Whimsical, heartfelt, and visually comforting--these are the ways in which I describe my first experience with the then-PS3 exclusive Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. It has the RPG sensibilities of developer Level-5, but with the deft touch of storied anime producers from Studio Ghibli, Ni no Kuni came to life in the same way many Ghibli films have. Now with a remaster, anyone with a Switch, PS4, or PC can jump into this imaginative journey, faults and all.
The title roughly translates to "The Second Country," which alludes to the world beyond the one which our youthful protagonist Oliver lives in. Motorville is a peaceful town with friendly neighbors, but not much in the way of excitement. Thus, Oliver and his friend Phil (think Tombo from Kiki's Delivery Service) get into some tomfoolery, whipping around a makeshift car Phil constructed himself. However, things get dark when the looming evil, otherworldly forces attempt to kill off Oliver, who they refer to as the boy who'll save the world. Tragedy strikes in this opening, but hope lies in a parallel universe. The truth about Oliver's mom, Allie, drives him to journey through this magical second world.
Oliver's exclamations "Neato!" and "Jeepers!" will make you feel like a kid again, but it's your stumpy Fairie sidekick, Mr. Drippy, that brings fiery glee to it all. His energy, wisdom, and Welsh-isms make him a character for the ages and he always has Oliver's back. Ni no Kuni is but a wholesome story of a boy who is always virtuous and always growing. Charm lies around every corner as it's brought to life by the wondrous stylings and animation of Ghibli, and uplifted by the majestic orchestral scores of composer Joe Hisaishi that effortlessly fit every moment. It's these timeless qualities that make the long adventure worth the effort.
That said, this remaster is very much the original game; there are no quality-of-life changes, resulting in what feels more like a port than a remaster. The PC version (via Steam) comes with a few graphics options and controller support, and the PS4 version offers 4K/30 fps on a Pro and 1080p/60 fps on either console model. Note that the Switch version is a straight port of the PS3 game, and not designated as "remastered." Aside from packing all the DLC, and the inherent visual improvement from higher resolution on PC and PS4, the core game remains untouched, for better or worse.
If you're unaware, the original Ni no Kuni uses a combat system that has you moving and making decisions in real-time while you execute actions in a turn-based fashion. Core to the game is its system of Familiars, which function very much like Pokemon--they level up separately from party members and bring different elemental types and movesets to the table. You'll capture many, train some of them for battle, and evolve a few to their final forms along the way. Each party member carries three at once and carefully swapping between them (and party members themselves) in battle is the key to overcoming the game's tough fights. It's an inventive system that brings about a surprising level of depth, but one that feels more clunky now than it did back when it first launched.
Wrapping your head around its combat system is going to take a few hours as you're introduced to its several layers. Even then, much of it will feel out of your control. Since you can only command one combatant at any given moment, you have to rely on AI to handle many aspects of fights. Telegraphing enemy attacks is a challenge, too, and the system doesn't exactly put you in the best situation for reacting. Until you get a groove with a lineup of Familiars, you'll find yourself frantically fumbling through menus of actions more often than not.
Combat isn't as tight as you'd expect from an RPG, but that's not to say it's a deal-breaker. For all the faults I see gameplay-wise, its RPG trappings deliver the satisfaction of growing stronger and smarter in combat. Other fundamentals are quite basic and hardly stray from RPG conventions, like the simplistic dungeon layouts or the sometimes tedious traversal from one area to another for side quests or between save points. At the very least, its foundation provides a good vehicle for taking you through Ni no Kuni's world that bursts with boundless charm.
Former GameSpot reviews editor Kevin VanOrd awarded the original release a 9/10 back in 2013 and said, "This is a wonderful world that you will be eager to lose countless hours in as you adventure through its enticing realms." Six years later, that remains true. It speaks to the joy of unraveling Ni no Kuni, because there are so many smaller moments that are emblematic of the imagination put into the game. From the so-bad-it's-good comedy show put on by the Fairies to the terrifying monsters Oliver and friends conquer, Ni no Kuni stands out in how it gives an earnest tale of whimsy and youthful determination.
If you're willing to overlook or account for some of its rougher spots, there's a world of wonder waiting for you in Ni no Kuni. In many ways, it transcends those shortcomings. While this new version doesn't streamline anything, you're still getting one of last generation's standout RPGs with its DLC, nothing more, nothing less.
Having been through the original release once, there isn't a specific incentive unless you're drawn to revisiting its spirited world, and newcomers are at least given the opportunity to experience something mostly delightful and unique that may have flown under their radar. After about 10 hours with the remaster on PC, memories are flooding back and I'm starting to hit a stride where I want to see it all unfold again. Your gateway to Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch opens on September 20 when it hits the PS4, PC, and Nintendo Switch.