This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch.
You ever get that uneasy feeling you're playing something that completely isn't aimed at you? I imagine it's a feeling quite familiar to a large percentage of Nintendo's fanbase, but that's the wrong attitude to take, isn't it? You've gotta get out of your comfort zone now and then. Just because I find most JRPGs to be duller than a dead cat wearing an over-designed belly shirt and find children less enjoyable company than poisonous sea urchins with attachment issues, those are no good reasons why I shouldn't play a JRPG for children now and then. (Well, actually they might be very good reasons.) But what attracted me to Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was that it was co-developed by Studio Ghibli, whose works I've found to be always equal parts charming and stomach-churningly saccharine but most importantly, NOT SHIT! (Except Tales of Earthsea, I mean Jesus fucking Christ...) But even if it was developed with only one foot in Studio Ghibli's "not shit" department, Ni No Kuni'd still stand out prominently among most of the genre, so let's have a look!
Now, if you've watched a lot of other Studio Ghibli films, you might want to dig the old Studio Ghibli Bingo Card out for Wrath of the White Wale: 'small adventurous child', 'victim of at least one form of parental neglect', 'brought by some cataclysm to a world of adventure', 'there's a friendly monster with really round eyes and a big mouth', oh and, 'they also have to rescue their parents at some point' as well, that's about four rows complete by the end of the first hour.
Specifically, our adventurous child for your parental regulation is Oliver. Although his abandonment by his mother is perhaps justifiable on account of her being dead and accidentally killed by him! HA! Clumsy twat! But while he's mulling that one over, one of his toys comes to life and tells him he has to travel to a parallel world of fantasy in order to liberate it from an evil Djinn and also bring his mum back to life, somehow. And what curiously fortunate timing that the fairies carry him off to fantasy land at exactly the same moment one would expect a person to be undergoing a massive guilt induced mental breakdown! But there's me being cynical again; this is Studio Ghibli man! Neverending Story mindset, not Fisher King! Still, it would stick closer to standard formula if the mum was just sick, like he'd accidentally sprayed a bubonic plague in her face and has to quest for the cure. Bringing her back from the dead adds layers of unhealthiness to the proceedings, like an infected vanilla slice.
I mean, she's just gonna die again at some point, maybe it would be smarter to get over it while you're young! Yes, I equate bereavement with chicken pox! But then there are quite a few aspects to the plot that the adult mind might question more than a child's would, like the one bit where you have to go inside a pregnant woman's vagina in order to dislodge her unborn children, only to find them being harassed by a giant octopus blocking the way to the cervix. Can't we all just stop being so cynical and appreciate the octopus abortion sequence in the innocent spirit with which it was meant?
That's quite a ways in though; the game slows to a crawl once the juicy dead mum aspect is set up. You're in the fantasy world and doing the grasslands, desert, forest, jungle, ice-world, fire-world, boss, badabum-badabum-badabum-badabum thing, and the game settles into tutorialising for the next 17 hours. Surely one would need to have eaten a lot of paste to require a special tutorial to show that you use the left analog stick to move. Could we maybe take that as understood if the player has gotten as far as holding the controller with their hands rather than their buttcheeks?
It's fair to say that Wrath of the White Guilt has a bit of game mechanic overload to the point that they're still being introduced about twelve hours in. First there's casting spells for both combat and general progress, where if you reach a a torchlighting puzzle and are out of MP for fireball casting, then you're shit out of luck, you matricidal ginger tosser! There's item crafting sidequests, there's an odd mechanic in which you fix people who are lacking in certain positive qualities like enthusiasm or kindness by injecting them with some of that quality donated from someone with an excess of it. Which I find very suspect because it's basically communism, and implies that every single character in the game is some kind of emotionless automaton who only gets depressed because their internal processors broke, and not because (to pick an entirely random example) they just killed their mum! And after a while, you're granted the ability to capture random monsters as familiars, and without warning the game turns into needlessly over-complex pseudo Pokémon, where each monster has elemental weaknesses, a genus, and one of four symbols of mysterious significance, and you have to micromanage their equipment and what desserts to force feed them with so that they acquire diabetes-themed buffs.
At times, Wrath of the White Privilege pleasantly evokes the old 16-bit JRPGs I can actually tolerate, like Earthbound or Final Fantasy VI with it's actually coherent plot and random monsters occasionally smart enough to scarper if you're over-leveled, but the actual combat sucks a fat one. I find I'm more tolerant of turn-based combat than I used to be, because it is nice for a game to constantly pause itself in case you happen to be playing it while fighting a panther. And of course real time combat would be chocolate smeared all over a consenting biscuit. But it's these hideous hybrid systems that modern JRPGs tend to have that piss in my radiators, 'cause you end up with the worst qualities of both: we find ourselves having to cycle through an option menu while simultaneously running around avoiding the hits, and I've got this lovely big controller here just covered in buttons, any one of which could be a dedicated "defend" command. But no, I must instead wrestle my way to the "defend" option in the half second it takes for the enemy to brew up another devastating fart.
Fortunately, the A.I. partners are a great help if one happens to be running an insurance scam, but otherwise they think "defend" means "hard of hearing buttocks." And a lot of boss fights ended with me alone running around in circles to stay outside of melee range, hoping my fairy friend will drop some mana when he's finished dancing about, laughing at me getting my teeth kicked in. Oh, but you do get the ability to command all your party to attack or defend at once. That's the mechanic gets introduced 12 hours in about three boss fights after it would have started being useful!
That's the problem with JRPGs; they're so bloody long, 'cause they always stretch the content to breaking point. Always batting you about back and forth between locations setting arbitrary story flags and using twelve dialogue boxes where one would have done, usually to hammer you over the head with the solution to the current puzzle which you figured out before the dialogue even started. The weirdest thing is that you can usually press a button to go to the next dialogue box, but every sixth line or so it won't let you. A feature I assume was added for the primary purpose of annoying me.
So for all the charm in the story and visuals, it was messy combat, and gameplay flowing like a dead crab in a bucket that wore me down to the point that I couldn't go on. Yeah sorry kid, looks like you're not getting your mum back. Nothing you can do now but take up taxidermy and start wearing her dresses.
I understand that running around in a little fruity cape is an often overlooked stage of bereavement.