gamescom: Charming, challenging new Ni no Kuni gameplay  screenshot

It’s been a long, hard wait for Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, hasn’t it?

I first saw and played the game at Tokyo Game Show 2011, where I promptly fell in love it it. We were a bit iffy on whether it would be localized or not, but Namco Bandai gave us good news in early 2012, saying that we’d see a North American release before year’s end. But they pushed it back to 2013 a few months later. 

I had been dying to play a bit more of the game over this long period. When we finally got our hands on localized preview code, I was a bit disappointed to see that it was the exact same thing I played in Tokyo a year before, only now in English. Still, it was lovely

Unfortunately, every time we’ve had an opportunity to see this game again since then, it’s been the same localized TGS 2011 demo. But that finally changed with a new gamescom build. Finally!

Given that the two demos I’d been seeing over and over were pretty close to introductory training missions, I thought we started off on the wrong foot with the first of the new two, called “An Errand for Father Oak.” Boiled down, this demo was a fetch quest and a couple of smaller battle encounters, but leaving it at that would be discounting the game’s beautiful art, animation, and crazy voice and localization work.

A down-and-out city gate guard looked like he needed a slap to the face, but the good-hearted Oliver and his lantern-nosed friend, Mr. Drippy, are far too kind to do such a thing. Instead, they spoke to a huge talking tree with a creepy face, named Father Oak (no relation to the Good Professor), to get the lowdown on a how to snap this guy out of it using some magic. And as these things usually go, a quest for an item was involved.

Early on, I took a huge, green, tree-backed guy named Guardian of the Woods, who also seemed to be a bit out of it. But instead of being a brain dead zombie like our gate guard, he began attacking my party in some kind of daze, forcing me to fight back. I found that fire magic was his weakness, but in my spamming of a fire spell, I also found that he had a charge attack that also required defending, as a couple of undefended hits would take me down. Incidentally, Oliver has the cutest defense stance I’ve ever seen in a role-playing game.

Late in the battle, Mr. Drippy let me know that the “big lump has gone and knackered himself” and that I should give him a “proper walloping” to finish him off. I busted off one final special attack in which Oliver pulled a wand out as flames encircled him. A huge fireball bomb defeated the Guardian and snapped him out of his blind attacking rage, sending him shuffling off into the forest.

Weird? Yeah, but also insanely delightful and almost unbearably cute. Most of the rest of this short quest was spent walking around the storybook-like overworld, occasionally running into a wandering enemy, and then jumping into the free-roaming, Familiar-summoning battle system. When I finally made it back to the city, I took a locket that Father Oak gave me, used it to borrow some of the excess enthusiasm of one of the city gate guards, and then pumped it into the down-and-out guard. Once he snapped out of it, I was permitted to enter the city.

The voice work in this game is adorable. Oliver, played by a young boy, is sweet and kind-sounding. But I really love that Mr. Drippy is Welsh. He has a regional dialect in the Japanese version, so given that a British studio worked on the translation and localization of Ni no Kuni, it’s fitting that Drippy would speak with a Welsh accent. Even his text is Welsh, using words like “ouer” and “youer” in the place words that might make more sense to an American. He also says “flipping” often, which is always fun.

A second demo, called “Eruption Interruption,” was a nice change of pace. Up until now, every battle in Ni no Kuni has been on the easy side, but this section, set a bit later in the game, let me know that challenging encounters are also in the mix.

By this point in the game, Oliver has a larger party, traveling with his friend Esther, and each have three Familiars. This gave me the equivalent of eight party members at my command in battle, which was more than enough for some random encounters as I made my way up a fiery volcano but just barely sufficient for an encounter with the area’s boss.

After shimmying along narrow pathways around this volcano, dodging lava hazards, my party finally encountered Moltaan, the Lord of Lava. This was a massive, screen-filling boss that literally set the battle stage on fire, creating hazards for my party as they ran around, trying to stay alive. This guy was not easy to hit, and when I did hit him, attacks barely did anything.

At the height of my tension, I found myself frantically running around to dodge attacks, narrowly squeezing out counterattacks of my own to slowly chip away at Moltaan’s lifebar. I had previously assigned Esther, a support-type character, to an auto tactic that would keep Oliver and his Familiars healed up, leaving me to concentrate on dealing damage. But by now, things were looking desperate; I manually switched to control of each of my Familiars, dealing out ice-type spells as fast as I could, continually rechecking their cooldown timers in the hopes that we might barely outlive the boss. Esther kept using all of her magic points, so I was also dumping all of my item resources (and wasting my attack turns!) to keeping her topped off.

And… I died. I didn’t beat Moltaan. But my failure means good things for Ni no Kuni. Some were concerned that its cute looks and simple-looking battle system would never provide a decent challenge. From the looks of the latter demo, it seems that the challenge will ramp up nicely. The takeaway here is that this RPG has gameplay to match its good looks.

I look forward to taking Moltaan down early next year when Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch launches in North America on January 22.


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