Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a game I've been excited about since I learnt about its cousin Ni no Kuni: Shikkoku no Madoshi on the Nintendo DS years ago. It's nearly out in America and Europe (and Australia, whoo!) and I've got my Wizard's Edition on pre-order. So Namco Bandai Games released a demo on the PlayStation 3 this week. It has one gigantic flaw: it's not out until next month and I'm extremely frustrated by this.
The game has fuelled a small obsession, not one I've felt for a brand new IP in some time. Level-5 promised a fantasy role-playing game with the art style of a Studio Ghibli animation. Since then I've found out Richard Honeywood is in charge of Level-5's localisation and it's being released with Japanese audio. Along the way I've seen numerous images filled with beautiful cel shading and very Ghibli-esque sensibilities. I've learnt the story revolves around Oliver, a young boy whose mother has recently passed away. Struck by grief a ray of hope appears - perhaps he can find her in Ni no Kuni (literally the 'two countries' - referring to the two parallel worlds). Thus ensues an adventure of colourful places and strange creatures. Pre-ordering the Wizard's Edition of this game was a no-brainer.
What I'd forgotten about when I started the demo were the reports of humour - the game is rife with quirky and loveable characters that literally leap out of the television just as spells leap from the pages of Oliver's spell book. Here we see Honeywood's ability to bring the tale unto his own (as seen in Dragon Quest VIII) with his ability to inject European dialects and and humour into dialogue that gives the tale a unique spin into the world of fantasy. Terms like "en flipping garde", "the big lump's only gone and knackered himself" and "Knickers! This looks serious Ollie-boy" are the speciality of Drippy, the fairy who came to life at Oliver's darkest hour to transport him to a world full of hope and wonder.
The gameplay is reminiscent of pokémon in that party members have familiars to battle in their place with unique abilities. Unlike that world, which as of late seems to have forgotten how to be inventive1 Ni no Kuni is quickly able to show it is more than a world driven by a set of creatures. The familiars fight alongside the party member; Oliver can be selected to cast spells and attack himself with a shared health and mana pool with his minions. Defending at the right time, or timing attacks to parry those of the enemy result in bonuses (and easier battles!) and the familiars and party members are able to roam the battle field in a manner similar to Star Ocean: The Last Hope - though not at the same fast pace. The game is also far less punishing than Eternal Sonata but does smack you hard if you don't defend during the stronger attacks from bosses. I died during the first boss fight, and felt really stupid. Having talked myself up ("you don't have the manual! It's your first time!") I went back in and showed that big tree who was boss (pun intended). This blend of strategy and simplicity found a middle ground that really worked for me.
This emerges as the greatest strength of Ni no Kuni - despite the game's somewhat punishing bosses (if you're not paying attention), the game seems to encourage the player to take their time and smell the roses. The breathtaking blend of Ghibli-style art, lavish backgrounds, small details in the way of environment (visible streams of wind and shadows from clouds above) and far off sounds all blend together to create a believable, lavish and wondrous fantasy world. Despite only being able to move along a set path on the map, Level-5 have clearly worked painstakingly hard to create the illusion of freedom from the constraints of a video game. The world map is expansive, and the player is able to roam freely aside from the visible enemies that give chase to initiate a battle.
Joe Hisaishi's score is unmistakably his own, evoking imagery from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind but still breaking away enough not to avoid it being simple and derivative. The Japanese audio is welcomed with open arms, not enough titles include it given how viable it is with today's technology, however I admit I tried both Japanese and English, and found the English to be a wonderful take on the original. As seen by reading the dubtitles along with the Japanese audio, Honeywood and his team have managed to inject a huge amount of originality and difference while not straying too far from the original story.
The demo has two parts: the first is set inside a forest where Oliver battles a forest guardian and is subsequently rewarded from Old "Barkface" Father Oak with the ability to capture and release hearts. After traversing to Ding Dong Bell (yup) the game shows you this in action - there's a guard who won't let anyone enter because he's lacking in enthusiasm (complete with a wonderfully exaggerated animation). The second guard has lots - he's pumped and ready to do his job - so you take some of his and give it to the first guard who snaps back to his normal self allowing the player (and a group of others - how long have they been waiting?) to enter the town.
The second part dumps the player onto a live volcano, where some small platforming elements are shown (sidling along a tight path with holes in the wall that shoot fire). In this demo you have a few more famliars and a new party member, Esther. Drippy insists you have only three minutes to ascend the volcano, and upon doing so admits it really was just an estimate designed to hurry you along (to the displeasure of Esther). A boss battle with Moltaan ensues and after dropping a giant boulder onto his head (after of course knocking him into a pit of lava) the demo ends.
Ni no Kuni is shaping up to be a wonderfully warm favourite blanket you snuggle up in during winter - the familiar and simple pleasure of traversing a fantasy land filled with bright characters, painstakingly created detail and humour proves that going back to basics can succeed to the highest degree.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is scheduled for release on the PlayStation 3 on January 22 in the United States and January 25 in Europe and Australia. The "Wizard's Edition" includes a number of extras most notably including a 300+ page hardcover book. The demo is available now on the PlayStation Network.