Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Awake, Arise, or be Forever Fallen: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

This review will have spoilers! Big ones!

It ties into Monday's post about Lunar & Lunar: Eternal Blue, being another video RPG that I really enjoyed.

I wasn't sure about Ni No Kuni when I first read about it. On one hand, I was like "Hey, JRPG with designs and animation by Studio Ghibli!" and on the other hand, I was like "Oh, dead mom. Awkward."

And this isn't a mom who has been dead for a long time, the pain of whose loss has subsided to a dull ache. This is a mom who is alive and loving in the beginning of the game, and who dies saving her son, right there on screen.

Those were some itsy-bitsy spoilers. The next one is going to be really big.

Oliver's tears bring his doll to life. The doll was Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies, who was trapped in this shape when he went up against the big bad, Shadar.

Shadar steals pieces of his victim's hearts, robbing them of courage, love, enthusiasm and other positive traits. In a broad sense, it seems like a childish threat that wouldn't be out of place in Care Bears, but it's handled in such a way that the little details about how the victims act when broken-hearted really lend it a kind of verisimilitude. We see how their pain hurts them, and the people who love them.

It's right up there Hyperbole and a half for a wrenching picture of depression.

Drippy explains that he comes from the counterpart to our world, where everyone has a soul mate. (I think this is one of the few instances where the localization was less than excellent, as soulmate already has a specific meaning in English.) The soul mate is their twin on the other world, and what happens to one, influences the other. Oliver thinks that saving his mother's soul mate will bring her back to life.

We see several cinematic cut scenes with the titular White Witch talking to her council and ordering Shadar around. We learn early on that the Great Sage Alicia, soul mate to Oliver's mom, went up against Shadar and was defeated. I thought the plot twist was going to be that Shadar had seized her heart and she had become the White Witch.

However, what happened was that Alicia fled to our world, an act that meant that she had no soul mate. Alicia wasn't the soul mate to Oliver's mom; she was actually his mother for real. Oliver's mom is really dead, for real, and she's not coming back. And, by the way, Shadar also mentions that he's Oliver's soul mate, and if Oliver manages to kill him, Oliver will die too.

And this little boy, when he should be bereft of all hope, steps up and vanquishes him anyway.

Oliver vanishes and we see Shadar drifting in the void. In his youth had been a soldier who was punished for protecting a little girl in the midst of a massacre. Reprisals were made against his family, and he believed that the girl died in spite of all he had done. He felt like nothing he did mattered and that a world in which this kind of thing could happen didn't deserve to go on. The White Witch heard his despair, and granted him the power to end the world. 

However, the little girl did survive, and she grew up to become Alicia. As Shadar was dying, she was there to comfort him. Shadar's final action was to release Oliver from his doom. It was really very moving, and it ties in with the theme of the whole game, that people make bad choices when they feel frightened and weak and alone.

It's a story about overcoming grief. We love people, and they die, and we have to learn how to go on living without them. There is a temptation to retreat from the world or lash out when we suffer a loss, but the peace of those paths is a lie.

The story and the presentation are top notch, the kind of brilliance we've come to expect from Ghibli. How's the gameplay? Pretty good. It starts out really generic, with a fight/cast/item/flee menu. But then, gradually, options are introduced over the course of the game, with alchemy and hundreds of little creatures to capture. The Wizard's Companion has a fantastic wealth of information about the world. I think the best stories always hint at more than they state outright, and that's certainly true with Ni No Kuni.

It's a great game, full of optimism and adventure and hope and friendship and good deeds. I talked about how games loom large in our childhood memories, until nostalgia distorts them beyond all recognition. Ni No Kuni is in good in truth as those childhood games are in my memory. It's very possible the best video RPG I've ever played.

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