Platform: PS3

Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch has taken over my life. As I write this, dishes overflow from my kitchen sink, dust has gathered on every surface in my house, I've hardly slept and my online tax return is open on my computer, but nowhere near complete. This is what happens when Studio Ghibli and Level 5 join forces to make a JRPG. I tell myself that the only reason I've spent the last three weeks spending every non-working hour travelling around a magical world with a welsh Faerie named Mr Drippy is because I needed to complete the game before writing the review. But I know it's a lie. If this had been three weeks after the game's February 1st release date, I'd still be sitting in my house, surrounded by detritus, with a huge hole in my life where Ni No Kuni's main campaign used to exist. So, clear some time in your schedule.

PhotobucketYou play as a young boy named Oliver who, wracked with grief at his mother's death (which he appears to be inadvertently responsible for), is taken to an alternate reality by his stuffed toy come-to-life Mr Drippy. Mr Drippy snaps Oliver out of his grief by berating him for being a cry-baby, which is a tad ironic as the faeries reanimation only comes to pass after coming into contact with Oliver's tears. After the moving scene of witnessing his mother die in her hospital bed, and Studio Ghibli regular Joe Hisaishi's score swelling your emotions to breaking point (compliments of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra), Mr Drippy's thick welsh accent verbally slaps both Oliver and the player full in the face. A dark Djinn, Shadar, is corrupting the land of Ni No Kuni by stealing pieces of heart from the unsuspecting population, and you are going on this quest whether you want to or not. To sweeten the deal, there's even a chance Oliver can bring his mother back to life, as both Oliver's world and Ni No Kuni are linked - everyone is linked by a soul mate, so if Oliver can rescue his mother's soul mate, the great sage Alicia, from the aforementioned dark Djinn, he can bring her back to his life in his world. So away we go.

PhotobucketThe game's plot is classic Ghibli. A wrathful white witch and her Zodiarch council of twelve (each one representing an animal from the Chinese zodiac) have enlisted the help of an evil Djinn named Shadar, who is tasked with destroying the land of Ni No Kuni. He does this mainly by sapping people of their enthusiasm, love, courage, etc, leaving them mere husks of their former selves. When Oliver appears on the scene the Djinn's purpose becomes more sinister - he is to destroy the boy wizard. At no point does the tone of the narrative become condescending - if anything, it can be a bit heavy handed at times (Mr Drippy rarely minces his words). You get to see Oliver grow from a scared little boy crying in his room at the death of his mother to an all powerful hero who understands that the only way to overcome obstacles is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and take life by the horns. While it doesn't explicitly come out and say it, the overall message of the game is "shit happens to everyone. Deal with it or drown in it". A lot of this is shown through the game's side quests - time after time, Oliver comes across people who have just given up on life. They are, to use the game's terminology, "heartbroken", the result of Shadar's attempt to destroy the world. Oliver combats this by finding someone with a surplus of whatever they're missing from their heart (courage, love etc) and transferring it to the people who need it. Essentially, everywhere Oliver goes, he's putting broken people back together. And by doing this, his own broken heartedness at the death of his mother is gradually repaired.

PhotobucketThe graphics, while not out of this world by any means, are still glorious to behold thanks to the artwork. Each character, monster, region and village is wonderfully designed Ghibli style, with a few dashes of steam punk thrown in for good measure. The standard in-game graphics aren't enough of a departure from the Ghibli animated cut scenes for the experience to be too jarring. The game has character, and you are going to fall in love with it. You are also going to find it impossible to keep the musical score from becoming a welcome earworm. It's epic in scale, and tends to stick to a variation on the same piece of music, depending on which region you're in, making it even catchier in its subtle repetition.

PhotobucketGameplay doesn't stray very far from the traditional JRPG tropes we've come to expect, and this proves to be one of the game's strengths. Level 5 haven't tried to reinvent the wheel here. When the quest properly starts upon your arrival in Ni No Kuni, you're positioned in a world map. Throughout the map there are villages to visit with interactive NPCs, forests to explore and monsters to fight. Eventually you can fast travel, or take in an aerial view on the back of your own dragon. Battle is a menu based system that evolves throughout the course of the game as different elements are introduced. Your player can move around to dodge attacks, has a cool down period on each action, and the battle will pause automatically when you enter the spell or provisions menu, or if you decide to switch between characters or familiars. At the start of the game, you control only Oliver, utilising his weak physical attack and small collection of spells. By the end, you'll control up to three characters, with reserves that can be swapped around, and a stable of familiars who can fight on your behalf and a spellbook that is full to the brim. You also need to get used to using defensive measures as well as offensive if you want to battle successfully.

But let's not run before we can walk.

PhotobucketOne of the most important tactics in the game is the use of familiars during battles. You start off with one, but by the end of the game you can have up to 400 in storage, 9 equipped and 3 in reserve. What are familiars? Every creature you fight has the potential to be a familiar once the sage's daughter Esther joins you on your quest. Defeating monsters will occasionally give you the opportunity to capture them, and add them to your collection. If you keep them equipped throughout your quest, they'll level up alongside your characters, eventually becoming strong enough to metamorphose into a secondary, and then tertiary and final form. Keeping your familiars well fed with their favourite foodstuffs increases their "familiarity", and also raises an aspect of their battle stats (attack/defence/evasion etc). You can spend the entire game dedicating yourself to collecting familiars, and evolving them to their final form. The main quest has no time limit, but it does make sense to progress from time to time as different regions contain different familiars for you to capture and train. It's all very Pokémon.

The characters that eventually join your quest are traditionally classed. Your main character Oliver is essentially a black mage, with access to the most powerful spells in the game, Esther is a white mage who specialises in healing magic and status attacks and Swaine is a classic thief, utilising a steam-punk pistol to pick the (metaphorical) pockets of your enemies. However, by pairing them with the right selection of Familiars, they can be just as powerful on the offensive as they are on the defensive. Later on in the game, you'll receive an extra character that can be swapped in and out between battles. I won't spoil who they are, but they're essentially a Paladin with strong light based spells for both attack and healing purposes.

PhotobucketThe battle system allows you to switch between characters fairly easily, or (as I did) stick to Oliver and use battle commands and tactics to somewhat determine the behaviour of your two sidekicks. Mr Drippy is, unfortunately, out of your control, but occasionally, when the chips are down, he will interject with a well-placed spell that replenishes some of your health, or he'll drop some HP or MP "glims" for you to replenish your dwindling supplies. Enemies will also drop glims if you land a particularly skilful critical hit, the granddaddy of them all being the golden glim - this completely replenishes one of your character's health bars and unleashes their special attack. Each of your party, and every familiar has their own individual special attack, so choose whom you allow to pick up the golden glim wisely, or it could potentially cost you a battle.

PhotobucketThe beauty of the game is you don't have to understand a word I've just written to appreciate Ni No Kuni. The developers have spent a considerable amount of time creating an almighty tome of knowledge within the game, your go-to Spellbook. As you progress through the game, taking on side quests and chatting to NPCs, you'll unlock more pages of the book, opening up the intricate mythology behind the game's world. Want to know the best magic to use against a moon-signed monster? It's in the spell book. Want to know the ingredients needed to create the strongest armour? It's in the spell book. Everything you need to grab this game by the proverbials and build Oliver and his friends into the most formidable and well equipped battle group the world has seen is all there, at your finger tips, whenever you're not fighting. Like developing familiars, you can spend hours hunting for ingredients by taking down monsters, looting treasure chests or scouting the landscape for naturally occurring (and sparkly) ingredient sites.

PhotobucketOne of the main stumbling blocks for beginners to the RPG genre (I dropped the J, as it's not exclusive to the Japanese niche) is grinding. If you want to complete FF7/Fallout/Elder Scrolls you can't just rush through the quest. At some point you are going to have to make a conscious decision to stay in one area, and engage as many monsters as you can, one after the other, to level up and increase your stats. If you don't, you can get all the way to the final boss sometimes, and have your arse handed to you in a hat. Ni No Kuni skilfully negotiates its way around this by including side quests that, while relatively challenging, never feel like too much work. Go there, fetch this - fight monsters on the way. Fight this particular monster; don't stop until he drops something you need, bring it back to an NPC. This monster is terrorising a region on the map - take him down. In a way, the game tricks you into grinding without it ever FEELING like a grind.

When I initially played the Ni No Kuni preview I ignored side quests, as I only had three hours to play the game. This proved to be catastrophic - every battle in the main quest was a struggle. However, during my review playthrough I made sure every side-quest was neatly completed before returning to the main quest. The end result, while far from being a breeze, meant that I still faced a challenge, but at no time did I ever feel that any of the bosses were undefeatable. Towards the latter part of the game, normal battles were still tough as nails, but knowing when to defend, when to attack and when to use magic allowed me to progress without too many "Game Over" screens.

So, is it any good? In short, it's the most easily accessible JRPG I've ever played. If you have kids, or you've never played a JRPG before, play this one. It gently eases you into its, at times, overly complicated world without sacrificing any of the challenge. There's an easy mode for those who are just interested in the game's narrative, but I'd recommend putting some faith in yourself and playing it on normal.

PhotobucketI'd give this game a ten, but I honestly don't think it's going to appeal to everyone, as much as I fell in love with it (at the risk of a possible fine for late taxes). There are some who will all too easily write it off as a kid's game, and others who will think it hasn't done much to push the boundaries of gameplay or graphic fidelity forward. With both, I'd agree to an extent - Ni No Kuni is perfect for kids, but that's not to say it excludes adults. This is a game for all ages. And as for gameplay and graphic fidelity, it doesn't bring much that's new to the table. But what it does bring is an amazing story to life in a fully realised world, with enough mythology and history to keep you engrossed in your in-game spellbook for the best part of three hours. On the downside, it does have more false endings then The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King.

PhotobucketI'm going to finish up by saying a few words about Mr Drippy. At first, the sound of his brash welsh accent (which is also conveyed through the subtitles, even if you use the Japanese audio track) is a huge annoyance. It's almost too distracting to be comical. At first. After a few hours though, something happens. When you're not playing, you start to miss the sound of his voice. You find yourself wanting to drop phrases like "There's lucky" or "over by 'ere" into every day conversation. He somehow becomes your favourite character. So, if you do pick up Ni No Kuni, and find yourself completely put off by the welsher than welsh Lord High Lord Of The Faeries (who all also happen to be welsh), give him another chance. He grows on you. I promise.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch is released on PS3 on February 1st.