I am guilty of a terrible crime, one that I now regret horribly. Before this review, I had never played Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. I’ll take whatever punishment comes to me in the afterlife as I do deserve the worst. Ni No Kuni is a stellar JRPG. It’s not because of its Pokemon-like monster battling elements married to a Tales-like battle system. Nor is it thanks to its captivating soundtrack. I’ll dare go as far as to say it’s not even its breathtaking visuals made by the legendary Studio Ghibli that make it so good.
It’s the heart that Ni No Kuni has, beating at the core of its narrative. Plenty of games can mash-up game mechanics, produce incredible soundtracks and immerse us with stunning art styles. It takes a very special story and protagonist to tie all these elements together. I’m also happy to express that it all runs perfectly on the Nintendo Switch.
Your journey in Ni No Kuni begins in Motorville, a small rustic town where you’d imagine nothing of note ever happens. Oliver, the main character and soul of the game, is nothing like what you’d expect from a JRPG hero. He’s a young boy, full of excitement and kind, gets along with everyone, including his mom. Does what he’s told and would be the last to take up arms against even a fly. It’s because of Oliver’s docile and kind-hearted nature that the whole of Ni No Kuni’s narrative is so special. Indeed, after an unfortunate accident led to Oliver’s mom needing to save him, her weak heart gives in, producing one of the most heartbreaking early death scenes I’ve ever experienced. It’s from here that Oliver will meet a fairy king, learn how to use magic, transport himself to another world and help its people fight a dark evil, all while clutching onto a hope that he can once again be with his mother. It’s a hero’s journey like no other because throughout its course we never lose sight of who Oliver truly is – kind and good-natured.
As you hitch a ride on this journey with Oliver, his loud-mouthed companion Mr Drippy and eventually some of his friend, you learn a lot about the world you need to save. The game’s main questline is straightforward and linear yet every story beat uncovers something new to learn. Ni No Kuni, however, isn’t completely linear. Called Errands, you can, and should, take up small quests that allow you to aid the people of the world parallel to Oliver’s and mend as many broken hearts as you can. Most of these quests follow similar tropes and paradigms but there’s more to what you earn. With every completed Errand, you get a stamp on your Merit Cards which can then be turned in for special rewards that will enhance pretty much every aspect of Ni No Kuni’s core gameplay. And as a JRPG, there’s a lot of core gameplay to enjoy.
Ni No Kuni’s combat is a unique blend of two distinct paradigms. One facet takes inspiration from the best parts of Pokemon’s foundation. Throughout Oliver’s journey, you’ll meet and gather several Familiars, creatures with unique abilities that you can call into battle to act as your proxies. From feisty little knights to magic-wielding spell slingers, each Familiar type has its own strengths and weaknesses. Like in Pokemon, it’s not necessary to actually catch them all to make it through the game. A handful can suffice as each Familiar can be levelled up, decked out in gear and evolved into a stronger version of itself. What’s more, you can swap between Familiars and Oliver himself during combat. This adds an intricate layer of strategy to tougher battles as there are quite a few of those. Coupling this monster-based system with free-roaming real-time movement a la Tales, the other facet to Ni No Kuni’s combat, and you have a recipe for a one-of-a-kind experience that’s easy to learn and intriguing to master.
Of course, I can’t review Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch without mentioning the piece de resistance which is the captivating art style and visuals by Studio Ghibli. One of the greatest anime production houses, Studio Ghibli has created gems like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, all of which have the same magical art and character style that has become synonymous with the studio itself. It’s the perfect style of animation and art that fits the narrative heart and Oliver’s soul so fittingly. In fact, every character, every vista, and every inch of this game’s visual spectacle has that spark of Ghibli magic that draws you in and keeps you hooked until the emotional gut punches come and beyond until the credits finally roll. Of course, all aspects of Ni No Kuni resonate and shine through the catchy and memorable music composed by Joe Hisaishi.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a timeless classic that fittingly has found itself onto the Nintendo Switch. Playing it both in handheld and docked mode has shown no slowdowns, dips or reductions in graphical fidelity. It plays as good as it looks; gorgeously. I particularly enjoyed getting Errands done and gathering Familiars in handheld mode during small breaks from work and before bed. Even in its gameplay, the Switch and Level-5’s masterpiece of a title are a match made in heaven.