Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Video Game Assessment: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (2013)

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an interesting game. While game reviewers and critics alike have mostly been giving it a pass as a wonderful and beautiful game in the style of classic and hardcore JRPGs, I'm going to have to disagree. Just slightly. Ever so slightly. This game is beautiful, gorgeous, and any other synonym that you can think of in that vein. It has wonderful gameplay, a great story, and great characters... but, look, I'm NOT a fan of JRPGs. I really don't like them very much. Sure, I can see the influence on this game from older JRPGs and newer ones, I suppose, but calling it only a game for hardcore JRPG-lovers is belittling this game so much. Honestly, any reviewer that says that this game is only good for those who love or are nostalgic for JRPGs should be ashamed of themselves and give up their reviewer status.

I can't even believe that people would overlook this game, this wonderful, unique, and beautiful game because critics and reviewers go and say stupid and inane crap that is LITERALLY UNTRUE like this game is only built for hardcore JRPG fans or that this game is a GRINDFEST or that it relies too much on the POWER OF FRIENDSHIP TROPES.

You know what? I'm going to go off script a little here and say something I don't usually say in my reviews: Screw you, you pieces of garbage, for going and belittling one of the best new IP games to come out in a good few years. Screw you for calling this a game only for hardcore JRPG gamers. While, yes, those JRPG game players would probably enjoy this game very much, this is a game for basically anybody. Any person who likes any genre can pick this game up and enjoy it. Oh, you like games because of story? Well, this is the game for you. Oh, you like games for tight gameplay? This is the game for you. Oh, you just want something intelligent to pass the time? Play this game. Seriously, if you have the ability to play this game and you pass it up because some piece of crap game reviewer went and said it isn't the game for you, then shame on you for listening to those idiots, shame on them for saying it in the first place, and shame on you AGAIN for not giving this game the chance it deserves.

It is a rare game that will give out FREE DLC, and an even rarer one that OFFERS to give out free DLC without people complaining. The people involved in this game, and the decision of offering the free DLC should be commended to the fullest. So, thank your lucky stars for Studio Ghibli, Level-5, and Namco Bandai for actually having the gonads to stand up to current gaming market politics and greed and do something that actual makes the cynical gamer within me smile. I don't care if the DLC is basically nothing or if it's just a simple thing. It is the thought that counts in the case. You don't see Electronic Arts offering that kind of free DLC without being prodded to do so by an angry public, nor do you see Activision, Square Enix, or any of the other big publishers even thinking about it. So, yes, this needs to be mentioned, and all of those involved with making this wonderful game should be thanked for being able to take the risk. Thank you, all of you, for doing this, and for making this game in the first place. I really hope that this game both sells well and does well. It deserves it, and it is also one of the few games that I truly do think deserves that honor. If more games like this existed the world, and the gaming community as a whole, would be a better place. I have no idea how games could be blamed for violence when this is one of the games that people are looking at.

I know a lot of my comments up there were probably unnecessary in reviewing this game, but I needed to air out my opinions. I get that there are a lot of people who will probably dislike this game because it is a JRPG in their minds, but seriously, if a person is going to be that close-minded, then just stop. Stop playing games. Stop reading this review. Just stop, because you are not making anything better with that kind of attitude. I had that kind of attitude once, and it shut me off from a great deal of things I could have enjoyed, and did enjoy much later. So, seriously, stop with the annoyed stubborn hatred, and just play a wonderful game. You'll thank me if you read this and listen to me... which I doubt many people will, but I guess I'll never know until I post this, huh?

So, anyway, let's get started. Ni no Kuni is, simply stated, an amazing and wonderful game from start to finish. The plot is nearly pitch-perfect. If you've ever watched a Studio Ghibli anime you already know what to expect. It definitely takes pages out of the books of almost all of their different anime, but reminded me the most of Spirited Away. The stories, although both are very different, seem to hit similar notes, even if this game is about thirty times longer than that anime. Ni no Kuni finds a perfect tone throughout the story, evoking both laughter and tears as the plot progresses. It might not seem like much, but the cute world that Ni no Kuni resides in makes those tragic moments even harder to bear. And the funny thing is how those tragic moments can turn into sweet moments so easily... and how one second you can be wondering how such a cute game can make you cry, then the next moment you can be laughing at a clever pun that the game makes. There is a mood dissonance there, but it works, and it works so well that it is amazing to behold.

There is also something else I have to compare this game to. Have you ever heard of The Talisman (and Black House) by Stephen King and Peter Straub? The Talisman is VERY similar to Ni no Kuni, especially at the beginning of both stories. They both share similar elements with each other, like the idea of shared souls between two worlds and a story about a boy trying desperately to save his mother. Honestly, the stories were so close that I have to wonder if The Talisman has any influence at all on Ni no Kuni. Probably not, but still, the similarities at the beginning of both stories are difficult to ignore.

The biggest complaints I've seen are about the JRPG aspects of the game and the level grinding, both of which I'll talk about here. First, while this game is a JRPG and shares similarities to early Final Fantasy games and other early JRPG games, it is also fairly different from them. I have played a fair few JRPGs, and if you don't include some of the early Pokemon games as JRPGs, I have never actually finished a single one of them. My favorite TRUE JRPG had been Final Fantasy IX, a game that shares many similarities with Ni no Kuni. There are some pretty deep similarities, for instance how the map is traveled (although this is probably pretty standard for games of this type). The characters are also pretty similar and hit similar points, and the world is not too far off between the two games. But there are discrepancies. While Final  Fantasy IX is a wonderful game with stellar characters, it does have some pretty cruddy plot moments. Even some of the characters are not amazing, with certain party characters being much less there than others. Freya springs to mind in this case. Or Amarant for most of the game. Or Quina. What the hell did Quina ever even do? I know they all have their moments, and I am by no means dissing this aspect of Final Fantasy IX, rather I am elevating Ni no Kuni past that. There are NO BAD CHARACTERS in Ni no Kuni. None of the main characters are badly done, with each having their moments, and each having a reason to continue on. None of the antagonists are one-dimensional cackling evil-dudes either. Each has a story, a character, and a reason. And that's a huge reason why I find this game so alluring. There is depth here that is lacking from many JRPGs (in my opinion), and for that reason alone it should not simply be thrown into the bargain bin JRPG label.

I also have to say that the two main antagonists of the game: the White Witch of the title and Shadar, the Dark Djinn, are both brilliant characters with a lot to offer. Their stories as well as the stories that surround them are some of the high points of the game for me.

The second complaint is level-grinding and I'm simply going to say one word: "Toko." Seek out the Toko genus of enemy familiars. If you do that (and it's not that hard to find them) you can level up incredibly quickly. In about fifteen minutes of "grinding" I leveled up about fifteen levels. And just a bit more "grinding" brought me all the way to far beyond a level I could easy dominate the rest of the game. Look, I usually hate grinding. I hate it in Pokemon, and hated it in Final Fantasy IX. I hated it so much in that game that I'm literally stuck right before the final boss because I refuse to go and grind twenty levels so I can be ready to fight. It shouldn't have to be like that. A game should never be designed to where if I want to progress in the plot I have to grind for hours to get to that "level." Ni no Kuni bypasses this, offering an easy way to level your character and familiars up without the need of heavy grinding. It is simple, quick, and without any real downsides. Usually you have to fight the enemies anyway, specifically if you want to catch them (like Pokemon, and since Familiars are basically Pokemon anyway the comparison stands), so what's so bad about looking around for a fairly easy to find enemy to level up quickly? It seems that anybody who mentions what a "grind" this game is never mentions how easy it actually is to level up. Maybe they never found the little enemies that level you up quickly. I found one simply by exploring the world. The first time it ran out of battle I was intrigued, then started pursuing them until I finally gained its mighty experience. It was as easy as that. And the experience surprised and thrilled me enough that it convinced me this was the easiest way of leveling up. AND IT WAS. How a reviewer can review a game without exploring the world and finding as much as possible is beyond me. I will never understand it. I love that most of them gave this game wonderful scores, but I HATE HATE HATE how many of the reviews I read through also seemed to have to mention grinding and JRPGs, both of which belittle this game to no end and turn off customers who might have bought this if not for those labels.

Look, reviewers who probably will never read this blog or this review, let's get something straight. Your JOB is not to go and review a game as quickly as possible, hitting the plot notes but forgetting the game. Your JOB is to give a thorough and well done review, a review for people who MAY be interested in the game, a review for those who ARE interested in the game, and a review for people who HAVE NO IDEA what the game even is. But you can't cut corners. Yes, there are time limits, but a good reviewer learns everything about a game, learns that there are ways to level up quickly, learns to not just label a game as a JRPG without realizing what an implication that is to game players like myself who largely dislike that genre of game. See, I took a chance with this game, despite the reviews I read. I was turned off by those reviews. I was willing to wait, willing to not pick this game up because it didn't seem like something I would enjoy. Then I thought something to myself. My thought was as follows: "I took a chance on watching Spirited Away back in the time period where I absolutely hated everything to do with anime. I took a chance to watch it because the story sounded interesting, and I was interested in trying something new. I wasn't expecting to like it. Hell, people were basically telling me I wouldn't like it because I don't enjoy anime. But you know what? It blew me away, becoming one of my favorite movies of all time. It was brilliant and beautiful, and I was almost so close-minded that I could have missed out on something that literally changed my life. I took a chance on Studio Ghibli, and they didn't let me down. They've never let me down, from Castle in the Sky to Ponyo I have fallen in love with every movie I've seen by them. Each has left a mark on me that I cannot remove. They've proven to me time and again that they can make quality, and I have to have faith that this game will be the same."

I bought the game, not because of any reviews, not because of anything I had heard about the game. Yes, I had been interested in it for a while, but there was never a guarantee I would buy it, certainly not at a $60 price tag. But Studio Ghibli had proven to me how amazing they were. And I bought it because of that. And it was one of the best games I've ever played. It gave me everything I could have wanted: wonderful characters like Mr. Drippy, a Welsh Lord High Lord of the Fairies, and Oliver, the main character with an absolute heart of gold who never deserved the rough hand he was dealt. It had a plot that was literally tragic and beautiful all at the same time, with the antagonists being so much more than I could have ever hoped for. No, I won't spoil anything, but I never expected such brilliant and beautiful stories from faceless antagonists... but then again I should have remembered No-Face and what he meant in Spirited Away. And then there's the gorgeous world, a world that looks more beautiful than almost any other game I have ever seen or played. It's rivaled only by the best of the best in Skyrim, Mass Effect, Half-Life, and Silent Hill. Other than those series (or games) nothing else comes close to the beauty and wonder of the visual of Ni no Kuni. The sound is also fantastic, with music by Joe Hisaishi, a long-time collaborator with Studio Ghibli. He has made such memorable and beautiful music for this game. I have to give special mention for the music while riding the dragon, the main theme, and some of the background music when certain late plot points are happening. They are integrated beautifully into the game, and  they work to make it have one of the best all around soundtracks in a game since Nier.

And you want to know something? This game compares favorably to Nier. Keep in mind that Nier is one of my all-time favorite games and you might just be starting to think how much I truly fell in love with Ni no Kuni. I'm glad it has gotten a lot of love so far. I only wish the reviewers hadn't stuck it in a genre without any thought or foresight. I also wish they wouldn't say such terrible things about a leveling system that works quite well and never needs to be "grind-heavy."

I want to say so much more. I want to spoil the game wide open and scream to the world why I think this is one of the best games ever made. I want to say how it improves upon the Pokemon formula (for it indeed does essentially have the gameplay of a 3D Pokemon game, although that is also simplifying things quite a bit). I want to say how much I love all of the characters, all of the plot, all of the everything about this game. I want to say how one twist in the game legitimately brought me to tears, me a manly bearded man, tearing up at a game that could easily be played by any given child. I can't even remember the last game I truly was brought to tears by. Maybe it's never even happened before. I have no idea. I can't remember. But this game did it. The happy moments made those tragic ones all the more biting. And those tragic moments made the happy and carefree ones all the more poignant. It's a world I could live in for the rest of my days, playing and playing until I lose myself in that other world forever. But sadly, while Oliver's adventures with Esther, Swaine, Mr. Drippy, and the rest continue in the story that I feel has no real end, my days of playing it are over for now. I only wish I had the time to relive the experience all over again... but the real world calls, and I have to be off.

My final words about Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch are that it should be played by everyone. It deserves that much. It's very sad that this game is only available to PS3 owners, but I also have to hope that EVERY PS3 owner will go and buy this game, and maybe the game will even convince people who don't have the system to go buy it for this game. It's worth it, let me tell you. This is a game that (while worth $60) has no real monetary value when it comes to what it's TRULY worth. It's priceless in its storytelling and characters. And it is priceless in what it now means to me. Do yourself a favor and either go play this game right now or go watch a Let's Play of it at the very least. It deserves to be known if only because it is that good.

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