Ni No Kuni Review

This is a review of “Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch”, a video game for PlayStation and Nintendo Switch. I played the “Remastered” version on PlayStation 4 in March 2021.

Long story short: If you have kids and want to introduce them to JRPGs, or if you’re a grown-up who likes Final Fantasy and Ghibli films, Ni No Kuni is probably well worth your time and money. Ni No Kuni is Final Fantasy + Pokemon, wrapped up in a Ghibli cartoon, with the difficulty scaled down for children. At this point, you probably already know whether you want to buy it or not. And your instincts are probably correct.

Suitable for children. Parents will be glad to know that there are no Problematic Japanese Things in here, unlike many JRPGs. (Aside from some low-grade racism and cultural appropriation.) Ni No Kuni is a straight PG with no asterisks.

Details follow.

The visuals are just impeccable. It’s like a Ghibli cartoon set in a Final Fantasy world that you can walk around in. All the character design and environments and architecture are just spot on. More than once I’ve found myself wishing I was watching someone else play the game, so I could just soak in the visuals without having to pay attention to the game mechanics.

Ni No Kuni is a total delight. It’s like getting to play a low-stakes, low-investment Final Fantasy game, while walking around in a Ghibli cartoon the whole time. The story is good, the dialogue is good, the visuals are just spot-on, the gameplay is decent, you get to ride a dragon, even the voice acting is good.

This game is such a Final Fantasy game, it’s hard to believe it’s not from Squeenix. The gameplay, the numeric systems, the feel, the soundtrack, even the visual transitions between overworld and combat encounters; they’re totally FF. I’d call Ni No Kuni a “Final Fantasy knock-off”, except that “knock-off” implies inferiority, and there’s really nothing inferior here. Let’s just call this “a Final Fantasy game by different creators”.

It’s about 40 hours to play through the entire game if you don’t go deep in to the side quests and stuff. That’s kind of a relief compared to the hundred-hour-plus commitment it takes to play a major Final Fantasy game. I’ve got a job and stuff, you know.

The animal-themed kingdoms and royal characters are super charming.

Ni No Kuni is basically un-loseable, as suits a game for children. If you get beaten in combat, it just boots you back to your last savepoint, penalizing you some gold, but not taking back any XP or items. If you’re patient, you can just grind your way through any challenge here.

The game is definitely not without flaws, though.

The combat system balancing has some real problems. Offensive magic is seriously underpowered, and this makes tactics a little degenerate and not-fun to execute. AFAICT, the most effective and efficient fighting tactic is to just focus on having your Pokemon – err, familars – do physical attacks, and reserve all your MP for basic healing spells. (If you’ve done side quests or alchemy to get superior weapons, it makes this even more lopsided.) Basically, you let your critters do the fighting and just cast Cure Light Wounds for 40 hours. That will take care of most combat. And then there’s a big discontinuity with a few large boss fights, where you switch to just spamming your ultimate attack spell, and dealing with timing-based defenses against major boss attacks. It’s a bummer that none of the intermediate combat prepares you for this.

Narratively, there’s a real pacing problem: the game is basically two acts; a long first act that forms the bulk of the game, and a short second act that leads up to the final battle. Both in terms of narrative and progression game-mechanics, it’s an awkward graft. Basically, 35 hours in, you hit a big battle and narrative endpoint where it feels like the game has reached a natural completion, and then there’s a new challenge and a few hours of grinding thrown in before you get to the actual last battle.

Based on what I read on Wikipedia, this is an artifact of the game’s development. Oh well.

There’s an airship, but you don’t get to pilot it. Hopefully this is rectified in the sequel.

The final boss battle is poorly paced: it’s just too difficult. Even if you’ve been leveled appropriately for everything leading up to it, it might kick your butt, leading to a few hours of grinding to beat it. That’s a bummer, because it interrupts the climactic narrative sweep leading up to the end of the game.

And the resolution of the game is too short. Once you beat the final boss, there’s 30 seconds of dialogue, and then the credits role. Seems like short shrift given how much narrative development was spent on every other single scene leading up to this confrontation. I feel like at least a 5 minute epilogue would be in order.

All in all, Ni No Kuni is a worthy addition to the JRPG canon. I very much enjoyed playing it, and I expect both many other JRPG fans and parents of fidgety kids will appreciate it to.

Ni No Kuni is available on both Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. Get it on whichever works for you: while the visuals are fundamental to its appeal, they’re not computationally taxing, and any system will be able to deal with them just fine.