Ni No Kuni is a delightful yet often overlooked gem of a game. Originally birthed on the Nintendo DS as a Japanese exclusive, it made the leap to PlayStation 3 with a complete overhaul of its story, visuals and gameplay. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch finally made its way overseas at the beginning of 2013, but with Sony’s next home console just about to be unveiled and traditional JRPGs being out of vogue, this entry in the genre didn’t get the love it fully deserved.
In addition to last year’s sequel, that’s something Namco Bandai is hoping to solve with a remaster of the game, and you’ll be able to pick it up for PlayStation 4 and PC laster this week, as well as a more straightforward unenhanced port to the Nintendo Switch.
In many ways, Ni no Kuni’s story about as traditional as traditional as you can get for a JRPG: a child protagonist plucked from his normal life and thrust into a magical world under siege by dark and mysterious powers. It follows many familiar narrative beats, aesthetic influences, and design choices though also offers a unique twist with each of these core pillars.
Without giving too much away, the game immediately backhands players as a devastating tragedy befalls its hero, Oliver. He’s then whisked away to another world overrun by anthropomorphic creatures, monsters, faeries, and other magical beings. What makes this story interesting is how you hop between Oliver’s two lives, noticing how there are synchronicities between the two.
One thing you’ll immediately see is just how gorgeous Ni No Kuni looks, blessed with the inimitable art style of Studio Ghibli and stunning animations sandwiched between gameplay and cutscenes. Joe Hisaishi’s phenomenal soundtrack bleeds into every moment, making Ni No Kuni a treat for both the eyes and ears.
For those picking up the remaster on PlayStation 4 Pro there are options for visual settings, allowing you to play in 4K at 30FPS or 1440p at 60FPS, while the base PS4 aims simply for 1080p at 60FPS. Both modes help enhance Ni No Kuni in different ways. While many prefer performance over fidelity, this is one game that I feel should be experienced in native 4K if the option is there. Ghibli’s original animation and designs still do most of the legwork though absorbing it all in ultra HD detail helps suck you into its enchanting world even more.
Exploring the world map, taking on quests, and dungeon delving are all hallmarks of the JRPG genre though Ni No Kuni likes to do things a bit differently, at least in terms of battle mechanics.
While it definitely falls under the turn-based umbrella, there are some unique quirks to wrap your head around. Instead of fighting enemies themselves, Oliver and his party members will summon Pokémon-like familiars to do their bidding, which you then freely move them around 3D environments between taking actions in real time. It can be awkward to grapple with, but deserves praise for actually attempting to do something different with an age-old formula.
Where a lot of JRPG ports and remasters have been rejigged with quality of life features to cut down on the time spent grinding in battles, Ni No Kuni doesn’t have that as an option. Due to the way combat unfolds, adding a fast forward function or even an auto-battle mode wouldn’t really work.
Of course, you can’t really think of Ni no Kuni now without also considering its sequel and different directions it took. The shift there to more action RPG style and real time strategy battles were divisive among fans, and the rather different tale of Evan and his quest to earn his kingdom didn’t quite have the same flavour as Wrath of the White Witch for many. Both of these games are still fantastic in our opinion, but the first definitely holds a special place in our memories.
Half a decade later, Ni no Kuni is still a must-play adventure for fans of JRPGs and Studio Ghibli films. That we get to play it once more without having to plug the PlayStation 3 in again is a treat in its own right, but seeing it remastered in 4K is simply magical.