Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch begins much like most JRPGS — a lengthy cutscene progressing with minimal button pushing brings players into the action, a few basic mechanics are tossed out, the hero gets his companion and weapon and sets off on his journey. But what makes the opening of Level-5's game so different is its animated film feeling, its presentation as an interactive story rather than a story with some shuffling on the player's part.
Players will follow young Oliver on a quest to save the parallel world of Ni no Kuni and revive his late mother after her sudden death. Oliver has the purest of hearts and is the prophesized hero who will save the realm, so says Drippy, King of the Fairies. Reluctantly the young boy sets off on his quest, the promise of saving his mother the impetus for accepting the responsibility.
Time is spent nearly equally between Oliver's world and Ni no Kuni, with most missions requiring Oliver to complete tasks in both worlds. Every person has a counterpart in the opposite world, with each pair of identical-looking people connected by a Soul Link. Oftentimes solving the problem of someone in Ni no Kuni requires Oliver to figure out what's wrong with their soul-linked partner in the opposite world, and vice versa.
Oliver is given a spell book to utilize magic, which is half his arsenal in battle. Oliver learns new spells by completing missions and progressing through major plot points. Magic can also be used to create familiars, tiny magical creatures Oliver can summon into battle to fight for him.
Ni no Kuni looks, feels and sounds like a Studio Ghibli film.
Familiars are a bit like Pokemon in that they can be leveled up and learn new moves by forgetting old ones. Unlike Pokemon, familiars can be given weapons and equipped with armor, shields and other combat accessories. Feeding them goodies in battle — cake, ice cream, candy — will grant temporary stat boosts for speed, magic or other abilities.
Ni no Kuni looks, feels and sounds like a Studio Ghibli film, down the score composed by studio veteran Joe Hisaishi. Level-5's close collaboration is evident; CG cutscenes sometimes blend into fully animated ones without skipping a beat, and everything is coated in a wash of brilliant color emblematic of the films of Hayao Miyazaki. If you've seen Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away or Ponyo, Ni no Kuni is not much different in its presentation, cast of quirky characters and fun dialogue.
Despite all of its charm, however, the game is heavy on classic RPG elements like customization, grinding for experience points and resource management. Add these familiars to the list of things to keep track of and level up, and players have their hands full. Tack on the game's heart-mending feature and it's clear players will always have something to deal with in circulation.
Restoring people's broken hearts is a twofold process. Shadar, the evil entity threatening to destroy Ni no Kuni, is fond of stealing beneficial traits from people's hearts and leaving them broken, sorrowful and sometimes terrifyingly angry wraiths of their former selves. Players must find people who have an overabundance of these traits and take some to share with those who are lacking. Oliver has a locket that will glow when people with excesses are nearby. The storyline will also put players in the path of major characters that have heart to spare, so Oliver won't be digging in corners scraping for pieces and usually has some extras at any given time.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is coming to PlayStation 3 on Jan. 22 in North America and Jan. 25 in Europe.