October 13, 2013

That's A Wrap: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

warning: may contain spoilers

That's a wrap! Someone cross Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch off my list.

I'm sure I don't need to remind of you how highly anticipated this game was at its release earlier this year, and many of you have already played it and either loved it or hated it. (More love than hate, according to my non-existent research, a.k.a. Twitter).
My fist impression of this game occurred as I was loading it on my PS home screen. I thought to myself, "Jesus. Even the loading music is impressive." So I suppose we'll start there for a change. Y'know, shake things up a bit.
Allow me to preface this by saying I am absolutely a fan of Studio Ghibli's movies, and in turn am absolutely a fan of regular Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi. That said, I was pretty much sold on the Ni No Kuni OST without even hearing it. (In case you don't understand. OST stands for original soundtrack, the music in the film/game). Having spent many nights in bed reading books to the NNK OST, I've concluded that this is definitely no black mark on Hisaishi's resume. He has a magnificent way of making magical music that suits Ghibli's works so well, and this soundtrack is no exception. The orchestra sounds massive, diverse, and the music they play is characteristically enchanting. At the end of the day, I'd say only 4 or 5 tracks are completely astounding, but the rest of album definitely makes par. Or maybe Bridle. My favorite is 'The Fairyground'!
The only noticeable downside to the music is that it wasn't written or recorded to loop, so it sounds kind of strange in-game, constantly ending and restarting. I also noticed that the soundtrack (on iTunes) is incomplete! There are tracks missing!

When I first heard Studio Ghibli was going to help develop a video game, I was excited because Ghibli's films never fail to impress me. I had high standards for the game and was interested to see if they'd be able to carry over the studio's distinct style and quality over to the video game world. They absolutely did. This game is gorgeous. Very familiar art style, bright and colorful; a little bit strange, conceptually, but gorgeous. The effects blend in well and constantly remind me of Studio Ghibli films.
Ni no Kuni is about an average, adventurous boy, Oliver, who loses his mother (and only present parent) after an accident. While grieving, Ollie finds an old doll his mother gave him and begins to cry. To his surprise, the doll comes to life and explains to Ollie the concept of multiple universes, and that he comes from another world - ni no kuni. He also describes what I think is one of the coolest ideas in the game: a concept of soul mates. In this game, "soul mate" is not a term used to describe a relationship between friends or lovers, but rather describes the connection between someone in Oliver's world, and someone in Drippy's. Drippy, by the way, is the name of the fairy that was turned to a doll and sent to Oliver's world. Drippy then suggests that by rescuing Ollie's mother's soul mate in the other world, he may be able to bring back his mother in his own world. And thus begins his adventure. The plot is very engaging albeit slightly predictable. It's kept active by the constant introduction of new characters and great concepts, another example of which is the concept of broken hearts. Essentially, that a broken heart is caused by a missing piece of one's heart, and can be cured by finding them some of whatever they're missing: enthusiasm, restraint, courage, etc. These concepts are probably my favorite thing from Ni no Kuni.

The characters in NNK are rather weak and actually, as I think about it, there aren't many characters in any Ghibli production that I've really fallen in love with. Some characters in NNK kind of annoy me, and I struggled for a long time just to find use for them.
Oliver's appeal is hindered mostly by what I suspect is the westernization of the game. His character is kind of botched in the process and he's presented as a fragile boy with annoying dialect. Other than that he's a standard protagonist; a pretty typical Ghibli lead.
Esther is the next playable character in your team. At first I had high hopes for Esther, as she was presented as a hard young woman who'll probably kick your ass. Turns out, she was just broken hearted, and she's actually a predictable, know-it-all, young girl. She's also pretty weak, and served almost exclusively as my healer throughout the game.
Swaine is one dodgy fella. I disliked him the moment I met him and he failed to impress me much throughout the game. He has a pretty neat backstory, but doesn't have much else to offer.
The character you spend the least time with is Marcassin. By the time I got Marc he was so under leveled that I never bothered using him. Oliver was my sole wizard.
Another key member of your party is Drippy (a NPC in the PS3 version). Easily the best character in the game, he too gets to be a bit much. I wish I had a Japanese copy of the game to properly analyze Drippy, but in the North American release, he's presented with a heavy British accent and basically never shuts up. He's a strange mix of attitude problem and highly animated fairy.
And then there's the NPC roster, including Drippy's building-sized mother, his meowjesty King Tom, her moojesty Queen Lowlah... y'see what I mean when I call it strange?
The last key characters are your familiars, another neat concept in NNK. Familiars are essentially summons that you call upon to fight in your place. They kinda remind me of Pokemon. You catch them in the wild to recruit them to your party, and each party member can carry three familiars at any time. Taming familiars is a pretty complex art, but most of it is explained in-game. Mitey was by far my favorite.

The game has a pretty neat approach to side quests. Throughout the game you can visit a kiosk in any of the major towns and pick up bounties! Yeah, bounties! You can also take on errands, in which you visit people in the town and complete silly tasks for them. Your reward for both is money, items and stamps, which are traded for gameplay upgrades. There are a handful of other things you can do if you'd like to kill time, like tame familiars, hunt for treasure, or read your Wizard's Companion, which hosts stories related to the game, spells, a bestiary, and alchemical formulas - which teach you how to combine minor items to create better ones, or upgrade weapons. You also have a journal which tracks your story progress, and a "telling stone" which connects the player to the game (statistics and the like).
You can also assess your party and equipment, and feed and evolve your familiars.

Okay! Battle time! Diddly diddly diddly diddl- wait. This game is much more sophisticated than that. No really, the battle theme kind of fails to inspire a war spirit. It's so jaunty and... makes me think of pirates, actually.
The battle system in NNK is...
I spent several hours trying to come up with the right word. Frankly, the battle system is the least appealing aspect of NNK. The battle mechanics are pretty temperamental. When you enter battle, your first decision is who will be the leader. This is usually Ollie for me. After that, you decide whether you want to fight with Ollie directly, or summon one of his equipped familiars. The familiar's menu includes attack, defend and special "tricks". Ollie's menu includes attack, defend, spells, provisions (use items), and once you have team members - tactics. Which are useless. The tactics system never did me any favors, which is really the weakest part of the system. I wish I had more control over battle parameters. My team would seldom do what I asked them to; would waste MP; would take glims* they didn't need but I did; would often get in my way; and would cast spells that freeze gameplay and negate my already inputted commands. That drove me bananas! Or babanas! I absolutely HATE that everything would be reset if anyone on the battlefield cast anything that required a scene, which also drove me nuts. I understand the appeal of a short scene for special moves or spells, but honestly, when you're casting spells up to 40 times a battle, you really don't want to see an 8 second movie every time. Additionally, your decision runs on a timer. That is, if you select attack (for example), your character will charge the selected enemy for a short amount of time, then completely stop and await your next command. I guess this was the developer's attempt at a unique battle system, but it really sucked. I'd rather the character continue attacking until I cancel the command, or attack in real time so I can make decisions along the way.
*Glims are small colorful orbs that baddies expel when they're hit, and restore HP, MP or grant you access to a special attack at the hot rate of 0 MP!
Some of the other challenges in battle are maintaining MP, and coping with your enemies interrupting your attacks or beating the snot out you mid spell-cast, but these are the normal difficulties of a game. Another questionable branch of the battle system is the "All-Out" command. You are offered an "all-out attack" and an "all-out defend" option in battle, which is supposed to encourage your party to focus on using the appropriate kind of attacks. I found this to be pretty useless until the post game. Perhaps I just didn't understand it well enough before, and my strategies are almost always attack-heavy, but it's another tick in the "con" column for me.
I also dislike that the boundary of the battlefield isn't clearly outlined. The battlefield is circular, but there's no visual to guide you, your character simply runs into an invisible wall and stops moving, which really messes with your strategy. Especially with dead people all over the floor...

The difficulty of the game surprised me. As far as the story is concerned, it's virtually impossible not to know where to go. There is a mini-map on screen at all times, which gives access to a world/full map when beckoned. On the map at all times is a small star guiding you to your destination. I didn't realize until half-way through the game that you could open the full map, so I had a lot of trouble navigating "dangerous areas" in the early game, and had to spend considerable time acquainting myself with each dungeon to find my way around. But apparently I'm just blind. The battles on the other hand, are quite tough right out of the gate. For some time, you (Oliver) are the only member of your party, and you're expected to make due on your own in battle. Most RPG's are pretty rough in the beginning, as it takes time to level up and master the battle system, but I found battles in NNK challenging throughout. Furthermore, there are two difficulty modes, Easy and Normal, but I failed to notice any difference between the two! So the first half of the game consisted of many repeat battles. Eventually, I found some time to level up, and the remainder of the game was average, but still not easy.

Some of the other things I felt the game struggled with are:
The translation. Even though the game offers multiple audio, you're still stuck reading the English dub subtitles, which failed to impress me. Also, the game presents you with A LOT of reading. You will not enjoy this game if you are tired. Many of the scenes are just simple text scenes, rather than fully animated shorts. You'd think with a powerhouse like Ghibli involved, there would be more "movies", but after the beginning of the game, the animated scenes wane, and you're stuck reading the rest. There isn't really a ton of voice acting either, as I recall. I will mention that I revisited the game briefly in English audio, just for kicks, and left devastated. I don't recommend it unless you absolutely cannot tolerate the native language.

A few things still got kind of lost in translation. For some reason, the English release changes a few of the names, and Drippy is - I think - highly censored, like they tried a bit too hard to make the game appropriate for kids? Maybe I'm just a bitter old woman...

The main story took me 65 hours to complete, and the game has the shortest ending I've ever seen in a RPG. My final clock was over 90 hours. I enjoyed the game enough to spend the extra time exploring the post-game, and there is plenty to do there. For those of you that are trophy addicts, none of the trophies for NNK are really difficult to achieve, but some will require a lot of time and work. I managed to gather most of them without any specific effort.

In conclusion: really love the concepts, graphics, tunes and the plot, but the battle system takes some ignorance to deal with. I'd recommend Ni no Kuni to any JRPG enthusiast. It certainly meets the expectations of a good RPG and still presents unique aspects that are worth checking out. Patience and strategy skills are an asset.

And here's something new! I'm going to start adding a "tips" section to my Wrap blogs, to help prime any of you who might be gearing up for the games I'm writing about. Hopefully you find some of my thoughts helpful.

  • When fighting bosses, try to stay behind or far off to the side of them. Many boss attacks form a straight line, or fan out in front of them. If you're behind the boss (casting a spell perhaps), you will be invulnerable to these attacks. Some bosses will target you specifically, making this strategy difficult. Using your "All-Out Attack" will sometimes help this as bosses often attack the last person to hit them.
  • Regarding familiars: I found that you could do no better for Oliver than Mitey, his default familiar. There is one other familiar I found that worked quite well with Ollie, and his name is Puss in Bouts. He is the fully evolved version of Purrloiner, who can be caught outside Castaway Cove earlier in the game. I didn't find him until much later in the game, however, already evolved. His stats are awesome and he belongs to the genus that works best with Ollie. I also used the Yellow/Green Buncher, who looks like a bunch of bananas, he can be caught outside Al Mamoon, and makes a wonderful lifelong partner for Esther.
  • Keep an eye on your alchemy. You will obtain formulae for weapons upgrades for your human characters, who - apart from Ollie - don't get regular upgrades.
  • Revisit ol' Tree Face (you'll see) when you get a chance. He presents you with new goodies after your initial meeting if you tell him your story so far.
  • Visit all of the small islands, and investigate any suspicious gatherings of trees, or anything that looks like a cave. You'll often discover a small hidden glade or cave with treasure inside!
  • Once you progress the story to northern Autumnia, if you're in need of some serious leveling,
    look for a baddie outside Perdida called "Tokotoko". This little bad boy gives off massive exp. if you manage to defeat him! He's a small, green, pear-shaped character with ears and wields a sort of wand. He appears somewhat rarely on the path leading up to Perdida. He can run away from battle so you will have to attack him quickly. If you've already completed the story in Perdida (Horace branch of quests), you will have a spell that will help you hunt these little buggers down. A few of these, and you'll will level up significantly.

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