E3 2012: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Hands-On Preview - Beauty and the Beasts
Written Tuesday, June 19, 2012 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
It's not often a game is described as 'heartwarming', but it's an entirely fitting description for Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, the wholly endearing, and yes, heartwarming RPG from the developer of Dark Cloud, Dragon Quest VIII & IX et al, and the Japanese animation studio famed for creating some of the most visually stunning animated movies of all time, Studio Ghibli. Even the story will set lips quivering and eyes leaking, as it follows young protagonist Oliver, who embarks upon a quest to become a magician to resurrect his deceased mother when she saves him from drowning, only to die shortly after. Excuse us, we've got something in our eye...
Boasting a narrative penned by the writer of Studio Ghibli's Grave of the Fireflies (1988), which deals with similar themes, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is likely to be an affecting affair, but it's hard to really get an impression of the story during our rather short timed hands-on, limited as it is to just 20 minutes. Opening slap-bang in the middle of the world map, we're able to control little Oliver who's followed by his diminutive buddy Drippy, exploring the various areas open to us in the demo.
Consisting of verdant rolling green hills, sweeping grasslands, forests and other terrain, Ni No Kuni's world is expansive, and in the full game you'll be able to get around on dragons, cross bodies of water on a galleon or simply run around on-foot. Choosing to head north, we come upon a charming village called Ding Dong Dell, where frustratingly there's actually very little to do. Inhabited by a variety of anthropomorphised animals, we visit Ding Dong Dell's weapon store that's run by a crow fella, a potion store owned by an odd owl lady and during our exploration of the village we meet cat people and chat to other strange locals.
During our largely fruitless poking around the alleyways, streets and other thoroughfares in Ding Dong Dell, we learn of a town called Hamelin populated by pig people, and so decide to take a trip there, away from the colourful castles and boldly drawn quaint abodes. In Hamelin, we find porcine soldiers as promised, and vertiginous metal buildings that can move around on tracks. It's all incredibly reminiscent of classic Studio Ghibli with the kind of imagination and life in its aesthetic design that fans know and love from movies like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle.
Adopting a distinctive cel-shaded style that makes use of an entirely new and groundbreaking cel-shading engine, Ni No Kuni is designed to reflect the look and style of a Ghibli production, with visuals that aren't subject to some of the clipping and other quirks that a cel-shaded style can bring. Ni No Kuni looks utterly stunning as a result, looking as close to an interactive Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece as you're ever likely to get, with the signature hand-drawn look that has become the animation house's calling card over the years.
In the full game, you'll befriend Swaine and healing expert Esther, but for our demo we go it alone with only Drippy for company, as we decide to leave Hamelin while our time rapidly dwindles. Venturing back out into the open world map, we decide to give Ni No Kuni's combat a run for its money, chasing down a couple of monsters to battle. There are no random encounters in Ni No Kuni, as enemies are always visible on the map. If you don't want to fight, you can usually outrun certain creatures, or if you're at a more powerful level, packing some serious spells in your spell book (Drippy gives this to you at the beginning of the game) they'll often run away from you.
Once you initiate a battle, the action cuts to a self-contained arena where you're able to call upon the aid of one of your 'familiars': creatures that you've befriended to fight beside you. Oliver's able to keep up to three familiars with him at any one time, and knowing which ones to utilise during fight encounters proves key to success. Ni No Kuni adopts a somewhat more dynamic version of traditional turn-based JRPG mechanics, enabling you to move while you issue attack commands or adopt a defensive stance. Should you have Swaine and Esther accompanying you, you'll be able to use their familiars and have them attack enemies or heal your party too.
Using a simplistic menu consisting of speech bubbles, you can choose to attack, defend or use your familiar's special attacks such as fling flame, petrifying poke or war cry, or alternatively, you can select the 'cut loose' command, at which point your familiar will unleash a powerful attack that can kill lesser enemies in an instant. Each action you assign during a battle takes time to complete, as denoted by a small clock on your HUD, and should you want to switch actions on the fly, you can cancel previously chosen commands and select something else. It all works rather well and is utterly intuitive. We didn't need instruction on how to play the combat sections either, but easily picked it up anyway. It's still as deep as any turn-based RPG system, with all of the tactics and strategical options at your fingertips, but it's presented in a slick and clear way that's easy to comprehend.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is one of the most intriguing JRPG prospects we've come across in quite some time. With glorious cel-shaded visuals that perfectly recreate the hand-drawn style of a Studio Ghibli movie, it has charm and appeal by the bucketload, with quirky characters, an aesthetically outstanding world and a warmth and humour that's unlike anything else. It's a game that'll appeal to JRPG and Studio Ghibli fans alike, but hopefully Ni No Kuni will find a western audience beyond that. It's simply too beautiful to pass up.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch will be launching on PlayStation 3 in Q1 2013.