Games of 2013: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
The worlds of gaming and movies rarely join together with any kind of success. Rushed tie-ins, lacklustre big-screen conversions, that not-so super Mario Bros. movie. No, the spheres of gaming and film should be kept apart. Except, that is, when something truly magical happens, like the genius of the world's greatest 2D animation studio meeting the brains behind a much-loved gaming series. Like when Studio Ghibli met Level-5 and Ni no Kuni was born.
Awkwardly named and quietly released, the PlayStation 3 role-player was easily overlooked when it turned up back in January of this year. Reports of the game selling out were more due to limited stock supplies, and its brief victory at the top of the UK charts was simply a product of it being the only new release in one of the quietest periods of the year.
Ni no Kuni was billed as a playable Studio Ghibli film, another of the Japanese animation house's wonderful fantasy worlds now stretched out for you to explore at will. It was never quite that, despite its warped picture book villains and cackling impish companions. It was still very much a game, a structured world with some rather traditional JRPG tropes - but never less than a shining example of the genre, even without Ghibli's involvement.
It has plenty of excellent qualities you could measure and list - to do so would take a fair while. Its vast and varied world, for example, or the game's stunning and filmic orchestral score from regular Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi. How about the inventiveness and sheer number of monsters you could battle, evolve and train, Pokémon-style, to fight alongside your heroes? It didn't take long to realise Ni no Kuni was rich in things to do and ways to do them.
But, like the best films, such features and mechanics are there to serve a story - one that will stay with you long after the end credits have rolled. Ni no Kuni ticks all the boxes for a world-saving RPG tale of epic scope, but is also a tale based on very personal themes. Its coming-of-age story begins with young protagonist Ollie witnessing the tragic loss of his mother, an event which leaves him suddenly without family and with just a childhood toy for company. Everything that follows, up until the game's very final moments, is part of his journey to rebuild his world, accept what has happened, let go and learn how to continue living.
"Solutions to such issues are handled in a deliberately simplistic way, a reading that fits the child protagonist's worldview and imagination."
As in real life, Ollie must start with the little things - helping those around him, such as the shy and reclusive girl next door. Many of the game's quests revolve around aiding characters who in some way need emotional support, and Ollie's neighbour Myrtle is your first example, someone suffering from the effects of domestic problems that stem from an aggressive father. Solutions to such issues are handled in a deliberately simplistic way - characters at fault are shown to be suffering from something akin to depression because the game's villain has sapped positive emotions from the world. It's a reading that fits Ollie's young worldview and imagination.
It also allows characters who do need help to be shown as people needing a second chance, rather than simply monsters - a theme that continues until the game's closing moments. Most people can be cured by locating another character brimming with the emotion they need most - happiness, courage, hope - and then siphoning off a surplus to share. It's the game's way of showing Ollie that everyone in his world has been hurt in some way and that even random strangers can provide aid. Rather than being alone in experiencing a loss, he is experiencing what it means to live and grow older.
Ollie's story begins in his home town of Motorville, Ghibli's lovingly designed riff on small town America, but quickly sees him venture further afield to the fantastical world of Ni no Kuni. It's a land with more than a few parallels to our own and whose eventual fate will affect the people in Motorville. There's another reading to the role of this place - seen in the inhabitants who share existences between the two. Ollie's travelling companion Esther is another version of Myrtle, for example, while the fabulous Mr. Drippy, Ollie's home-made childhood toy, becomes a wise-cracking and very Welsh fairy - by far the best sidekick in gaming this year.
There are parallels, too, between the game's titular White Witch and the source of Ollie's own loss, and how his abilities grow as he slowly emerges from his shell. It's enough for players to ponder whether Ni No Kuni's world is a product of Ollie's grieving process, but these suggestions are never forced. They simply add another layer to this suitably long and deep journey, and barely bubble to the surface as you travel the world's deserts, icy tundras and continents hidden amongst the clouds.
Like any good JRPG, you don't realise just how big the world is until you're 20 hours in, and don't actually gain access to it all until you're at least 20 hours further and suddenly riding a dragon. Ni no Kuni's world is one that you - and fittingly, Ollie - can get lost in, shuttling around to complete side quests and collect achievement-like Merit Stamps to unlock rewards. But there's no risk of stagnation, even as your party predictably grows and your familiars slowly level.
There's a fabulous mid-game change of pace where you get a fully-voiced and hysterically bad Welsh stand-up routine and a dungeon set in the belly of a huge fairy where you have to escape through its, er, rear passage. Just when you think it's all over, the game springs another full 10 hours on you to reach the game's second 'final' boss. And then there's another range of quests waiting for you even after that.
Ni no Kuni is something truly special. It's a beautifully-crafted role-player brought to life in stunning style by the house of Miyazaki, whose animation embellishes a deeply engrossing game from the minds behind Professor Layton. And, appropriately, it all works together to a greater end - to tell a moving story of loss and the need for forgiveness, the story of a boy who lost his mum.