by Josh Vollmer

 Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a Japanese RPG developed by Level-5 in collaboration with legendary anime company Studio Ghibli, and published in North America by Namco Bandai exclusively for the Playstation 3. Now, it’s been a while since I’ve really devoted myself to an RPG, although I used to adore them when I was younger. Games like Final Fantasy II, VI and VII, and the original Dragon Warrior are still fondly remembered as some of my favorites of all time. Most of them are just on too grand of a scale though. It’s harder to make the kind of time investment these games usually require from a player than it used to be. I knew I wanted to make an exception for this title, however, since I am a big fan of the animated films Studio Ghibli produces.

Once you get past the admittedly ho-hum box art that screams ‘old school RPG’ and actually put the disc in your PS3, the first thing you’re likely to notice is the breathtaking character and environment design Studio Ghibli put into this project. It’s a lot of fun to see their signature style applied to a video game in this way, and hopefully we’ll see more collaborations like this in the future. Something about the worlds they create seem to spark an air of nostalgia and wonder on a par with Oz, Wonderland, Narnia or any other fantasy setting.

Not only is the art officially Ghibli, but so is the score. Mamoru Fujisawa, known professionally as Joe Hisaishi, contributed his composing expertise to Ni No Kuni. He’s scored over 100 films and studio albums in his career, but his work with animator Hayao Miazaki on notable Ghibli films such as Spirited Away, Ponyo, and My Neighbor Totoro, lends Ni No Kuni‘s score an undeniably Ghibli feel, which is helped along by a powerful performance by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The work put into the visuals and the score really bring Level-5’s world to life.

  While the writer credit goes to Level-5 president and CEO Akihiro Hino, the plot is suitably Ghibli-esque as well. Ni No Kuni (literally translated as “Second Country,” but taken to mean “Another World”) revolves around a young boy named Oliver who nearly drowns in a freak accident in the opening. Although he’s saved by his mother Alicia, she loses her life instead. Grief stricken, Oliver weeps onto a doll given to him by his mother, which springs to life revealing itself as Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Faeries. Evidently, Oliver’s tears breaking such a powerful curse marks him as a potentially powerful and pure-hearted wizard, so Drippy recruits him to come back to his world, an Oz-like place where everyone in Oliver’s home town of Motorville has a doppelganger that they’re linked to. This fanciful place has been terrorized by the Dark Djinn Shadar who has been stealing pieces of people’s hearts, robbing them of their love, enthusiasm, belief and other essential emotions. Oliver sets out to help those he can, ultimately putting him on course to a confrontation with not only Shadar himself, but an evil council headed by the White Witch that he serves.

It wouldn’t be a JRPG without a few convolutions in the storytelling, and a fair bit of heavy handed emotional manipulation, and while some of the voice work is a little jarring at first, you get used to it quickly. That’s about it for the negatives though. As far as positives, along with the great story, animation and score you also get typical RPG features such as an open world map with sea and eventual air travel, summon style spells, numerous side quests, a colorful cast of supporting characters and a somewhat androgynous lead (no big yellow hair though, sorry).

Level-5 has a history of developing RPG’s, with games like Dark Cloud and Dark Cloud 2, White Knight Chronicles, and Rogue Galaxy in their stable, not to mention having been tapped by Square Enix to develop Dragon Quest VIII on PS2 and Dragon Quest IX on the DS. Their chops are evident here, as the old school charms of a well crafted JRPG, the childlike viewpoint of the pure hearted lead, excellent visuals and character design, and the aura of nostalgia permeating the entire experience combine together to form something I didn’t even know I was missing. A truly magical world I could actually see myself spending scores of hours in. If you’ve ever liked an JRPG, or enjoyed a Studio Ghibli film, you definitely owe it to yourself to come into Slackers and check out Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.