We’re off to see the witch, the wrathful White Witch of Ni No Kuni, in a traditional JRPG from legendary Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli and genre veterans Level-5. Will this tantalising pairing produce a title worthy of their reputations?
“You’re a wizard, Ollie,” reveals Drippy. Like the one with the scar, it takes some convincing to get the young kid believing he’s capable of casting magic spells and is the “pure-hearted one” destined to save the reanimated sprite’s home – an alternate world linked to Oliver’s. But after finding a Wizard’s Companion hidden in his fireplace – it’s like a Wikipedia for mages and thicker than War and Peace – and a scraggy old wand, he travels to Drippy’s home world through a glistening gateway in a stunning display of Ghibli’s animation chops.
The real convincer, though, is that Oliver’s heroics may also be able to bring back his deceased mother. According to Drippy, everyone has a soul mate in the other world and anything that happens to them there is reflected in the first. Oliver’s mum? Well, she’s a great sage who’s been trapped by an evil, mop-haired wizard, Shadar.
Either all of this is true, or, stricken with grief and unable to leave his room, Oliver has imagined a trippy alternate reality in which he has a chance to save his mother’s life. It’s a possibility. None of the locals seem to comment on the fact that he’s bandying about town with a frilly cape on his back and waving a stick like he’s trying to conduct the Tokyo Philharmonic jamming away in the background. Although, maybe they just accept that everyone copes with grief differently.
Whether it’s a real place or a construction of his tormented mind, we’ll leave for now. For the sake of this review, though, let’s take the more romantic view. So, like a storm over a Kansas farm, Drippy whisks Oliver off to another world – and what a place it is.
And your little fairy too
There’s no yellow brick road to follow, but the game leads you on an equally bizarre journey where in one moment you could be chatting with King Tom, His Meow-jesty of Ding Dong Dell – anthropomorphised animals are a running trait here – and in the next gambling your hard-earned cash away at a casino for the undead. The JRPG mainstays are all there too: sky pirates, treacherous volcanoes, talking trees, autumnal woods, and the like – but the influence of Studio Ghibli provides those quirky and inventive touches that separate it from what’s come before.
The fairies of Drippy’s home, The Fairyground, aren’t sparkly sprites with wings, but more like an entertaining assortment of multicoloured Play-Doh creatures crafted by a pre-school class after a particularly sugar-filled lunch break. They come in all different shapes and sizes, with peculiar accessories – surely only a child would come up with sticking a disproportionally sized lantern on the end of something’s nose – and wildly emphasised features that ensure not one looks alike, yet all are part of the same family.
Elsewhere, the jazzy, steampunk city of Hamelin is almost Orwellian with its rapidly changing laws and the local’s over-enthusiastic adoration of their porcine leader (there’s that love of anthropomorphism again). The base elements may be recognisable in places, but the unique twists found throughout the world will encourage you to explore from the corner of every peninsula to each mountain top.
Ni No Kuni knows how to present it too. Out on the world map, the music roars triumphantly as you step out onto its pastoral plains, scoot across its shimmering desert sands or bob calmly across the waves of its oceans, before falling serenely into a wistful yet jaunty melody that pushes you onward to adventure. Many hours could be whiled away just letting that piece of music warm you like a good cutch, as Drippy might say.
The jovial, Welsh-tongued fairy somehow manages to equal the world’s delightful and fascinating tone despite his stature, as Oliver’s guide on a quest he doesn’t have to complete alone. Joining him are intrepid sage’s daughter, Esther, dishevelled thief, Swaine and their combined army of familiars.
I’ll try to get through this bit without writing, “it’s like Pokémon but…” and see how we get on. Okay. While they can fight using their own magic and skills, the trio do most of their scuffling with familiars – creatures that can be tamed on the battlefield, trained up and then summoned at will. Familiar diversity is vast, from swashbuckling felines to clockwork robots, each bringing their own set of abilities to fulfil particular roles. The stonelike, one-eyed Monolith – that I oh-so-cleverly named 2001 – is an excellent tank, while Esther’s portly penguin is a fine mage.