This is a different post on a variety of levels. First, it’s a video game review, something The Cinematic Katzenjammer has been dancing around for quite some time but never has seen before. Second, this is also the unofficial, but official, announcement of Virtual Katz, a new section on the site that’s aimed to give you an insight into the world of video games. While games aren’t quite movies (yet), they have become increasingly more and more cinematic, with cut-scenes, motion capture technologies, and of course, voice acting. And, I figured what best way to introduce the feature than to review a video game that Studio Ghibli (yes, the Miyazaki owned studio) and Level-5 co-produced- Ni No Kuni.
Ni No Kuni is a traditional Japanese role playing game (JRPG). Set in a fantasy world that shares “souls” with our own, we follow the story of Oliver, a young boy who’s struggling to find his place in the world after his mother passes away. Unbeknownst to Oliver, his childhood toy, a raggedy doll, is actually Mr. Drippy, the Lord High Lord of the Fairies. After Oliver’s tears bring his doll to life, Mr. Drippy tells him that he’s not just an ordinary boy, but a wizard. Transporting the duo to Drippy’s own world, Oliver learns that the “soul mate” (one who shares a connection with someone in another world) of his mother is still alive, and that saving her may save his own mother. Thus, Oliver embarks on a quest, in a strange world, to become the almighty wizard he was destined to be. To defeat the evil Shadar, Oliver teams up with a young girl, a pesky thief, and a forlorn prince, as well as hundreds of familiars (creatures) that he utilizes in battle. Thus is the story behind Ni No Kuni: The Wrath of the White Witch.
Right off the bat, we’re introduced to a gorgeous world that’s inhabited by all sorts of characters and creatures. In Ding Dong Dell, we see a quiet city ruled by a king cat, who’s arch-nemesis is the mouse king of the city’s sewers. We travel to Al Mamoon, a desert oasis under the watchful eye of Queen Lowlah, a giant woman/cow who has quite the appetite. And we also venture to Hamelin, a steampunk-inspired realm ruled by a cowardly prince who makes all of his residents wear bulky suits of armor that resemble pigs. From the beginning and throughout all of the adventures of Oliver, it’s obvious that Studio Ghibli is behind the game. So much creativity and colorful characters are strewn throughout the game it’s hard to deny knowing exactly where it all came from. To make things even more interesting, Ni No Kuni has dozens (probably even more) references to Ghibli films, from a boss battle with Porco Grosso to an encounter with My Neighbor Tontoro. While a lot of these could easily go overlooked to those not familiar with the studio, the little Easter eggs only add an extra layer of bliss to an already incredible game. Without a doubt, we’re transported to this world that immediately feels like home and as we discover its secrets, inhabitants, and its beauty, we begin to realize that we never want to leave.
The game-play of Ni No Kuni is as original as it’s story. You can have up to three people in your party at a time, with each person having 3 familiars they can call upon in battle. Figuring out which familiar works best with which person is the key to victory, as well as learning when to use what particular kind of familiar. Each creature is given a celestial sign as well as a genus, and just like any other RPG, the types go against each other in a rock-paper-scissors kind of formula. In battle, each familiar has a stamina bar (that increases as you level up) and once the bar is depleted, you must call upon another familiar or resume battle as your character. Controlling one character at a time leaves a lot to be relied on when it comes to the AI of the others, and while they work wonders early on in the game, the AI gets a bit clunky towards the end, spamming unnecessary magic and wasting valuable healing spells left and right. While you will find yourself controlling Oliver for most of the game, you can easily switch between characters and assign tactics to your comrades. It’s also worth noting that each familiar can only use a particular number of skills, so choosing which abilities to equip to your creatures proves another challenge. Similar to Pokemon, each familiar grows stronger the more you connect with them (you can feed them treats and gems) and of course, can evolve when they reach a certain level, which their final form being your decision between two different types.
Now, the first thing I always wonder when I start a new game is the length. I never want to put down $60 on something and only have a 8-10 hour campaign before I have to start replaying it to find its worth. Luckily, with Ni No Kuni, the game is literally endless. There are hundreds upon hundreds of side-quests and bounty hunts that will keep you busy (we’ll get to these later) and just when you think you have everything complete, a dozen more will open up for you. I did every quest I could do before I headed to the final dungeon and at that point I was clocked in at about 40 hours. Once the credits roll, however, you’re returned to the world for a whole lot more, with your assigned task being “Explore what else the world has to offer”. While that seems vague, you’re given the chance to do almost 30 new quests, unlock new spells and stories, and revisit old bosses and locations to uncover even more secrets. It’s almost as though you are starting a brand new game, and as I write this review I’m sitting at the 50 hours mark with a few more quests to go. Of course, aiming for 100% completion may not be for everyone, but if it’s something you desire when playing a game, Ni No Kuni will present one hell of a challenge. Hell, the Wizard’s Companion, Oliver’s handy spell book has enough stories, spells, and secret messages to keep you occupied for hours on end.
Going in depth a little bit more for the side quests Ni No Kuni has a variety of things you can do when you’re not following the main story line. First off are Errands (or quests) that are posted on a board in each town. Upon completion of each errand, you earn items, guilders (the game’s gold), and merit stamps, which you collect on cards that you can turn in for even better rewards. Some of these quests involve giving pieces of heart to individuals, some needing a bit of creativity or enthusiasm, or a lone soul needing a bit of love. This is a small aspect of the quests, but when you realize what you’re doing, it’s a simple little humbling experience that brings a smile to your face. Moving on to the bounty quests, another way to collect merit stamps, are simple find and destroy missions. These are your closest fights to “mini” bosses and the game has about 100 or so to fight through. Seriously, I am not lying. You finish five, another ten open up. This goes on forever. The descriptions of the locations for these bounties can also be a bit challenging, so the hunt is even more rewarded once you finally track the creature down in the massive world of Ni No Kuni. Along with these two aspects which play a large part in the game, there are also hundreds of hidden treasures to be found, a gladiator like coliseum hidden locations, and yes, even a casino (I spent about four hours playing blackjack). What you can do in this game is pretty much endless and only adds to its value.
Of course, any game you play is not all about the extras. You can do a million different quests but if a game lacks a strong central plot, you’re left in the cold. Ni No Kuni’s main story line is far from weak, with themes you’d never expect to come across in a game that looks so innocent. While the game takes place in a colorful, vibrant, and overall joyous realm, some of the biggest moments in the story are some of the most heart-wrenching things I have experienced in a game. Oliver is a very young boy who’s trying to overcome the death of his mother (which plays out in an emotional cinematic) and as his journey continues, the secrets that are revealed only add to the emotion. Specific reveals leave you speechless, and while you can see a few of them coming, seeing it all play out pulls at your heart strings. It’s a very mature tale that’s bundled in a fancy package, and as each layer is pulled away and the heart of the story comes forward, you’re left a bit of a mess and rather amazed at what’s happening. A lot of this success can be contributed to Studio Ghibli’s involvement, seeing that their entire filmography utilizes the cute but emotionally effective method of story-telling. Ghibli also brings in long-time partner and master music composer, Joe Hisaishi to deliver the game’s score, which brings the emotion to an even higher level, with each piece of music fitting each environment wonderfully. Just as everyone had their favorite piece of music from, say Final Fantasy, when they were younger, Ni No Kuni certainly has its own memorable music. Along with the soundtrack, Ni No Kuni has a terrific voice cast (something you don’t get too often when a game is localized) and Oliver and all of his friends (and villains) feel like fully fleshed out characters. Each character has his/her own personality, allowing you to fall in love with them even easier.
Ni No Kuni is its own experience that must be played to be fully enjoyed. It’s an amazing throwback to games long forgotten, with a story-line that hits closer to home than you could ever imagine. It’s a PlayStation 3 exclusive that almost warrants a purchase of the system if you don’t own one already and is worth the $60 price tag. Ni No Kuni is the rare kind of game that has something for everyone (similar to Studio Ghibli’s own films) and is a perfect example of how an experiment can work. When a beloved animation studio teams up with one of the best game developers, you know you’re in for a treat. And luckily for us, and for the genre, Ni No Kuni delivers.
a beautiful soundtrack that accompanies amazing visuals, breathing an entirely new level of life into an imaginative world
towards the end of the game, when you rely more heavily on your allies, the AI gets all sorts of annoying and the very valuable magic points and healing spells become even harder to ration, as are the items used to restore these aspects
a story that’s much more mature than you’re led to believe and emotional moments (usually marked by gorgeous cinematic cut scenes) that leave you with a tad bit of moisture in your eyes… maybe
addictive game-play that never ceases to give you something to do, from hundreds of errands, bounty hunts, and side quests to keep you busy for hours.. oh, and the hundreds of familiars you can catch (yes, like Pokemon)