon, is a marvel and instantly took me back to the Mode 7 delights of Flammie from ‘Secret of Mana’. If you could bottle the equivalent of riding a dragon over a fantasy world I would have a permanently-stocked fridge 365 days of the year.
I love this game. I absolutely love it. There are times when I will become tired of the grinding and the monotony of all role playing games, even the most beloved (I’m looking at you again, ‘Secret of Mana’), however this game is so charming that you cannot help but play it with a huge smile on your face. ‘Ni no Kuni’ still adopts the typical flavours of any other RPG, there is no getting around that. What it does though is present you with an engaging story with all the central aspects of the best animation, best books and best cinema. The graphics are beautiful. The world has been richly fleshed out in all manner of colours and shades. Walking through the various towns you will see people going about their daily business, background noises punctuating the scene. Ding Dong Dell is the first location you visit and it’s a plethora of quaint people and cute quiet contentment, all pastoral colours, waterwheels and cottages. As you step out into the world you will come across lush green forests and golden sands, dark castles and moody volcanoes, cold tundra and tropical islands. Bandai Namco are not exactly going to win any awards for originality, ticking all the boxes for atypical role playing locations. They all look, act and feel different though. The people and monsters vary depending on what part of the world you are in. Nothing is static and it’s a cliché to say but it’s a living, breathing world you’re walking through.
There were very few performance-based issues. It is true that the Switch version will never look as crisp as the PS4 version and if you didn’t expect that then you should probably stop reading this review, and compare the specifications of the two machines. As detailed as everything is, you can see textures and backgrounds popping up ahead of you. It is noticeable yet doesn’t detract from the immersive nature of the gameplay. You are also spoilt for choice because the cut scenes for the game are divided into two: one of which closely follows the art style and 3D models from the game itself and one which has been hand-drawn by the wonderful people at Studio Ghibli, the latter of which is unequivocally better, which is not to take anything away from the former. Having both different styles though is great because you never know which is going to come next when a cut scene is triggered. Sometimes both!
The characterisation is also superb. Oliver is not your standard whiny child. Considering what he has to go through he is a remarkably resilient and kind-hearted protagonist. He doesn’t sit and wallow, he’s off out the door shifting between the real world and the world of magic, fighting beasts three times his size and is willing to help anyone who needs it. Esther and her penguin familiar (instant win in anything, you know it makes sense) offer a magic-based assistance, topping up health and striking at enemies in equal measure. Swaine, after a misunderstanding towards the beginning of the game, is a cocky realist but who remains faithful and trustworthy once he has joined the team. His gun can steal items from enemies as well as attacking. Nothing in the dialogue is flat or seems out of place. All of the supporting roles fit in well with the story.
The award for best supporting character in any game though must go to Mr Drippy. The self-proclaimed “king of the fairies” is absolutely superb. His dulcet Welsh tones, both lifting and steamrollering through most of the conversations, and his sense of humour add buckets of charm to what was already a very charming game. I haven’t laughed as much at any game as I have with him. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him during the first few hours of play (my mum has just died, Mr Drippy, I don’t need a comedy sidekick thanks). It didn’t take long though before he proved his worth. He is the kind of person you want on an adventure because he can do both direct and honest when it’s necessary, and not take anything seriously the next. It’s hard to put into words just how much he adds to the total game experience itself. I really don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much as I did without Mr Drippy. Double points then to the writers and the English/Welsh voice actor Steffan Rhodri for a stellar performance.
I have checked and it is impossible to describe any of the music without using the words ‘soaring’, ‘sweeping’ or ‘majestic’. This is due to the fact that the score was part composed by Joe Hisaishi. If you have heard any of his other work from most of the Studio Ghibli films then you will know what I mean. Everything about the score is epic. Bouncy, playful tunes in towns and safe areas, majestic (that’s one) choral bliss with a big chest as you set out to cross the sea. The over-world map music blasts you like a cannonball between your eyes before settling down into some soothing, sweeping (that’s two) pan pipes and then building it back up again. Soaring (that’s three) imperial marching drums as you step into Hamelin and all of its residents parading around in suits of armour. No ice-pick-in-your-cerebellum Doom Eternal speed metal then although I’m not sure that it would fit with the general mood of the game; if Oliver got a haircut and flew around on an ESP James Hetfield Signature Snakebyte rather than a purple dragon it could work. The only piece that I eventually grew to dislike was the music that plays when you enter into a battle. Not too surprisingly after hearing it for the 621st time it does start to grate.
I played from start to finish in about 55 hours. That included a fair amount of grinding as anyone who’s played an RPG will know that it is necessary. The overall game isn’t too hard and only a few instances caused me to make the air blue with rage. These were mainly bosses who managed to sneak in a few dirty tactics and hits before I had had a chance to heal everyone towards the end of the game. The difficulty is fair in its execution, you never completely lose hope and even if you do come to a section you cannot get past you know that you can always raise your levels a bit, buy some more supplies and try again. You can learn the tactics of the bosses and look for weaknesses. You can find familiars who are better suited to the fight, train them up and unleash hell.
It isn’t completely perfect. I found the play time more than acceptable for what I paid for the game only I expected the map to be a little larger. Once you have everything discovered there was a mild wave of disappointment. I’m not sure why, there’s still plenty to do and plenty to find. I was having such a wild ride that to finally see the outer limits, to see the edges of the map, meant that there was an end that eventually had to come. In addition to all of the bounty hunts and tasks there is also the bestiary to fill (you log a monster each time you fight and each time you tame them), pages of the Wizard’s Companion to find and alchemic formula to source. The latter also tasks you with locating the raw materials with which to make the items and portions with. This, I personally found, to be a bit of a chore. After narrowly beating the last boss and humming through the end credits I discovered I had only achieved 25% of the alchemy which is pretty poor even by my lowly standards (I was too busy knocking the stuffing out of everyone). So I went back through all the towns, picking up the formulas from the NPCs and then looking for the ingredients. I don’t expect the game to hand me everything directly to me however it was a little surplus to requirements by the end, the kind of job only dedicated completionists will fully relish.
When you do finish you are also give additional tasks to complete to make up the 100% for everything else. Amazingly some of the quests felt like padding. Why on earth would you put the padding at the end? Doesn’t padding normally belong in the middle? I suppose, perhaps by making it non-compulsory deems it not to be padding. Can it be padding if you don’t have to do it? One task in particular did make me sigh. It asks you to go back and beat all the bosses again. Fine, I’ve done it before and my team is much stronger now so it’ll be fine. All fine. The thing is the task only tells you to go investigate four orbs that have mysteriously appeared where you previously fought the bosses, so you return to confirm your achievement after fighting them for a second time only to be told to go for the next four orbs. When you’ve done the next couple etc. etc. I did kind of expect to have to have a go at all of the bosses so why did the game feel the need to keep this particular piece of information to itself? And your reward for doing all of this made me laugh because, I won’t spoil it, but it is really not worth your time.
These are mostly minor grievances though. What you have is a remastered version of a superlative role playing game on a console other than Sony’s flagship piece of sexy black plastic. Beautiful graphics, soothing music, satisfying gameplay and an unforgettable story. I can only hope that Level 5 and Bandai Namco do the same with the sequel so we can experience the giddy thrills of ‘Revenant Kingdom’ on Nintendo’s hybrid console.