I used to love Japanese role-playing games.
The Playstation 3 game, available today, is the result of a collaboration between two key creative studios at the top of their respective games: Studio Ghibli, the animation house responsible for legendary features like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, and Level-5, the game creator responsible for the huge-selling Professor Layton and Dragon Quest IX games. The game itself looks like a Ghibli film come to life, with vibrant in-game graphics. Sprinkled throughout the adventure are 2-D animated scenes crafted by Ghibli, looking every bit like the visuals in its popular films. And it’s all set to an upbeat orchestrated soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi, who creates the music for Ghibli’s films, and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic.
Although the genre was inspired by American computer RPGs like Ultima and Wizardry, by the mid-’90s it had settled on its own unique style and gameplay formula. The stereotypical Japanese RPG was like a little anime cartoon, one in which a party of plucky young kids would leave their tiny village and go see the world, hacking away at little bunny rabbits in the fields around their hometown, then gaining enough experience to take down massive dragons and save the Earth from doom. They were simple to pick up, won you over with charming stories, graphics and music, and for players like me they were vastly preferable to the insanely complicated and murderously difficult Western style of games.
But as the genre became less popular worldwide, it has almost completely vanished in recent years. The ones that do make it out tend to be cheaply made and thus low in quality. Enter Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a remarkably well-made new RPG that perfectly recaptures the magic of a long-dead style of gaming.
After the game’s prologue, which sets up the reason that its leading moppet Oliver has to leave his small town and travel to “Ni no Kuni” (Japanese for “the second world”), you’re dropped off into the world, and it’s immediately transfixing: Like the great Japanese RPGs of old, it sets you down onto a world map where you can see rolling hills and faraway places beckoning to you, enemies crawling around the field begging to be defeated, a castle town ripe for the exploration. And instantly, you’re hooked; you need to know what’s out there.
What’s out there turns out to be a cast of characters drawn and written with masterful panache, from your gruff companion Drippy, a squat little beast with a lantern dripping out of his nose who insists he is Lord of the Fairies but produces little evidence for this, to the Cowlipha, the massive ruler of the desert town of Al Mamoon, where milk flows freely from its fountains. If you like, you can listen to the original Japanese voices (I wish more translated games showed this amount of respect for the original material), but the English dubbing is quite good as well. Level-5′s localization director Richard Honeywood is the ne plus ultra of Japanese RPG translation, and so the English writing is also fantastic.
I’m about 10 hours in to Ni no Kuni, feeling like I’m maybe a third of the way through. So I might not quite have a full picture of the game’s battle system, which you’ll spend a good deal of your time in. So far it’s kind of a light combination of Final Fantasy and Pokemon — you can get through most battles just by fighting and occasionally pausing to heal, but you can also assemble a collection of up to 400 different “familiars” that fight alongside you. You get these by wooing defeated enemies over to your side, the implication being that all of the game’s low-level enemy characters are also potential allies. It may come to pass that you’ll need certain characters in your group to pass certain challenges, but thus far, just leveling up one character has been enough to kill anything that I come across.
But this is not why Ni no Kuni is so good. The game’s design doles out rewards and challenges in a near-perfect rhythm. As you enter that first castle town, you could simply race to the one person you need to talk to, get your next objective, then run there and do it. But to do that would be to miss the opportunity to tackle side quests. You might have to solve a problem for a villager by talking to the right people, or go out into the world and bounty-hunt a strong monster that’s roaming the fields. Accomplishing these quests earns you very tangible rewards: The ability to run a little faster (a godsend), more loot and experience drops during battle, etc. It’s so satisfying to get out there and check sidequests off your list, and to do it while listening to Hisaishi’s rousing musical score.
I read a commenter on the NeoGAF message boards analogize playing Ni no Kuni to going on a strict diet for five years, then eating a cheeseburger. I couldn’t agree more. Japanese RPGs, or what pass for them nowadays, have lost the plot. Here’s a game that proves the genre can still work, even if it’s no longer financially lucrative to try. If you’ve ever loved a classic JRPG or are a fan of Studio Ghibli’s films, do not miss this.