In 2008, Level-5 was coming up on its tenth anniversary and wanted to produce a project that its staff was passionate about, regardless of how well it would sell, and the world was introduced to Ni No Kuni: The Another World. A two-pronged project, one version of it came to the Nintendo DS as the Japan-only Ni No Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn and the second version came to the PS3 internationally as the expanded Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.
A love letter to the golden era of JRPGs, Ni No Kuni was universally lauded for how closely it adhered to the famous art style of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, which contributed top staff to aid in both animation and music, and the title found considerable success both in Japan and overseas. Now, six years on from the PS3 title’s release date, Level-5 has opted to port over Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch to the Switch, marking the first time that Nintendo players have been given access to the full, expanded version of the original vision for this project. Though it does feature some rough edges, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch proves itself to be an unforgettable and fanciful take on the RPG, and it more than deserves a home on your Switch.
After a brief cold opening that hints at the magical adventures to come, Ni No Kuni launches into its primary story of a young and somewhat naïve boy named Oliver, who lives in a small town in 1950s America called Motorville. What begins as a heartwarming tale of childhood innocence quickly takes a gut-wrenching turn, however, when an accident caused by Oliver causes his mother to die, rendering him an orphan overnight.
Distraught and damaged by his loss, Oliver weeps onto a toy his mother had made for him, and is shocked when the tears bring it to life. He’s suddenly faced by an odd, fast-talking creature named Drippy who speaks in a thick Welsh accent and claims he’s the “Lord High Lord of the Fairies.” Drippy explains to Oliver how there’s a parallel world being terrorized by an evil being named Shadar and, you guessed it, Oliver is the only one who can hope to defeat Shadar. One thing leads to another, and the duo are off to the races, exploring the strange otherworld that Drippy hails from and building their team as they prepare for the final confrontation.
Although the overall plot comes off as being rather cliché in many parts – how many times have we heard the ‘Chosen One’ song and dance? – Ni No Kuni’s greatest storytelling strength lies in its stellar writing and heartwarming messages. As evidenced by that disarmingly tragic opening, Ni No Kuni isn’t a title that shies away from going to some dark places when it needs to, but it’s ultimately an uplifting tale that repeatedly returns to the central idea of becoming whole again through the support of others.
As Oliver, Drippy, and the various allies they recruit move along the path to that battle with Shadar, you can’t help but feel a sense of connection to this team as you watch them repeatedly drop what they’re doing to help out those around them. Somewhat in tandem with this, Ni No Kuni also expertly captures the concept of childlike wonder, as it presents you with this weird and wonderful new world that’s similar to ours, but not quite. Whether you’re being berated by an ancient wizard with the appearance and demeanour of a toddler or trawling through a monster-infested sewer in search of the lost Cat King, you’ll seldom be able to guess what strange new creature or errand you may find yourself experiencing next. Even next to many modern RPGs, the storytelling and worldbuilding of Ni No Kuni prove to be uniquely charming, and we found its narrative to be fantastically immersive.
The typical gameplay loop of a classic JRPG is alive and well here, with your team travelling across the vast open world to various towns as the plot calls for it. Each town naturally has a problem (or a person with a problem) which can only be solved by Oliver and friends, and their efforts inevitably lead to them entering into a dungeon-like area and battling something big and nasty at the end of it.
Ni No Kuni breaks the mould of genre conventions in plenty of ways, but its structure is certainly not one of them, which may come as a drawback for some of you. Indeed, along with this familiar structure, Ni No Kuni is also very much what one would call a slow burn, with many portions of the story feeling like they drag on a bit longer than they need to. It’s a testament to the excellent writing and enrapturing details of the world that this laborious pace is so easily accepted, but just bear in mind that if you aren’t so easily charmed by the gorgeous visuals and wholesome tone, Ni No Kuni may prove to be a needlessly time-consuming experience. It’s worth the investment, but it nonetheless will demand a substantial amount of time in order for you to really ‘get it’.
This time commitment also extends to the battle system, which proves to be equal parts frustrating and exhilarating. Not quite real-time action and not quite turn-based, Ni No Kuni employs a unique system that utilizes many of the strengths of both styles of combat. Though you can control any of the party members directly, the meat of your experience will be spent controlling Familiars (more on that in a bit) to do the dirty work for you.
Though they all share their owner’s health and magic pool, familiars have the additional restriction of a stamina meter that limits their time on the field to around thirty(ish) seconds, after which you need to tag in another familiar or teammate. Whoever you’re controlling, you’ll have access to some mixture of standard attacks, special moves, spells, and defensive manoeuvres, each of which is governed by cooldowns. If, for example, you use the standard ‘Attack’ option, your character will auto attack your targeted enemy while a gauge on the side of the screen slowly runs down. Once its empty, you have to wait for an additional, faster gauge to empty before you can use the Attack command again.
Effectively managing all your cooldowns will be necessary to success, along with being mindful of a character’s positioning. If you try to attack a distant target with a melee attack, for example, you’ll waste some of its precious cast time while your character runs over to attack. It sounds like a lot to manage, but everything clicks into place after you experiment with it a bit and you see how combat proves to be both flexible and engaging. That is, when you’re not busy trying to mitigate your teammates’ mistakes.
Don’t let the cutesy visuals fool you; Ni No Kuni can be a ruthlessly unforgiving experience at many points, with even common enemy encounters in new areas requiring the dedicated efforts of all team members if you hope to come out on top. Unfortunately, no matter how much you invest in optimizing your team’s equipment and stats, much of that effort will be cast down the drain by the halfwitted AI. If, say, an enemy casts a fireball attack that burns the ground around the impact zone, your teammates are often happy to stand in the inferno as they’re slowly burned to death. Or, in a particularly egregious and reoccurring example, many bosses have heavily telegraphed super attacks that hit everyone on the field regardless of positioning. You’re all but required to use the ‘Defend’ command when you see these coming, and there’s ample time to do so, but your teammates are usually happy to just eat the full force of the attack and either die in the process or consume valuable healing resources to undo the damage.
In our experience, many a boss battle was as much about battling the AI as it was about the enemy attacking us, which makes for a rather frustrating experience at many choke points. The issue of suicidal teammates is somewhat assuaged when you bafflingly unlock a manual team-wide 'defend' command over a dozen hours in, but the problem with them blowing through limited resources and generally dragging down your efforts persists throughout. Ni No Kuni is generous enough with its checkpointing system that you can brute force your way through its tougher sections with enough perseverance, but on the whole, many segments are made much harder than they should be due to the required participation of your lackluster partners.
When you’re not busy worrying about your partners’ performance, you’ll no doubt be focusing on catching or training up yet another Familiar, in what is easily one of the most addictive and extensive pieces of side content in Ni No Kuni. Barring boss monsters, you have a chance to recruit any enemy creature after defeating them, and you’re often encouraged to do so to keep pace with the ever-ascending difficulty. Familiars can be evolv... er, metamorphosed into stronger variants after you level them up enough, and along the way they will also learn a plethora of special moves that allow you to specialize each Familiar’s role on the team.
There are literally hundreds of Familiars to recruit as you embark on your journey, and given that one levels up just about every time you complete a battle, this loop of recruiting, leveling, and metamorphosing keeps a fantastic sense of forward motion going consistently throughout the entire game. There’s almost always someone else that leveled up or learned a new move after your last victory, and experimenting with new Familiars and movesets proves to keep combat feeling fresh whether you’re a dozen hours in or forty.
When you’re not grinding out levels or attempting to snag an elusive Familiar, much of your time between main story beats will be spent carrying out errands for the various townsfolk in the places you visit. There are over a hundred side quests to do over the full course of the narrative, and though they largely tend to use some variant of the standard fetch quest or monster hunt setups, these little missions are critical to building that warm and fuzzy tone that makes Ni No Kuni such a lovely experience.
Even if it’s something as mundane as tracking down a woman’s missing children around town or searching a tree for a man’s missing journal, these sidequests are rewarding in their own right as you see how the party responds to helping those around them. Then, of course, there’s the raw reward offered by completing them. Beyond just the promise of extra money and equipment for your party, these missions also serve the purpose of granting you stamps, which are collected on several ten-step punch cards. Once filled out, these cards can be traded in at a special shop for special boons, like faster travelling in the overworld or increased drop rates of certain collectables. Considering the occasionally steep difficulty spikes in Ni No Kuni, it’s all but required that you do a fair bit of sidequest work when you reach a new area, but Level-5 has done a great job of making them rewarding in myriad ways.
We’d be remiss to not mention the absolutely incredible presentation that Ni No Kuni so effortlessly nails throughout the whole experience. Studio Ghibili’s contributions to the art direction are evident in virtually every frame, but we were especially struck by the small attention to seemingly unimportant detail in the animation. Things like how NPCs will subtly move their heads to look at Oliver as he approaches them, or how Oliver will almost imperceptibly shift to a slightly more careful gait as he runs down a staircase go to show how much the art directors cared about delivering a truly transcendent experience.
Ni No Kuni also features some near-peerless environmental design, with each traversable area featuring a masterful blend of uneven terrain and slightly claustrophobic decorations that really sell the idea of these places being real. Best of all, performance remains consistent in docked or handheld modes, and though the resolution caps out at 720p in docked, we’d still argue that the art style makes this is one of the most visually striking releases yet available on the Nintendo Switch.
The soundtrack was composed by Joe Hisaishi and performed in full by none other than the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the quality of that creative force shines through in virtually every track that features. The majesty of the colourful visuals is made complete by a fittingly sweeping musical performance, with each track capturing some sense of the whimsy or oddness that permeates just about every facet of Ni No Kuni. Although the main battle theme can become irritatingly repetitive in longer sessions, we were constantly awed at the depth and range that the soundtrack offers, and we’d highly encourage that you experience this one with headphones if you happen to be playing often in handheld mode.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an experience unlike any other on the Switch, expertly blending standard RPG tropes with a heartwarming story, innovative art style, and an immersive soundtrack composed by some of the best in the business. In more ways than one, this is a ‘dream project’ that’s very existence is a gift to fans of the genre the world over; the privilege of experiencing it is something that shouldn’t be understated. Even so, it also notably falls short of being an undisputed masterpiece, as pacing issues and shoddy AI drag down an otherwise pitch perfect experience. Those issues aside, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch still proves to be lightyears ahead of most other RPGs currently available on the Switch. If you consider yourself a fan of the genre – or even if you’re just looking to get your feet wet – you owe it to yourself to give Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch a shot.