The problem with reviewing Japanese role-playing games is that they take an extraordinarily long time to finish. It's like asking someone to watch the entire "Lost" saga in a week and expecting him to produce a coherent write-up.
Players have to live with the game, master its systems and be consumed by the journey. That's what I'm doing with "Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch," and the process is taking longer than I expected, so this is more my impression of Level 5's latest game.
After spending 20 hours with the JRPG, I'm already engrossed in it. Part of the reason is that "Ni No Kuni" is just so different from the fare indicative of the genre on today's consoles. There are no heroes with giant swords out to save the world from some cataclysmic disaster. It lacks the overwrought CGI and sci-fi elements.
Thank Studio Ghibli for the fresh perspective. The animators responsible for Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" and "My Neighbor Totoro" worked with Level 5 on "Ni No Kuni" by providing art direction and other support. That makes this JRPG so enchanting. It has a wide-eyed innocence to it, almost as if it were a children's movie that players can take part in.
Gamers take on the role of Oliver, a boy who loses his mother after she rescues him from a car accident. Despondent over her death, he spills tears that break the spell on one of his dolls, which turns out to be a fairy. Mr. Drippy, as the creature is called, brings him to another world, one where there's hope that he can still revive his mother.
All Oliver has to do is become a powerful wizard and defeat the Dark Djinn, Shadar, and the White Witch who commands him. Throughout the adventure, players will be moving back and forth between the fantasy world and the modern one in the town of Motorville, as the two are connected.
It sounds complicated, but Level 5 and Studio Ghibli ease players into the whimsical plot. The gorgeous visuals and compelling combat system will keep them hooked. The graphics are stunning, and "Ni No Kuni" becomes less of an JRPG and more of playable Miyazaki creation. Sometimes, the computer-generated scenes are indistinguishable from the animated clips sprinkled in the campaign.
As for the combat, it has a mixture of action and turn-based elements. Players can move around and even jump in battle, but they have to select commands to attack, defend or use abilities. Where it gets interesting is that Oliver and his companions can use familiars, creatures that they produce or capture in the wild, to fight. This introduces a heavy dose of "Pokemon" into the gameplay.
Players can evolve a familiar to make them more powerful, giving them armor and weapons. They also can feed and care for them, which improves their stats. But the big thing is collecting these creatures, and with about 350 types in "Ni No Kuni," players will spend hours trying to collect them all and come up with an uber team.
In addition to combat, several side quests offer plenty of activities, such as errands or bounty hunter missions. On top of that, there's a crafting system that uses random items that Oliver picks up over his quest. For those who want puzzles, "Ni No Kuni" has enough simple ones to keep the game from getting stale, so it's not always about going to a faraway land to kill something.
The one qualm I have is the pacing. "Ni No Kuni" moves slowly, and like many JRPGs, there's loads of grinding. Depending on players' patience, it can wear them down. But the tantalizing reward of seeing more of the world that Miyazaki's team envisioned seems to be just enough to keep them going.
After spending a few more hours with "Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch," a few strengths were amplified and some flaws began to show up in an otherwise sterling Japanese role-playing game.
First the strengths: Studio Ghibli's art direction holds up this carefully woven title. It's the one element that will keep players hooked as minor annoyances and quest fatigue creep in.
It works because there's a vibrancy and freshness to "Ni No Kuni" that many JRPGs don't have. As gamers, we've been so inundated with eye candy that our senses crave something that doesn't smack of overelaborate CGI. We want surprises. Studio Ghibli consistently delivers those as players delve deeper into the world. It becomes more surreal as they play.
With that said, players will learn to appreciate the combat, and it becomes more action-oriented than JRPG veterans would expect. In difficult boss battles, it's all about timing and how quickly players can input commands before their foes telegraph their attacks. Although that wrinkle makes encounters more interesting, the artificial intelligence of your allies can be a hindrance. They sometimes need constant baby-sitting so they can stay alive in battles, and they don't seem to do their jobs.
More blemishes appear later as players constantly dive into menus to do menial tasks like cast a spell. At one point I had to cast the same spell more than half a dozen times to speak with every single crab in cave. (That's another odd story.)
If developers expect players to spend more than 40 hours with a game, they should make the experience as effortless as possible. The gameplay should immerse the players in the story instead of making the adventure feel like burdensome work. And that's the heart of the JRPG. It's the grind. It's a delicate balance, in which players should feel like they're improving with each confrontation. At the end, the reward is that sense of growth and accomplishment as they beat a previously powerful foe.
It satisfies that belief that hard work pays off while also showing players the rewards of experimentation and improving their strategy. But at times, "Ni No Kuni" deviates from this balancing act and turns the game into toil, but it's that art and those enchanting characters that cushions the experience from these pitfalls.
'Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch'
* * * ½
PLATFORM: PlayStation 3
RATING: Everyone 10+