The witty, beautiful, and endlessly creative Ni no Kuni is a treasure not to be missed.

The Good

  • Gorgeous world stuffed with inventive places and characters
  • Imaginative scenarios and monsters keep you looking ahead
  • Funny dialogue and heartfelt themes get you invested in the story
  • Phenomenal orchestral soundtrack
  • Drippy is one of the best RPG sidekicks ever.

The Bad

  • Combat and leveling mechanics give rise to some frustrations.

What a delight Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is! It’s charming but never cloying, complementing its vibrant cel-shaded art and good-natured child star with plentiful doses of wit and joy. The clever dialogue dips into a bottomless well of puns, keeping you grinning wide, if not laughing out loud at the constant goofiness. More importantly, this Japanese role-playing game possesses great soul, exploring a son’s love for his mother, and the vast expanses he’s prepared to cross in the hopes of a reunion. Hearts are broken and restored, hidden motives are revealed, and lost relationships again blossom, even after great evil has torn them asunder. This is a wonderful world that you will be eager to lose countless hours in as you adventure through its enticing realms.

Oh, to live in a world with limitless babanas.

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Oliver is the cherry-cheeked center of Ni no Kuni–the boy who would save the world, as so many youngsters do in RPGs. But the world he saves isn’t his own. Oliver lives in Motorville, an Anytown, U.S.A. sort of place–the kind you might see depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting. Children laugh and play, cars drive slowly along the shrubbery-lined streets, and mothers shop for bottles of milk and sacks of foodstuffs. On the occasions you visit Motorville throughout the game, your travels are accompanied by slurring violins and trilling flutes and oboes. The music tells you all you must know in just a few notes: Oliver’s world is idyllic, and his childhood untroubled by cares of the adult world.

This all changes drastically when Oliver’s mother dies, saving his life after his reckless motorcar antics. But there is a whisper of hope amid the grief: mom has a soul twin–a great sage living in a fantasy world, currently trapped by a villainous fiend called Shadar. For Oliver, Shadar’s defeat means the possible liberation of his mother from death itself. For the denizens of the parallel world, it means liberation from his magical tyranny–or so their story goes.

Thus begins your journey alongside a heartbroken young boy desperate to restore order to his life and his world. Oliver is the soul of the adventure–and his companion Drippy is the wit. Drippy is hardly mere comic relief, but his enthusiasm is infectious. He frequently refers to himself as High Lord of the Fairies in a delightful Welsh accent, egging Oliver on during moments of uncertainty. It’s in Ni no Kuni’s most surreal scenarios that Drippy’s dialogue tickles the most–places where lines like “These littlies are nowhere near as fragile as they are egg-looking!” make a silly sort of sense. His follow-up line: “When I was their age, I ate squid for breakfast! Proper hard I was!” Drippy’s a wonderful sidekick (though Drippy sees you as his sidekick, to be fair), and remains a joy, even 60 or more hours in.

Darling, it's better down where it's wetter, take it from me.

Darling, it’s better down where it’s wetter, take it from me.

As you traverse the overworld and its various cities and dungeons, the squat Drippy skips merrily along, a lantern pierced through his nose. His boundless energy occasionally causes him to stumble, but he bounces right back into gear without ever losing his goofy smile. He’s an instant classic of a character, brought to life by fantastic voice acting, a trait the character shares with the entire cast. Oliver’s young actor hits just the right balance: endearing and gung-ho, but rarely sickeningly sweet. Fantastical characters like Ding Dong Dell’s King Tom–a feline ruler referred to as His Meowjesty–are uplifted by fun, sincere line readings that never cross over into self-parody.

The result is a world you love to be in, which is just as well: even as the game seems to wrap up its story with an emotionally satisfying conclusion, it presses forward, refusing to let plot threads dangle, and uprooting any sense of complacency. The whimsy of the writing is matched by the whimsy of the world and the situations you encounter. This is a game in which you explore the pastel-colored innards of a giant wobbling mother before she fancifully erupts and you experience a second birth of sorts. Unusual? Yes–but also utterly enchanting. Even the smallest moments deliver glee. A llama with a gourmet appetite wants yummies. A traveler keeps misplacing his diary. A wannabe diva of a molten monster warbles a few notes that could break a champagne glass. This is a world of wild imagination, and so you pursue every side quest and peek into every nook, knowing that a surprise lies in wait.

All of those nooks burst with beauty, and become even more varied as you explore further. When you first arrive in the overworld near Ding Dong Dell, you’ll be enthralled by the sun-drenched meadows and glistening waterways. But later, you roam golden deserts, icy plateaus, and misty swamps, where the eyes of crooked trees look upon you in displeasure. Cel-shaded games often sacrifice detail in lieu of bold outlines and primary colors, but Ni no Kuni doesn’t use its style as a crutch. Rather, the cartoonish visuals are heightened by extraordinary visual details. In a Motorville shop, each storefront and hanging flower planter is given careful attention, making it the hometown you wish you had grown up in. As you make your way towards a village, your party visibly shivers from the cold. These excellent small touches are crucial in creating a sense of wonder.

Shadar does not speak for the rest of us.

Shadar does not speak for the rest of us.

The impact of the fantastic soundtrack cannot be overstated. A fairy village in Ni no Kuni isn’t like a fairy village in any other game, and the music reflects as much. When you enter, the oom-pa-pas of tubas lend this place the exact right kind of circus atmosphere. Explore a dungeon and you hear a rising scale motif, which in turn raises the tension. And then there comes a moment when Oliver’s friend Esther raises a musical instrument in song, warmly intoning the game’s main theme without additional accompaniment. And it’s here you recognize how much meaning this one tune possesses–and how amazing it is that it never grows tiresome, but rather, gains emotional power over time.

The witty, beautiful, and endlessly creative Ni no Kuni is a treasure not to be missed.

By Kevin VanOrd