tiistai 6. elokuuta 2013

REVIEW - Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch | PS3 | 2011

RELEASED: November 17, 2011
PUBLISHER(S): Level 5, Namco Bandai Games

In 2010, Level 5 collaborated with Studio Ghibli, a famed Japanese animation film studio known for anime classics such as Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro, to create a tactical RPG for the Nintendo DS by the name of Ni no Kuni: Shikkoku no Madōshi. Midway into the game's well-publicized production, Level 5 announced that an PlayStation 3 version of the game was also in the works, up for an international release, and that the two games would have very little in common besides some very basic aspects of the storyline; the PlayStation 3 version, named Wrath of the White Witch, was intended to be a revival of the golden era of Japanese role-playing, the golden era when games like Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Trigger ruled the scene. A truly unique, magical game, which was to feature cutscenes hand-drawn by a team of Ghibli artists; a massive, traditional J-RPG soundtrack by legendary anime composer Joe Hisaishi; finally, an immersive world for the player to explore freely. It's a well-known fact that I'm not a fan of overtly Japanese expression, but Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a game I simply could not pass; I simply had to see if it cashed in on the dozens of promises, especially since its international release was delayed for nearly a year and a half into its launch in Japan. It kicked my old prejudiced ass and came back for seconds. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is awesome.

The best thing to do its thing since Final Fantasy X

Adam Wilson : Oliver
Lauren Mote : Esther / Myrtle
Louis Tamone : Swaine
Steffan Rhodri : Drippy
Jennifer Bryden : Cassiopeia
Brian Protheroe : Shadar
Jo Wyatt : Allie / Alicia
Lily Burgering : Pea
Alexander Morton : Old Father Oak
Colin McFarlane : Rashaad / Rusty Cartwright

Single mother Allie dies rescuing her son Oliver's life. Oliver's tears of sorrow bring life to a doll given to him by his mother, which reveals its identity as Drippy, a fairy spellbound until the day he would come in strong emotional contact with "the pure-hearted one", a great wizard and prophesied savior of his world, which has been ravaged by the Dark Djinn Shadar. The grief-stricken Oliver initially refuses Drippy's invitation to adventure, but accepts the task after hearing that Allie's soul mate and Shadar's arch nemesis, the Great Sage Alicia, might still be alive, and finding her might be the key to bringing Allie back.

Although the issue's a big ol' red cloth for me, let's just drop how Japanese the game is. I have spent the golden majority of my years as a gamer with several Final Fantasy games - especially VII, IX and X - Chrono Trigger, and from the less obvious and less marketed end: Golden Sun, Illusion of Gaia, and finally, Namco's Tales series, which could in principle be seen as a spiritual predecessor to this game. Let's look at what has happened to the J-RPG in the last seven years: in reality, it has ceased to exist, after countless failures and if I might say so, (almost) completely useless adaptation of the Western style.

We're here.
Square Enix have totally destroyed Final Fantasy. They're desperately trying to make long-time fans merely ACCEPT whatever crap they're brewing up from leftover ideas, and won't listen to 'em at all: we want a Final Fantasy VII remake, we'll probably never get anything besides the useless 2012 re-release of the PC version. We want at least a good, solid Final Fantasy game with a compelling story: we get a horrible MMO which is up for a complete reimagining next month, and sequels upon sequels to a single Final Fantasy game that was bad to begin with. Not much of a game, at that - more like a movie that forced you to grind for hours upon hours and WATCH boring battles so you could WATCH your team kick the final boss' ass. You pressed one action button just to keep yourself awake, that's exactly what it was. Since Square Enix has pretty much been the monopoly of J-RPG since the two companies merged, it's a bad omen for them to totally lose control of their flagship. As for the rest of the Square Enix RPG's that have been released in the few recent years, they have a) not mattered much, b) outright sucked, c) never been released internationally, or d) all of the above.

Meanwhile, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's Mistwalker is dishing out perfectly enjoyable, if not fantastic RPG's, but no one really takes notice except truly dedicated fans of a certain age. After all these years, all the solid proof that they've lost their edge, and all the solid proof that this edge is very present in indie games that don't have millions of dollars worth of advertising on their side, it's still the Square Enix logo that makes the game. Some people believe it's because of Square Enix's financial dominance over the scene that the international release of Ni no Kuni was laid so far off from its release in Japan. The developers firmly stand behind their statement that it was always coming to the U.S. and Europe, which leads us to believe that it was the heavy translatory work that had to be made for the game, all of its features and collector's paraphernalia that took so much time from the wholly independent Level 5 to accomplish. That's why the DS game never made it this far. Words can't express how glad I am that the PlayStation 3 game did. I'm telling you right now: if you ever enjoyed the golden era of J-RPG, I think you'll find a lot to love in Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.

I'm definitely not an anime fan, but I'm also not too thick-headed of a hater to not acknowledge Ni no Kuni's technological achievements. The graphics are simply gorgeous; the cutscenes are completely hand-drawn and animated in a traditional anime style, and the in-game graphics really aren't all that different, although the polygon outlines show up in close-ups to reveal the truth; they're also a bit more colourful. The more I play games with cel-shaded graphics, the more I like the style! Besides, making the game look like a storybook come to life is a refreshing throwback to the 16-bit era of J-RPG in itself. I couldn't imagine this game with trendy, wholly polygon-based graphics or realistic human characters. Ni no Kuni might therefore be the first traditional anime I've ever liked without the slightest hope that it would look different. When it comes to Ni no Kuni's look, I don't cruelly think of it as a spawn of an artform I truly despise, more like a faithful graphical update to a game like the original Tales of Phantasia. That's a huge compliment, in case you're wondering. While the voiceover track constantly lingers on the brink of crossing my personal limit of endurance due to the main characters being so outright DUMB in the core sense of the word (less voiceover and more text towards the end, by the way), the symphonic soundtrack performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and written by Joe Hisaishi - who's somewhat of a legend in the anime circuit - is simply awesome. Not since Final Fantasy VI have I enjoyed a world map theme this much, and just like "Terra" in that game, it turns out somewhat of a common theme song for the whole game.

Bedlam at the beach!
Speaking of the world map, and Final Fantasy at that, I honestly don't remember the last game that allowed me to explore the world myself and didn't simply lay a list of hotspots to choose from before me. Might've been Final Fantasy IX. That was a long while ago and I can't tell you how happy I am right now. However, Ni no Kuni's world is not that big and you'll set foot in all of the major three kingdoms within the first ten hours of the story; considering the (near) old-school length of the game, it's not hard to figure out that you'll be doing a whole lot of backtracking. Actually, there's very likely a sidequest or two waiting to be nailed somewhere in the world after each main objective, whether you just reached a major destination or beat a boss. If you're into some heavy sidequesting - you'll simply have to adapt if you're not - you'll be glad to know that you won't have to walk to get around all that long. Various types of transport become available on the go, including a fast travel system with the small fee of one mana point.

At several points of the storyline, as well as some sidequests, you'll have to pay a quick visit to Oliver's home world, which is as close to "real world" as you can get in a J-RPG. Everyone in the other world has a soulmate, a "doppelganger" back in the real world, so if helping someone out isn't possible in the other world, dealing with their troubles in the real world might do the trick. Since there's not anything to do in Oliver's hometown besides running these quick errands every once in a while, and maybe engage in a boss fight if you're lucky, I don't really enjoy these sequences - it's always an awkward pause to a good flow. Besides, what I said about the characters being dumb as boots, real people are even dumber and extremely annoying. Seriously, it takes hours before the characters realize the most obvious things. What the characters treat as an epic surprise, a dramatic turn of events that was meant to blow your mind and your morning coffee out of your ears, you'll shrug off with a well-cooked "no shit" and be glad that "mystery" is over and dealt with.

Since we're already discussing the characters here, let's get one thing straight: it's only the quantity of stoopid pills they popped before the start of this adventure that's the problem. I'm surprised how strong I perceive the story as, and even more surprised of my acceptance of the most important cast being comprised of kids. Oliver's the most potentially annoying one (can anyone say "Ha Ri Po Ta"?), but he has the severe personality issues of every J-RPG lead character I know to deal with later on in the story, and it's a treat to watch his coming of age and constantly decreasing use of his "Jeepers!" exclamation. Esther's the mandatory girlfriend material, someone who is always there to take note of Oliver's fits of despair and remind him of the destiny that is his alone. The thief Swaine's the sharpest pencil in the box, although that's not much of a compliment - he's older and wiser than the lead duo, though probably the least mature one of the three. Needless to say, he's my favourite character out of the playable ones; there are more, but they show up uncharacteristically late, and thus don't have as strong of a build-up as this aforementioned trio.

My favourite characters in the whole game would have to be Drippy and the supposed lead villain, the Dark Djinn Shadar. Drippy's probably the least fair fairy I've ever seen, and always there to crack an honestly good joke in a hilarious Welsh accent to ease the mood as long as the voiceover track lasts. Shadar is built from the ground up as a truly malicious character, who's kept responsible for every single evil in the world. When he speaks, the player listens, and when you finally get to face off with him, you'll be dishing out some genuine hate instead of thinking what to eat after you've dealt with this final spot of mud on your shoe. I'd go out on a limb and boldly claim we haven't seen a J-RPG villain quite like Shadar in over 15 years, let alone in any game that has any sort of voiceovers; that gravelly voice is one of his strongest qualities. However, anyone who's played these games knows damn well that fighting Shadar isn't the end; but unlike in many games of yore, anyone who's paid any attention to the hours leading into this epic fight knows it too. The alpha villain is not just some god or alien or some other formless entity popping out of the purest blue, but another character properly built up - the mere title of the game should tell you something.

Fancy a game of slots at the undead casino?
Back to things to do in the field: sidequests. During act one out of two in the game - the much longer one - Oliver is tasked with restoring people's hearts to the way they were before Shadar's dark magic came along. The whole heart-thing pours over from the storyline to the sidequests - it's like Kingdom Hearts all over again, as everyone's babbling on about hearts, not worried about the player's BRAINS at all. So these people have lost their basic good emotions and qualities, such as enthusiasm, belief, courage, love and whatnot. The way this works is that you find someone with an abundance of one of these qualities to share, store a piece of their hearts in your locket, and deliver it to one in need. Simple - almost too simple to carry on for so many hours without any radical developments. Well, sometimes there's a boss fight against someone who has had his heart SERIOUSLY broken, but that never happens during a sidequest. There are various types of errands for you to embark on, but I don't blame you if you feel you're getting bombarded with these matters of the heart. You should do them all at once if you're planning on completing the game to the hilt, because from a certain point onward, you cannot take the heart-related errands on anymore, nor can you finish any you started before. Just a heads-up from someone who forgot to finish one...

Bounty hunts are exactly the same as in Final Fantasy XII - you go to a shop dealing with this kind of stuff, called Swift Solutions, from where you'll find a collective of the available errands as well, and take on all which is available, and which you have the balls for. You go out into the field and search the map for an outstanding enemy, and you'll even get a chance to save just before you face off with him. When you're done, you need to go back to Swift to claim the bounty, which is precious loot toppled with a whole bunch of merit stamps. ...Merit stamps? What do I look like, a freakin' boy scout?!

Merit stamps are the reason to go out to break your limbs with both the sidequests and the bounty hunts. Every time you fill out a stamp card (10 stamps), you'll get a point to claim a merit award with. These awards start out as useless as you can imagine ("look, now you can press O to jump, doesn't make any difference at all but it's FUN!") but there are some epic ones to be claimed later assuming you've got the mandatory epic amount of points to exchange. These make enemies drop more valuable items (and more often), enable you to restore HP while walking, and give you several minor advantages on the field as well as in battle.

Did I fail to mention you have your own
dragon? How silly of me: you have your
own dragon.
Again, I'm jumping ahead of what I should've dealt with a lot earlier, but alchemy's my next target. Although this is an old-fashioned game, I think no RPG would survive nowadays without a lil' bit of crafting on the side. As it's been in RPG's for years, shops turn out pretty useless once you learn the ways of alchemy and start to get weapons, armour and accessories from treasure chests. Besides, the shops in Ni no Kuni never restock their wares, and again, you run out of new wares to peruse not too far into the game. Talking to every single NPC in the game is not very sensical at first, but once you take alchemy lessons, you should talk to everyone 'cause some of them might give up some alchemy formulae; even the bad ones count, and they always give you more than one. You can always try to do it your own or consult the alchemy section of your Wizard's Companion book for some extras - these COULD automatically be added to the list of formulae, but nah, the game wants you to do it the hard way... - but mixing items to no avail of course destroys the items, and the more of a rare find an item is in this game, the more useful it is. So, just keep digging up those instructions. Do not touch Mix & Match without the Wizard's Companion as your aid.

Finally, I will tell you about familiars. "Finally", because they're such an important part of this here experience, and the reason I delayed discussing them for so long is that combat goes both ways. It hobbles on a thin line of being the strongest and weakest suit of this game, and besides, how it plays out screams out "Pokémon" so loud that if I wasn't certain this game was going to rock, I would've given up on it at a very early stage. I'm glad I didn't. Every regular enemy you meet on this small-world-sized round trip is called a Familiar. Familiars also (literally) grow on trees and you get your first Familiar by conjuring the little bastard up from your own heart, but after picking up Esther, you can tame and enlist the aid of any regular, consenting enemy. You can recruit up to three Familiars per party member - the rest of them go to the reserves, and when those reserves are full, they continue on to the Familiar Retreat, a common storage you can browse at any solid save point to build a supergroup of your own choice. Every playable character has his/her own variety of favourite species, which somewhat boosts their Familiars' talent, and there are also a couple of must-haves by default due to their potential physical prowess and/or magical talent on high levels, but most of the choice is all yours. Oh, and that first one you get? Keep him. Use him. It pays off a little TOO well. It's not quite as simple as my friend said, but he has a point: that the Familiar system would have a lot of potential if it was not just the one Familiar you absolutely needed. You need others, most definitely, as combat can be quite tricky despite its simple beginnings - and not in a wholly good way, I'm afraid.

At best, you have 12 characters in your active combat squad. The three Familiars of each character share their host's HP, MP and status ailments such as Blind or Confuse, and vice versa, but you can set everyone up with different equipment that makes a difference for them alone, or grants a tactical advantage for the whole row - for example, a sword that replenishes HP (for everyone in the row) with each strike. You can switch characters any time - switching characters, choosing tactics and choosing items are the only tasks that stop time during battles. Let's go over the pros first: basically, Ni no Kuni has the most exciting and dynamic battle system I have seen in any RPG in a long time. Although it all begins as a mash-'til-you-top-or-drop kinda game, it soon becomes evident that you'll need other advantages than physical power, such as aptitude for tactical defense, or a knack for quickly spotting the enemy's weak elemental spot and exploiting that, and very soon, all of these three core capabilities together. Especially boss fights can be fun, once you get over the worst quirks. Nothing's more rewarding than successfully defending yourself from the boss' most devastating attack, watching him get exhausted over attempting to kick your ass with it, pick up a golden gem and let it rip with a Super-Charged counterattack that has a good chance of finishing up a low-level boss for good at once, a minute into the fight.

Shadar's awesome when he speaks.
Well, the cons... first of all, if you're planning to keep it all together and become a master at this, I can tell you right now that's not possible, 'cause so much in Ni no Kuni depends on luck and undivided focus. The combat menu is a bitch to navigate and not every Familiar has a basic skill such as Defend. If you want to gain the perks that come with successful defense, you need to quickly switch to the host or a Familiar capable of defending, and hope that the enemy loads the attack for half a more second. Usually, he doesn't, and this kind of hectic menu toggling destroys a good, concentrated flow, but that's far from the worst problem. The first of these problems is, that the characters you're not in control of at the moment tend to do the strangest things. They do what you tell them to do in the Tactics menu (a one-time deal, until you decide to change them, luckily)... as long as their MP lasts. That's not too long, I'm afraid. If you're counting on one person and his/her Familiars to heal the party, be wary that his/her MP might run out in record time into a boss fight, as his/her Familiars will use the most devastating magic (in other words, the most consuming magic) against enemies as long as everyone in the party's moderately fine. They can't use items by themselves, you need to be there to make that order - which is good, of course, but they also can't defend themselves. The only way to get them on auto-defense is to make them all defend at once, leaving you to do battle alone. There's no middle road. Finally, the worst problem of them all is, that your attacks - be they physical, magical, even Super-Charged - can be interrupted by anything, at any time. Another party member's actions, the enemy's actions, even a fucking tutorial by Drippy. As awesome as Drippy is, during combat the little pipsqueak WILL get on your nerves sooner or later, and he's dishing out those tutorials right up 'til the end of the game. Let's put it this way: you're fighting the final boss, your ass is sailing a sea of sweat, you get a Super-Charged gem that you've been after for the last ten minutes and the ensuing attack would spell an end for the boss. You load up the Super-Charged attack (also called the Miracle Move, by the way), and... in comes Drippy, telling you about the boss' weaknesses, a joke about how big and strong they are and all that shit. Back to the normal screen, and your Super-Charged attack is gone with the wind. Thanks. Thanks a bunch. No, you can't turn Drippy's hints off, if you're wondering. Luckily this hint system is the only crap you can't get accustomed to. Oh, and there's also this one bit where you have to translate some ancient language into English. It lures you to carefully consult the chart on the spot to decrypt the puzzle. Well, just guess what Drippy does after you've gone to lengths to translate the text? He outright tells you what it says. Of course he does.

Speedrunning's never been my thing. I've never seen the point in it. I've heard of people who've blasted through this game in 40 hours or less - which is the length of just about any fairly recent Western game without their add-ons - and I consider that speedrunning, 'cause even if it was perfectly possible, you won't get this game's magic in that time. Hell, I was probably merely finishing up with the first act at the 40-hour mark. I'm the (right) kind of RPG gamer that tries to do everything - even I lost interest in sidequesting towards the end, especially since I couldn't do the heart-restoring quests anymore, and still I ended up with a little over 60 hours of play time when the credits rolled. As you might've guessed, and will be absolutely certain of when you reach the final hallway to the epic series of final bosses, the end is actually not the end. There's plenty of post-completion content for you to enjoy if you're still interested; minigames, errands, bounties, superbosses, you name it. Aaaaaand, since this is a PlayStation 3 game, there's still a whole lot of Trophies waiting for you to claim them after the story ends; actually there are quite a few of them that are simply not possible to grab during the storyline. Although it's not as big as J-RPG's used to be, the game has other ways of offering bang for your buck.

Two games of this generation have been delivered to us at the exact right time: Dead Space and Ni no Kuni. Two completely different games that have breathed new life into and cashed in on what their quick descriptions used to stand for. But, Ni no Kuni does not only represent the resurrection of true J-RPG, it's also a wonderful game, one of the PlayStation 3's best exclusives at that. I might be a little less prejudiced about anime from now on... then again, I might not. Heh. Anyway, it's out on sale - get it.

+ What is it, in a nutshell? The truest J-RPG in ten years, that's what
+ Gorgeous graphics and massive sound
+ A small, yet immersive world map you're absolutely free to explore how you see fit...
+ ...And it comes with secrets...
+ ...And lots of sidequests and bounty hunts to take on
+ A good story with exciting twists, and surprisingly good characters...

- ...They're "a bit" on the dumb side, though
- Drippy's tutorials and hints might well drive you insane
- The otherwise dynamic combat system has its disadvantages, such as rude interruptions by the enemies as well as your own group, disfunctional A.I., and all-around hectic pace kind of similar to the combat system in Final Fantasy X-2
- The constant backtracking and especially the mandated trips to the "real world" will certainly piss off some people; as all of us die-hard gamers are well aware, real world is boring :)

< 9.3 >

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