JRPG (Japanese RPG). It is a word that is synonymous with long grind sessions, backtracking, over-the-top heroes and villains and genre conventions that have mostly been stuck back in the 90's. The 1990's were definitely the heyday for the genre as you had the big dogs such as Squaresoft (Square-Enix they're called these days), Atlus and the like pumping out quality works year after year. I can't even begin to count how many hours I lost over the years embroiled in the latest Final Fantasy, a new Tales game or another Shin Megami Tensei. The last few years, however, have seen a much slower trickle of quality content.
Innovation, or rather a lack thereof, has been the problem with the genre. We haven't seen big changes to it since the 90's. I had begun to lose hope, honestly, until I got my hands on Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Level-5 and Studio Ghibli (Yes. The same one that gave us Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, etc.) partnered to provide not just fans of the genre a stellar game but one that takes all the good of the genre, bolds it and then reels you in with REALLY solid gameplay. It sunk its talons into me and refused to let go.
The crux of the story is a boy named Oliver. He lives in Motorville, a very Anytown, USA sort of place that looks like it was made for a Norman Rockwell painting. He is not the typical anti-hero, giant sword wielding, big haired, androgynous (seriously enough with that already) but is a real breath of fresh air. He is just a young boy with a pure heart. He loves his Mom, says his prayers and takes his vitamins. He loves cars and isn't much of a rambunctious sort. He is such a grounded and kind-hearted kid that when the world around him goes into upheaval he has his time to stumble but he picks himself and goes about his adventure. Get ready to have your feels punched repeatedly as you play this game.
He doesn't seek glory. He isn't in it for the riches or the babes. He wants to try and fix the pain inside of himself and, in the process, help others along the way. I was instantly drawn in by this and found myself caring so very much for Oliver and his friends. The things I usually obsessed over in these games such as stat boosts, attack orders, gear progression and the like just didn't matter as much as helping this young boy work through his sadness and help all around him. He just wants to right whats wrong and do good in a place that would have no part of it.
Story is all well and good but if the gameplay doesn't work then the game will fall flat on its face. I've played through plenty of titles in the genre that just fall short because of a true lack of solid gameplay. Ni No Kuni manages to take what was great about the Tales games and smash it directly into Pokemon. You make use of "familiars" throughout the game that you can capture as you go along. You can train them up, make them into lean and mean fighters and capture as many as you want. Or just capture a core team and stick with that. You aren't expected to collect them all and that's not the point. It does definitely add to the replay value of the game though as there are so many familiars to collect and train up that it offers a game within a game almost.
The battle system is real-time and all occur in open 3D planes that allow you to move around and dodge attacks. The player doesn't just press X to confirm attacks and hope it works. One must find weak points, actively mitigate damage if possible and swap in familiars and human characters on the fly. The combat is truly engaging this way and provides a much needed jolt of adrenaline at times. I had a blast playing through nearly every battle I came across with a few exceptions of enemies that were just plain out of my league at the time. It offers rewards for taking risks but doesn't just bury you if you make a mistake or two.
Progression is most definitely linear as you make your way through the story. There is a veritable cornucopia of side-quest content, though, to work through as one goes. They come in two flavors: Hunts and Errands. The approach is so very typical but the result is anything but that. Oliver goes on Errands, for example, not to just get some new item or some money but to help cure a broken heart. He can embolden their courage, help them find kindness or even discover love. These are manifest in pieces he collects that he can deliver back to the owner or to others who are lacking in such "heart".It is through these side-quests that the Oliver's overwhelmingly measured character shines through. It also offers yet another meta-game option on top of the Familiar collecting component to offer even more reason to play through to get that Platinum trophy. There's even an entire slice of narrative that can only be seen by completing these objectives that I whole-heartedly look forward to getting back to in the near future.
Level-5 provides the rock-solid gameplay here but perhaps what truly captivates is the Studio Ghibli influence over art design and story direction. The House of Miyazaki is responsible for some of the most endearing animated films in the history of cinema. That sounds like hyperbole I'm sure but it is FACT. Films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke deliver allegorical messages wrapped in some of the finest hand-crafted animation ever set to film that provide entertainment for all ages. These guys know what the hell they're doing when it comes to animation. It really shows here
Every 30 minutes I kept finding a new vista or new sight that made me exclaim, "Okay. This is gorgeous." The aesthetic is dazzling and vibrant and it permeates every single polygon. This game looks better than most of the games on the market right now. Photo-realism be damned. This game is beautiful. Each area one delves into is richly animated and full of life. Characters are so well realized that it really feels like you're caught in the midst of a Studio Ghibli film as opposed to just another RPG.
Sound design and localization was clearly a priority here as well. The soundtrack, composed by Joe Hisaishi is also fully performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The voice-acting is stellar spare one or two performances. Notably Oliver's English dubbing just doesn't measure up for some reason. One can always play with the Japanese track with subtitles enabled to avoid it but its such a minor thing that it really doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the game at all. The localization was finely done, though, and even though it delayed the game for a good long while it definitely paid off.
This is one of the best RPGs I have played in years. It's given me reason to want to play more JPRGS again, for sure, and pray that we get another collaboration like this again. There is a deep emotional resonance with this story that I haven't seen in a very long time and I found myself caring so much for Oliver and his crew of adventurers. Ultimately this is a game rich in reward and provides plenty of bang for one's buck. If you like RPGS at all. Play this. If you like a genuinely deep story-driven experience backed with great play mechanics? Play this. Go. Buy this now. Make sure we get more of this. PLEASE.