Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch remains one of the best-looking games of all time. The PS3 title, made in concert with leading Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, managed to bring the iconic animation style to life in a 3D game space. It was also a moving, heartfelt, and emotionally-charged tale that tugged at your heartstrings hard enough to pull the DualShock out of your hand. It is rightly considered an all-time classic and its recent remaster allowed a whole new generation of gamers to experience it.
The Ni no Kuni license has otherwise been searching for an identity. The sequel was less well-received than the original, and did away with its Studio Ghibli ties, while its first foray into cross-media was similarly shorn of Hayao Miyazaki’s legacy. Ni no Kuni: Cross Worlds is the latest entry in the series, a free-to-play MMO that’s set to launch for iOS, Android and PC any day now. We were lucky enough to get an early jump on everyone else, so that we, dear reader, could tell you all about it.
Ni no Kuni: Cross Worlds plays the old ‘trapped in a video-game’ card, with you taking on the role of a beta tester for Soul Divers, a VR game that everyone’s clamouring for. While it’s all getting a bit Sword Art Online, you will find yourself drawn into the world of Ni no Kuni, arriving in the Nameless Kingdom for a spot of argy-bargy with the locals.
There’s five different characters to choose from here, giving you access to five different playstyles thanks to their unique builds. There’s the Swordsman who’s a real Ronseal everyman, The Witch, a magic-wielder with a magical flying spear, and The Engineer that can take enemies down at range with his rifle when he’s not tinkering with inventions. Meanwhile The Rogue favours a bow, and The Destroyer rounds out the quintet with his tank-like abilities and giant hammer.
It’s a pleasing spread as an opening party, but I’ll be hoping to see it expand as development continues. You can level up all of these characters, though while some progression is shared you have to start the narrative at the beginning for each one.
There’s a very limited amount of character customisation, with just a few different hairstyles and colour choices. You can alter the body type within reason, and add some facial decoration if you fancy a dodgy tache. You can have different coloured eyes though, so perhaps that’s where developer Netmarble are expecting to see some individuality? There are more costumes to acquire though, so I’m sure you’ll end up in some finery you do like eventually. I’m very much enjoying the silly crow hat I acquired.
While you’re logging into the beta test of Soul Divers it all goes a bit wrong, and you find yourself at the centre of a battle, with a winged minion called Cluu suddenly taking a shine to you. It’s nice to see the return of some localised British voice acting here, with Cluu immediately providing some of the same comedic moments that Drippy did in the original. There’s an aggressively armoured antagonist knocking about here too, and the opening does a great job of drawing you into the world.
It helps that it looks particularly enticing. Unreal Engine 4 puts in a shift to bring the characters and enemies to life, and the returning creatures you see in the opening battle look fantastic. Once you start to acquire Familiars that follow you around you’ll remember that there’s one overarching word for the world here, and it’s ‘cute’. It’s simply a lovely continuation of the Ni no Kuni universe, and it feels like a thoroughly grounded entry in the franchise rather than just a mobile spin-off.
The music certainly helps to sell that idea, with long-time Studio Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi’s magical themes lending the game a genuine sense of drama and adventure. His return to Ni no Kuni is perhaps the key to the entire project, and even if you’ve not played the original you can instantly recognise thematic similarities with his work on Howl’s Moving Castle, Porco Rosso and Ponyo.
While you’re here to save the Nameless Kingdom, Evermore is your central hub. Returning from both Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom and the Ni no Kuni movie, you can set out from here on quests, buy items, meet up with other players, and generally chat with a bunch of NPCs. You also need to improve your reputation here by completing tasks from needy characters, and subsequently increasing your reputation grade in an area unlocks the next part of the main story. It all begins (like most MMOs) with some dull delivery missions, but even these are injected with life by the impassioned voice acting and a light touch of humour.
As this is primarily a mobile-focussed title, it’s not quite optimised for PC where we got to play it. There’s the odd bit of swiping that you now do with a mouse, dragging menus and the camera around requires a left mouse click, and you can’t yet re-map skills to elsewhere on the keyboard. It’s also currently set up so the game will mostly play itself for you, if you let it.
I’m sure things will improve though. The hands-off approach needs to just be switched off to keep you involved and I can’t seem to find that option right now. I absolutely want to keep playing because the world is wonderfully realised. Cross-play between mobile and PC makes that as easy as possible too. It’s worth noting that as a free-to-play title there is a store that’ll take your real world money, but I didn’t hit a point where I felt any urge to put any down. I was enjoying my crow hat too much.
There’s still a huge amount left to see, and the telling part for any MMO will be when thousands of players are dumped into it. The beautiful world and high-quality set up ensure that it’s making the best start, and if you’re tiring of Genshin Impact, this could be the anime title to draw you away.
Ni no Kuni: Cross Worlds launches for iOS, Android and PC on the 25th of May.