If there is one difference between the “Japanese RPG” and the “Western RPG,” it is the difference between mutually exclusive choices and complete system mastery. Games like Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect pride themselves on their dynamic plots and meaningful decisions; on being a warrior instead of a thief, or saving one companion at the expense of another. JRPGs are rarely so dynamic, or so restrictive. The story of the Mother series progresses along the same path every single time you play. At the end of Final Fantasy VI, every single character can cast every single spell, if you want.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is the latest JRPG to hit English-speaking shores, and one of the best examples of a JRPG I’ve ever played. Originally released in Japan in 2011, Ni no Kuni dares to answer the question: Why, in the 21st century, should any gamer put up with a JRPG? The genre is well-established, dating to the mid-80s at least, and has always suffered criticisms of its linear, regressive gameplay; of grinding experience points and monotonous battles. Ni no Kuni is no exception, and even positive reviews make note of its “traditional JRPG formula.” Less positive reviews hammer on “the most obvious of RPG tropes” and “repetitive RPG fetch quests.” Ni no Kuni, for its part, takes full advantage of that traditional formula, whether you like it or not.
Ni no Kuni opens in the idyllic Motorville, a fictional town of indeterminate location. Visually, it evokes Rockwellian images of post-war America, a pastel suburbia with few apparent troubles. The name Motorville (“Hotroit” in the Japanese version) is a clear allusion to Motor City, though any resemblance to the real Detroit is slight. Further confusing the issue, in the English voice track, characters speak with British accents. Though Oliver, the game’s protagonist, is transported to a world of fairies and magic, Motorville is the true fantasy, a town that does not really exist.
The 13-year old Oliver suffers the death of his mother early on. He takes comfort in the stuffed toy Mr. Drippy, who turns out to be Oliver’s fairy guardian. The story develops as you might expect in a fantasy tale: Mr. Drippy reveals that Oliver is the chosen savior of another world. Ni no Kuni invests an otherwise typical story with a strong emotional punch. Oliver and Mr. Drippy’s worlds turn out to be connected, and every person in one world has a soul mate in the other. If Oliver can save his mother’s soul mate, captured by the dark djinn Shadar, maybe he can save his mother in his world too.
As soon as Oliver steps into the second world, he starts on the unsurprising path of the adolescent coming-of-age story, and the game’s RPG elements begin to unfold. Ni no Kuni exemplifies the slow burn of the JRPG. The game offers a lot to chew on: a challenging battle system, a Pokémon-esque “familiar” system, exploration, crafting, light puzzle-solving, miscellaneous sidequests, and everything else you expect in an RPG designed to last 40 hours or more. And Ni no Kuni does take its time. It takes between 10 and 20 hours to unlock the game’s numerous subsystems, and many more to explore them fully.
Ni no Kuni’s thematic core is Oliver’s magic locket, an item which allows him to store and share positive emotions, like courage, confidence, and faith. With this locket, Oliver can heal those who have become “brokenhearted,” which is pretty much every single person in the game. This locket is Ni no Kuni’s simplest mechanic, and also the most prominent. Oliver heals people of every status and condition, from lazy merchants to despondent emperors. Video games have no shortage of trivial side quests that make little sense during a time of world-shattering crisis. In Ni no Kuni, these quests provide the game’s moral foundation. Oliver is not fighting only Shadar, but Shadar’s evil influence. Oliver is defined by his sympathy for both big and small problems, as well as good and evil people.
What better genre than the JRPG, then, to tell the story of this burgeoning wunderkind wizard? Oliver’s potential seems limitless. He solves almost every problem thrown in his way. As Oliver grows more skilled, more comfortable with his new abilities, so do you. Ni no Kuni is not presented as a route to navigate, but a world to master. Studio Ghibli, which worked with Level-5 to design this game, makes that prospect very appealing. Ni no Kuni is gorgeous, with an impressive parade of characters and locations. Still images do not capture the skill with which Level-5, the developer, draws scenes – with rich environments that naturally attract your eye.
If Ni no Kuni can be criticized for anything, it is its adherence to formula, no matter how appropriate that formula might be. I doubt Ni no Kuni will win over naysayers with its never-ending battles and repetitive fetch quests, or the predictable morality of a story about good deeds and loyal friends. But formula is not a problem by itself. Ni no Kuni is no lazy grind through uninspired dungeons.
Though Oliver spends most of his time in the second world, he can travel back to Motorville at any time, and occasionally has to solve problems that span the two worlds. These problems are not challenging in the video game sense of the term – there are few puzzles to solve or battles to win. Oliver casts spells, tends to the lonely, fixes broken marriages. Motorville serves as a reminder that Oliver is still a real boy, in the real world, and he is not the only person with real problems.
Fantasy, as a genre, is often thought of as escapist. Ni no Kuni shows us the opposite: that fantasy is just as often a confrontation. Throughout his journey, Oliver realizes the Motorville of his childhood is gone, or never existed, replaced by one more troubled than he ever understood. No matter how powerful his magic becomes, there may be problems he cannot solve. Some stories are not about choosing among branching paths, but moving forward, and growing up.