Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli return to video games with a stunning remaster of their charming role-playing adventure. One of the fascinating aspects of playing Japanese video games is all the very different cultural influences that affect their creators, both consciously and subconsciously. The traditions of manga and anime permeate almost all Japanese games, to some degree or another, but there are many more specific influences, particularly from the work of Studio Ghibli. In Japan, animated movies such as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away are cultural touchstones as beloved as any Disney film is in the West. And as such they’ve had a huge influence on multiple generations of Japanese video games. The only problem is that Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki has never been keen on games and until the Ni No Kuni franchise the company had never had any major involvement in a video game. Studio Ghibli created a couple of animated sequences for obscure PlayStation 2 game Magic Pengel, which was never released in Europe, but beyond that Ni No Kuni was their first ever video game (or rather its sister title Ni No Kuni: Shikkoku No Madōshi was on the DS, which came out in Japan in 2010 and was never released in the West). Wrath Of The White Witch is an enhanced version of that game and it did make it the West, as a PlayStation 3 title in 2013, and now it’s being re-released on PlayStation 4, PC, and Nintendo Switch.
Studio Ghibli’s animators provided not only unique new animated cut scenes for the game, but they also worked on the character designs and in-game animation. The result is just as spectacular as you’d hope, with the game segueing from animated sequence to in-game graphics almost flawlessly. It’s a beautiful looking game, not just technically but artistically and aesthetically. The verdant fields of the game’s alternate dimension (Ni No Kuni means ‘Second Country’) are absolutely gorgeous, but all the game’s settings are – from arid desert to dank dungeon. It’s exactly what you’d want a Studio Ghibli game to look like and it even has a soundtrack composed by long-time collaborator Joe Hisaishi. And he hasn’t phoned it in just because it’s a game either; as it really is up there with some of his best work. Studio Ghibli is not a game developer though and beyond the presentation Ni No Kuni has been created by the very capable Level-5, makers of Dark Cloud, Dragon Quest VIII and IX, and Professor Layton. As a result, the game itself is structured like a traditional Japanese role-player. There are some interesting wrinkles in the gameplay and combat system but the plot, especially given Ghibli’s film work, is disappointingly generic. As well presented as it might be it still boils down to a chosen one saving the world, or in this case worlds. The specifics involve protagonist Oliver’s grief at an incident early in the game and his attempts to undo it by visiting a parallel world revealed to him by a cuddly toy come to life. It’s all perfectly entertaining but it’s nowhere near as distinctive as you might have expected. The characters are very likeable though, even if the voice cast are again a few rungs below what you’d expect from a Ghibli movie. Or at least some of them are, Drippy the toy-cum-fairy is very endearing and his Welsh accent is a welcome novelty for a video game.
Outside of battle one of the game’s main gimmicks is that actions in one world affect the other. Again, this isn’t necessarily a new idea but it manifests in Ni No Kuni in some interesting ways, since most of the characters have a very different analogue in each world. An ordinary tabby cat may be a king in the fantasy world, while a spunky warrior has a counterpart who’s a bit of a wuss in the real world. As Oliver’s magic powers grow he gains the ability to heal the psyche of those he meets, with many of the side quests involving helping someone who is lacking in anything from compassion to courage. The cure is to find someone that has that quality to spare and performing a transfusion that perks both sides up. In terms of combat the game borrows ideas from two disparate but well-regarded sources: the Tales series and Pokémon. The former is evident in the fact that combat is still controlled via menus but you also have the ability to run around the field manually, dodging enemies and collecting items. The Pokémon element comes into it with the wild creatures you catch and use to fight on your behalf. These familiars can be levelled up and equipped with weapons and armour, they can even evolve, but they can each only be used for a certain amount of time. That means you still have to ensure Oliver and his allies can pull their weight in a fight, and their range of powers, weapons, and special moves adds additional depth and versatility to battles.
The Nintendo Switch version of the game is a straight port of the PlayStation 3 original, but the PlayStation 4 and PC editions are full remasters with 4K resolution graphics and a smoother frame rate (60fps even without a PS4 Pro). Given how important the visuals are to the game’s appeal it’s a welcome improvement but there wasn’t a serious fault with them before, so it’s not as if the remaster is fixing an earlier problem. There’s no new content in the game so this is more like a reissue than a remaster, so anyone that’s already played the original version should be cautious. Everyone else though gets to enjoy one of the best Japanese role-playing games of the last generation.