Fans of Studio Ghibli's stellar animated films are sure to be in for a fine treat with Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, set for release in North American early next year. We managed to snag a Japanese version of the game and play through the first few hours to test out a different range of combat skills.
The game puts you in the shoes of young Oliver, whose mother has passed away. When his childhood toy comes to life (a fairy-like thing called Shizuku), he's told that he can revive his mother in an alternate dimension called Ni no Kuni (or "Second Country" in English).
Basically, anything Oliver comes across in real life will become a fantasy version in the alternate world. Case in point: the pet cat owned by Oliver's mother's friend becomes an anthropomorphic cat king in a cat-themed village (complete with a paw print motif) in Ni no Kuni. Accompanying Oliver on his quest are the cheery Marle and the trickster Jairo, who come equipped with their own helpers called imajinns. Serving as the antagonist is the White Witch, who oversees Oliver's actions from an undisclosed location.
Ni no Kuni adopts Pokemon-style party management, which means Oliver and his comrades have an assortment of imajinns to help them out in fights. You can also raise them by feeding them all manner of junk food on the Nurturing Cage screen.
Feed the cape-bearing sword-wielding imajinns a candy bar, and their strength goes up; stuff them with a few ice cream cones, and this will boost their agility. Some imajinns are partial to certain foodstuffs--feed them their favourite food, and they'll be happy, temporarily landing critical hits and dodging attacks during combat.
Combat in the game is handled in real time. When you go into battle, you choose which of your imajinns participate in a battle. You can even have Oliver himself go into battle in place of the imajinns. An imajinn can stay on the battlefield for only a certain amount of time in combat before it becomes weakened, so switching between them tag-team style using the L1 button is a must.
Pressing the triangle or square button changes your party to either an offensive or defensive stance. Alternatively, you can select the party AI command in the combat options and choose how each individual party member handles a situation automatically on the battlefield.
Oliver can opt to go into combat himself, using his assortment of spells to fight off foes. Based on the first five hours of the game, his range of spells includes healing, fireball, and ice, which can sometimes stun enemies. As for Marle, she can cast the Song of Friendship, which can recruit enemies to your cause. However, this spell can be cast only on fallen enemies with a heart marker. She will have to cast it quickly before the marker's gauge is depleted and the target runs away.
Green and blue orbs sometimes fall to the ground during battle, either from damaged enemies or from Shizuku himself, thrown at random intervals. This is definitely a bonus, as a last-minute green or blue orb drop seems to make a huge difference between surviving a surprise onslaught with some mana intact and seeing the game-over screen.
At rare times, a giant golden orb can also be put into play, and we noticed this after we landed a critical hit. When we commanded Oliver to pick it up, he cast a powerful spell that dealt a lot of damage to its target. This seems to be the game's equivalent of a Final Fantasy summon animation, so we wager there will be other sorts of finishing moves for our protagonist later on in the game.
While fending off enemies was a variable challenge that got easier once we were familiar with our surroundings, fighting the bosses was a whole other ball game. Throughout our playthrough, we clashed with a forest elemental, a giant rat that cast fireballs and paralysis spells using its tail, a fiery demon with a shield and sword, and a spectre that possessed Oliver's friend's father in the real world. All of these fights required us to defend ourselves whenever they sized up for a full-screen attack--the bosses would usually do a specific animation as a telltale sign for us to get ready.
Oliver can also use his spells outside of combat. In some instances in Ni no Kuni, he has to absorb the essence of a particular person using a magic bottle and a spell, and then use that essence on a person who seems depressed and unmotivated. In one of the early dungeons (and a cat-themed one at that), we had to use his fire spell to light up three braziers placed in each corner of a pathway to open up the gateway to a room. The catch was that we had to be quick about it since each brazier's fire would extinguish after a few seconds. The solution to this puzzle was to plot out the quickest way to reach all three braziers in one go.
Another puzzle in the Desert Palace had us arranging four statues in a certain order to open up a door. The only way to lift them up is to use Oliver's levitation spell. Of course, there are some puzzles that require reflexes rather than brainpower and spellcasting. In the same area, we had to control Oliver and Marle using the left and right analog sticks, respectively, to navigate through a disappearing and reappearing pathway. Navigating the maze got trickier when buttons that activate the pathway for the other maze came into play. This good balance of puzzles kept us entertained as well as made us take a breather from combat.
The standout aspect of Ni no Kuni is how beautiful it looks. To say that it plays like the gaming equivalent of any Hayao Miyazaki feature may be stretching it, but this is as close as we can get. With its combination of 2D animated scenes, cel-shaded graphics, and colourful backgrounds to match the bright-coloured style of the aforementioned features, anyone who says this game isn't beautiful is, frankly, out of their mind. This combination is accompanied by the score of Joe Hisaishi, because you just cannot find a Studio Ghibli project without him being involved in its audio aspect.
One caveat is the game's overreliance on putting markers for objectives to move the story along. While it may help non-Japanese speakers navigate the game just fine via the import copy, we fear that the game may be easy when localized in English, aforementioned puzzles notwithstanding. Still, the game is tailored for all ages, which explains why it leads you from point A to point B without much hassle.
Based on our early playthrough, Ni no Kuni is shaping up to be a beautiful and enjoyable RPG, provided that the aforementioned hand-holding does not bother you. While the game is available in Japan and parts of Asia, the English version will be out "early next year" and will be published by Namco Bandai for North American and European audiences.