This edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Level 5 and Studio Ghibli's PlayStation 3 RPG Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, which reviewers describe as "beautifully designed, produced, and executed from top to bottom." Ni no Kuni currently earns a score of 87 out of 100 at Metacritic.com.
EGM's Andrew Fitch scores Ni no Kuni at 9 out of 10. "Calling Ni no Kuni a simple 'anime game' misses the point entirely," he asserts. "Sure, Level-5's latest RPG may feature art from the animation house known the world over for enduring classics like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, but [...] the experience deserves far more than that simple explanation; Ghibli's art may grab the headlines, but this entire package is beautifully designed, produced, and executed from top to bottom."
"As the story begins, we meet Oliver, a plucky lad of 13 coming of age in Motorville, a distinctly Japanese vision of the innocence of 1950s Americana," Fitch explains. "Everything's fun and fancy free for our 'Neato!'-spouting protagonist until his world is turned upside down overnight. In the eternal spirit of Joseph Campbell, Oliver soon sets off on a daring adventure to a fantasy realm."
Fitch praises Ni no Kuni's level of difficulty, in particular. "Ni no Kuni may look like it's designed for tykes [...] but the overall experience is a constant struggle that brings to mind classic Dragon Quest adventures more than modern, hand-holding role-playing endeavors," he notes. "In fact, if Xenoblade was for those who felt that the Japanese RPG was in dire need of deconstruction, Ni no Kuni is the JRPG for those who thought the genre wasn't broken in the first place."
"Just about every element -- whether it's the expansive world, the distinct locales, the soaring orchestral score (by Ghibli veteran Joe Hisaishi), the engaging battles, or the expertly written dialogue -- is simply a joy to behold and experience," Fitch assures. "Games like Ni no Kuni capture that sense of wonder that drew me into gaming in the first place, and they're proof that the little kid who spent entire summers immersed in the faraway lands of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest is still inside -- it just takes something special like Ni no Kuni to draw him out these days."
Edge Magazine gives Ni no Kuni an 8 out of 10, despite "the over-familiarity of the premise."
"There is still gold to be found in cliches for those with a subversive eye and sparkling talent -- virtues that Studio Ghibli and Level-5, its game development partner, do not lack," Edge continues. "So while Ni no Kuni's premise and systems are familiar at a glance, their quaintly rebellious execution, flair, and voice, plus the studio's meticulous detailing, make this a journey filled with fresh wonder."
Studio Ghibli's involvement pays off in a big way, Edge notes: "Ghibli's strengths are all here, drawing a consistent and detailed world, while maintaining a rare clarity of storytelling. The key players, their motivations and fears are all introduced with an expert's hand."
The game's parallel world mechanics also prove intriguing. "The two worlds between which [you] travel are inextricably linked," Edge's writer explains. "Actions performed in one affect the other: to find a missing cat king in the world of Ni no Kuni, Oliver may have to travel back to Motorville to search for the grocer's overweight tabby, Timmy Toldrum. [...]This inter-dimensional travel isn't nearly so involved as in, say, Chrono Cross, but it provides texture and variety."
"Level-5 and Studio Ghibli's contributions are harmonious," Edge praises. "As a game, Ni no Kuni builds upon classic JRPG foundations, eschewing the evolutions of Xenoblade Chronicles and Final Fantasy XII. But the assured flair with which Level-5 has implemented each of the game's classic components combines with Ghibli's masterful storytelling to deliver a JRPG that's quite unlike any other."
Kimberley Wallace at Game Informer scores Ni no Kuni at 7 out of 10, describing it as "a beautiful frustration."
"Level-5's hits take classic gameplay systems and turn them inside out, while Studio Ghibli's films journey through fantastical lands with breathtaking visuals and deep life lessons," she explains. "For months now, my imagination has been overflowing with Ni no Kuni's possibilities – but the reality doesn't match up to its potential. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a respectable experience, but it's far from a Ghibli or Level-5 masterpiece."
Wallace continues: "Ni no Kuni transports you between a real world and a fantastical one, the heart and soul of the game. It has childlike wonder around every bend -- mushrooms grow as staircases, animals rule kingdoms, and Ghibli-inspired monsters meld creativity into every encounter. The vast environments have stunning visuals, and you're rewarded with a ship for sea exploration and eventually your very own dragon to control."
The game's characters and storyline don't meet the standard for quality set by its visuals, however. "Because Studio Ghibli's name is attached to it, I was expecting strong characterization and narrative," Wallace writes. "Unfortunately, characters have a dearth of personality and exist only to help the main character, Oliver. The one stand-out is Mr. Drippy, Oliver's stuffed-toy-turned-sidekick, who has a quip for every occasion. Even he starts to feel like a one-trick pony, though, as the narrative depends too much on him to keep it afloat."
The battle system is occasionally problematic as well. "Sometimes the window to defend passes far too quickly," Wallace recalls. "Not only must you select defend for your character, you must also order the sub-par AI companions to protect themselves as well. Other times, aggressive tactics are required to cancel a special attack, but the consequences for missing are too dire, forcing you to turtle."
"Ni no Kuni is a mercurial experience," Wallace concludes. "One minute I was exploring the world with adoration, and the next I was cursing a cheap boss battle. The journey can be fun; I liked collecting and growing familiars and watching the breathtaking world before me, but Ni no Kuni doesn't come without frustration. Enter for the beauty, but know it comes with a price."