What a delight Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is! It's charming but never cloying, complementing its vibrant cel-shaded art and good-natured child star with plentiful doses of wit and joy. The clever dialogue dips into a bottomless well of puns, keeping you grinning wide, if not laughing out loud at the constant goofiness. More importantly, this Japanese role-playing game possesses great soul, exploring a son's love for his mother, and the vast expanses he's prepared to cross in the hopes of a reunion. Hearts are broken and restored, hidden motives are revealed, and lost relationships again blossom, even after great evil has torn them asunder. This is a wonderful world that you will be eager to lose countless hours in as you adventure through its enticing realms.
Oliver is the cherry-cheeked center of Ni no Kuni--the boy who would save the world, as so many youngsters do in RPGs. But the world he saves isn't his own. Oliver lives in Motorville, an Anytown, U.S.A. sort of place--the kind you might see depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting. Children laugh and play, cars drive slowly along the shrubbery-lined streets, and mothers shop for bottles of milk and sacks of foodstuffs. On the occasions you visit Motorville throughout the game, your travels are accompanied by slurring violins and trilling flutes and oboes. The music tells you all you must know in just a few notes: Oliver's world is idyllic, and his childhood untroubled by cares of the adult world.
This all changes drastically when Oliver's mother dies, saving his life after his reckless motorcar antics. But there is a whisper of hope amid the grief: mom has a soul twin--a great sage living in a fantasy world, currently trapped by a villainous fiend called Shadar. For Oliver, Shadar's defeat means the possible liberation of his mother from death itself. For the denizens of the parallel world, it means liberation from his magical tyranny--or so their story goes.
Thus begins your journey alongside a heartbroken young boy desperate to restore order to his life and his world. Oliver is the soul of the adventure--and his companion Drippy is the wit. Drippy is hardly mere comic relief, but his enthusiasm is infectious. He frequently refers to himself as High Lord of the Fairies in a delightful Welsh accent, egging Oliver on during moments of uncertainty. It's in Ni no Kuni's most surreal scenarios that Drippy's dialogue tickles the most--places where lines like "These littlies are nowhere near as fragile as they are egg-looking!" make a silly sort of sense. His follow-up line: "When I was their age, I ate squid for breakfast! Proper hard I was!" Drippy's a wonderful sidekick (though Drippy sees you as his sidekick, to be fair), and remains a joy, even 60 or more hours in.
As you traverse the overworld and its various cities and dungeons, the squat Drippy skips merrily along, a lantern pierced through his nose. His boundless energy occasionally causes him to stumble, but he bounces right back into gear without ever losing his goofy smile. He's an instant classic of a character, brought to life by fantastic voice acting, a trait the character shares with the entire cast. Oliver's young actor hits just the right balance: endearing and gung-ho, but rarely sickeningly sweet. Fantastical characters like Ding Dong Dell's King Tom--a feline ruler referred to as His Meowjesty--are uplifted by fun, sincere line readings that never cross over into self-parody.
The result is a world you love to be in, which is just as well: even as the game seems to wrap up its story with an emotionally satisfying conclusion, it presses forward, refusing to let plot threads dangle, and uprooting any sense of complacency. The whimsy of the writing is matched by the whimsy of the world and the situations you encounter. This is a game in which you explore the pastel-colored innards of a giant wobbling mother before she fancifully erupts and you experience a second birth of sorts. Unusual? Yes--but also utterly enchanting. Even the smallest moments deliver glee. A llama with a gourmet appetite wants yummies. A traveler keeps misplacing his diary. A wannabe diva of a molten monster warbles a few notes that could break a champagne glass. This is a world of wild imagination, and so you pursue every side quest and peek into every nook, knowing that a surprise lies in wait.
All of those nooks burst with beauty, and become even more varied as you explore further. When you first arrive in the overworld near Ding Dong Dell, you'll be enthralled by the sun-drenched meadows and glistening waterways. But later, you roam golden deserts, icy plateaus, and misty swamps, where the eyes of crooked trees look upon you in displeasure. Cel-shaded games often sacrifice detail in lieu of bold outlines and primary colors, but Ni no Kuni doesn't use its style as a crutch. Rather, the cartoonish visuals are heightened by extraordinary visual details. In a Motorville shop, each storefront and hanging flower planter is given careful attention, making it the hometown you wish you had grown up in. As you make your way towards a village, your party visibly shivers from the cold. These excellent small touches are crucial in creating a sense of wonder.
The impact of the fantastic soundtrack cannot be overstated. A fairy village in Ni no Kuni isn't like a fairy village in any other game, and the music reflects as much. When you enter, the oom-pa-pas of tubas lend this place the exact right kind of circus atmosphere. Explore a dungeon and you hear a rising scale motif, which in turn raises the tension. And then there comes a moment when Oliver's friend Esther raises a musical instrument in song, warmly intoning the game's main theme without additional accompaniment. And it's here you recognize how much meaning this one tune possesses--and how amazing it is that it never grows tiresome, but rather, gains emotional power over time.
Much of the success of a role-playing game hinges on its world, its people, and its story, and Ni no Kuni is thankfully rich in all of those areas. But generally, interacting with the game is as joyous as watching and hearing it. Structurally, the game is much like many RPGs to come before it. Towns and dungeons are linked together by a massive overworld that you first navigate on foot, then by boat. Even later, you navigate by dragon, soaring through the skies with ease from one locale to the next. You also unlock the ability to quick travel to and from places you've already been, but in this world, such conveniences must be earned by dedicating a couple dozen hours first.
You spend a lot of time in combat. Connecting with enemies initiates battle, and Oliver is joined by two other party members on the field. But Oliver and his buddies don't have to do the fighting on their own, though they certainly can if you wish them to. Instead, they usually deploy creatures to do it for them, Pokemon-style. Each party member can equip up to three familiars, which means you have as many as 12 combatants at your disposal during battle, though only three at any given time. You gather creatures by fighting them: every so often, Esther gets the random chance to lull one into submission. You can then name the creature and add it to your stable
The action is typically a lot of fun. During combat, you control only one character/familiar at a time; the AI handles the other two participants. The action isn't exactly real-time, but you still maintain direct control, maneuvering into effective position to attack, defend, or unleash magic or other special skills. In the most challenging skirmishes, you must pay close attention to visual indicators to take a defensive position at just the right time, or to interrupt a creature's attack with a well-timed strike.
Later hours can have you flipping back and forth between characters madly, trying to maintain a proper balance of healing, offense, and defense, all the while being aware of your opponent's weaknesses, and trying to nab the healing and mana orbs they occasionally drop. Such battles are highly entertaining, and once all the systems are in place, you can rarely afford to be complacent.
Familiars level separately from their handlers, so the majority of battles end with a pronouncement that at least one pet or another has gained a level. (Fortunately, your 9 active pets gain experience even if you don't order them into combat.) The constant notifications give you a great sense of progress, which is important given the amount of grinding needed to keep a decent number of creatures ready for battle. Newly-captured familiars are weaklings, and it takes time to get them in tip-top shape. And even after spending significant time with them, some familiars just aren't that effective, rarely (if ever) getting used because there are battle-ready creatures that you've already leveled up. As a result, you'll probably have a number of reliable pets you keep with you at all times, and will switch out a few other slots here and there to take advantage of particular magical skills--or just for the thrill of seeing a new pet in action.
You can set basic behaviors for the AI party members during combat, but you don't have as many options as you do in the Tales game series, whose combat system bears a passing resemblance to Ni no Kuni's. It would have been nice if the game allowed you to set these behaviors outside of combat, but at least you have the option to do so during a fight. Given how quick the AI is to waste its magical energy when given the chance, nudging them in the right direction is crucial to success. Combat exhibits other quirks too: familiars getting stuck against each other or monsters, for instance, or party members whacking on baddies with their puny weapons when a familiar would be the better choice.
The possibility of bringing along an ineffective familiar might lead to frustration if you aren't careful (and sometimes, even if you are). There are some notable difficulty spikes which are compounded by potentially imbalanced parties. Yet even at its most challenging, it's hard not to appreciate the grotesqueries you face, and the possibility of getting to nab one for yourself. You won't add boss creatures to your pen, but that hardly makes the boss battles less rewarding. Bosses require the most party micromanagement, and are often a wonder to look at to boot. Among them are a slithering snake in Egyptian garb, hissing at you with its menacing purple tongue; a horned demon, its obese figure belted by gnarled branches; and a rubbery invertebrate with blinking lights rimming its bell and tentacles, giving it the look of a carnival ride.
Outside of the story quests are seemingly infinite side tasks to pursue, many of them focused on Oliver's ability to siphon excess amounts of emotions like love and ambition from passersby and offer them to brokenhearted citizens needing a pick-me-up. It's a cute and pervasive activity that makes perfect thematic sense within the narrative, though you aren't limited to such simple tasks. You can take down monsters to earn rewards, help a street vendor assemble the most delicious curry you ever did taste, and collect a sun-shaped creature in order to help a plant grow. Throw in a battle arena, an alchemy system, and hidden caves to explore, and you have more than enough to keep you busy for a while to come.
Ni no Kuni is a stupendous game because there's so much to do in it, and because all of it is just so good. The hallmark of the greatest RPGs is that you don't want to stop playing them, and Ni no Kuni proudly joins that elite group of games providing such an enticing world that you can't imagine never having visited it. The only problem, of course, is that you may never want to leave.