Let me get this sordid little detail out of the way: I’m not the type of guy who gets easily charmed by whimsical stories. I tend to avoid animated Disney films, as well as anything and everything from Pixar. I don’t want to say that I’m jaded, but whenever a game, movie, or book tries its hand at being “charming” or “sentimental,” my eyes begin to roll and glaze over before my brain has an opportunity to properly react. It’s not that I have anything against whimsy, charm or sentimentality, but most stories use these elements to emotionally manipulate audiences without truly earning this hefty emotional investment. As you can probably tell, it bugs me a lot, and I tend to avoid projects I feel employ these tactics. Needless to say, I tend to miss out on some really great stories as a direct result. Such is my double-edged sword.
With Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remastered, however, I’m willing to eat some crow. After hearing so many good things about the game’s “charming,” “magical,” and “heartfelt” moments, I made a point to avoid it like some kind of well-meaning, tender-hearted plague. However, when I had the opportunity to take a gander at the remastered edition of this beloved JRPG, I decided to give it a fair shot. After all, the last thing I need is to earn the reputation for being a cold, bitter, close-minded middle-aged guy who can’t appreciate the beauty that sweet video games can offer. Long story short: I feel like a total and complete heel for writing this game off. Why? Because I love it.
Right off the bat, the game’s association with Studio Ghibli charmed me. Although Oliver’s “gee-whiz” antics and Drippy’s ceaseless verbal abuse threatened to cast a frostbite spell on my very last nerve, I ended up finding it weirdly charming after a few hours. Sure, Oliver and his hometown’s Andy Griffith/Mayberry shtick comes across as hopelessly corny, you soon realize that the story really couldn’t take place in any other place or era — the perceived “innocence” of that time period works very well with Ni No Kuni’s story about a little boy and his quest to stop an evil wizard — and maybe rescue his deceased mother at the same time. It’s a simple story, yes, but it’s one told by people who have a very firm grasp on this stuff. At around the five-hour mark, all my doubts and preconceived notions about Ni No Kuni vanished, and I had a difficult time putting down the controller and returning to real life. I shall no disclose that I played it for six hours straight. Whoops.
While the story itself isn’t very complex — you’re basically the “chosen one” who has to stop an evil person with the aid of a few quirky followers — it’s the presentation that sets Ni No Kuni apart from the proverbial pack. Although I don’t want to take anything away from what White Witch accomplishes, the game essentially borrows the Dragon Quest framework and gives it a coat of Studio Ghibli paint. But it’s good paint. And while there’s nothing wrong with cribbing from Dragon Quest and using that template for your own endeavor, I want to make it clear that Ni No Kuni doesn’t succeed because it’s innovative. No, everything about Ni No Kuni feels very familiar, from the silly monsters you’ll encounter during your adventure to the cauldron you use for alchemy. Again, that’s not a bad thing, really. It’s just nothing new.
One element that makes Ni No Kuni unique is its combat system. Although you can take control of Oliver and his companions to wage war on the evil beings sprinkled across the landscape, it’s much easier to send one of your familiars onto the field of battle. These confrontations unfold in Pokemon-esque fashion: You select your favorite/most powerful familiar and allow his/her/it to do some serious damage. Each familiar has special attacks and spells it can cast, and some familiars are better at defeating their foes based on what “type” they are (think paper, rock, scissors). To complicate matters, your summoned creature has a limited amount of stamina, which means you’ll need to swap them out if the battle runs a little too long. Although I’m not a huge fan of the Pokemon games, I still enjoyed how employing the right familiar at just the right time could essentially turn the tide, especially during some of the tougher boss battles.
I could honestly go on and on about the combat system, as it’s much deeper than you may initially expect. After I gained the ability to recruit familiars, I spent a fair amount of time trying to get the little buggers to fall in love with me, which allowed Esther (your first human companions) to woo them into the fold. I also spent a lot of time feeding my familiars delicious treats (allowing them to level up different aspects of their stats) and outfitting them with powerful weapons and armor. Between the familiars, bounties, and side quests, you can easily sink dozens upon dozens of hours in Ni No Kuni. Full disclosure: I’ve yet to complete the main story because I’ve spent so much time grinding, serenading familiars, and doing silly side quests. And while those side missions are essentially nothing more than glorified fetch quests, I honestly couldn’t care less. That’s what tends to happen when you’re madly in love with something.
Perhaps the reason I didn’t mind those same-y fetch quests is that they’re so damned charming. Nine times out of ten, you’ll encounter someone who suffers from a broken heart, though this can come in many different forms. Some folks have a lack of restraint, while others need a bit of kindness injected into their cold, calloused hearts. Fortunately, Oliver’s recently acquired spellbook contains spells that allow you to “borrow” traits from people with an abundance of courage, for example, and deliver it to someone who’s feeling a little chicken-hearted. Call me crazy, but having a character spread a little joy, heart, and kindness throughout the world seems weirdly refreshing in this day and age. Here’s the best part: Ni No Kuni executes these moments in a natural and adorable way — no emotional manipulation required!
What’s more, the remastered edition of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch looks absolutely stunning on the PlayStation 4. The colors are ridiculously vibrant, the frame rate is solid (for 95 percent of the time, anyway), the game survived nearly 30 hours of playtime without a single crash or game-killing hiccup. The remastered allows you to choose between a full (and very pretty) 4K presentation and a 1440p option that pops along at 60 frames per second. My advice: Go with the 1440p and 60 frames per second, as there’s not too much of a difference between the 1440 and 4K versions. What I did notice, however, is that the game looks fantastic when it runs at 60 frames per second, and switching to 30 seemed to slow the experience to a crawl. Don’t get me wrong — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the 4K/30 fps option, but the game just seems so fluid at 60 fps that I can’t see myself playing it any other way. Of course, you do you.
Truthfully, it doesn’t matter which performance option you choose — Ni No Kuni looks fantastic on the PlayStation 4. From the autumn-soaked colors of Golden Grove to the mechanical pig iron city of Hamelin, Wrath of the White Witch just sparkles. Although it sounds cliche (I’m not one to shy away from a good cliche), Ni No Kuni definitely looks like a full-blown interactive animated film. The only real distraction is playing the game at 60 fps and then switching over to the animated footage, which still creeps along at 30 fps. That’s a pretty minor complaint in a game that feels damn-near perfect, even eight long years after its initial release on the PlayStation 3.
As you may have noticed, I pretty much have nothing bad to say about Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remastered. In my opinion, it’s a perfect RPG. Outside of a few minor performance issues and a combat system that doesn’t always do what you want it to, it’s an absolutely phenomenal JRPG, one that any self-respecting fan should play — assuming they’re not eight years late to the party like this guy. And while I had my issues with the saccharine storyline and the “golly gee” antics of the main character, Ni No Kuni eventually won me over and shattered my icy heart. I’m not sure when I became such a hard-hearted individual, but it’s nice to know that Wrath of the White Witch could take some of the compassion in its gentle little soul and hand it over to a jaded middle-aged gamer like myself.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 Pro version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by Bandai Namco Entertainment.
The remastered version of this delightful and heartwarming JRPG packs a colorful and heartfelt punch, one that's sure to charm even the most jaded of JRPG fans.