There are few animation houses that are as universally loved or respected as Studio Ghibli. I would go as far as saying that they are the greatest animation studio on the planet, putting a certain saucer-eared rodent and co to shame when it comes to delivering consistently exceptional and emotionally evocative stories. Back in 2008, Ghibli teamed with Japanese game developer Level-5 to create their first collaborative project Ni no Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn. Released in 2010 on the DS it was a resounding success, and only a year later Level-5 would release their first remaster of sorts: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on the PS3 which significantly improved and expanded the core game. In 2013 western audience would get their chance to experience Wrath of the White Witch for themselves, and international acclaim quickly followed.
Jump forward another six years, and The White Witch is back and now available on every major platform, even returning to its Nintendo roots with a release on the Switch. I played Ni no Kuni back in the day and found it infinitely charming. The question now is, how does it hold up on a newer generation of hardware, and has that "Remastered" tag been earned, or is just another example of some 21 st century marketing?
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is gorgeous… most of the time. The hand-drawn animations are still stunning, and most of the in-game graphics not only still hold up, but actually look good even in 2019. The models and textures do not seem to have been improved in any noticeable way aside from a grain filter being applied to the game's original textures, but their relative simplicity and emulation of the Ghibli aesthetic negates the need for complex geometry and vastly increased texture detail in most cases. The overland map has a painterly look and feel, while the 3 rd person dungeon, and city exploration feel like playing an animated movie. It is only during some in-engine cutscenes and combat close-ups that the low polygon models and flat textures ever become all that noticeable, even then they never lose their charm.
The real upgrade here is that the game can be run at much higher resolutions and loses the 30FPS (at best) lock of the PS3 version. Ni no Kuni shines in 4K and should be playable at 60 fps on a wide range of hardware. The only real disappointment is that the PC version lacks many standard graphics options. FXAA is the only anti-aliasing option, and there are no post-processing options at all. And only "default" or "high" choices available for shadows. But, you can run the game at any resolution your PC supports which is actually better than some "remasters" we've seen in recent years.
From a technical standpoint the remaster does the bare minimum, but for the most part that is more than enough. When your art design is this good, it doesn't need much to help it shine. What has remained completely untouched are the story and gameplay elements, and these are where I think opinions will be most divided.
I was in my mid-30's when the game reached western shores, and now in my 40's, I was concerned about how my aging brain and ever-increasing cynicism would react to Oliver and Drippy's return. Thankfully I was as enchanted this time round as I was when I played back in 2013. On the surface Ni no Kuni looks like a kid's game, and to a degree that is true. The difficulty is very low, and in almost every case the solution to any problem is outlined clearly, either by an in-game prompt or by your campion Drippy explaining it to you. Where the broader appeal comes in is from the story itself. Dealing with the themes of death, loss, hope, friendship, and self-worth Ni no Kuni elevates the simple and well worn "boy hero" and "hero's journey" tropes into something richer and far more endearing. From the Ghibli animated cutscenes to the in-game story progression, the quality of the storytelling is best in class. Oliver's quest to save his recently deceased mother's soul manages to land some pretty significant emotional hits, that poignancy is expertly balanced with some witty and often punderful banter from the game's other key characters. All of this is elevated by one of the best game soundtracks ever composed. Every story beat, combat encounter, and character moment is heightened by phenomenal music that not only helps to set the tone but adds a sense of magic to every scene.
Gameplay wise Ni no Kuni plays like many JRPGs. An overworld map you can traverse interspersed with numerous dungeons, towns, and other locations where the view swaps from a steep overhead perspective to a traditional third person view. Combat is real-time and can be initiated in both the overworld map and the various locations you'll visit in the game. The combat, for the most part, is fun, but again the difficulty is very low. You'll start off with some basic skills and eventually unlock more spells, and the games core combat mechanic – familiars. These friendly creatures can be collected, upgraded, and given better gear and then brought into battle to fight for you. Each is unique both in terms of design and the abilities they bring to the fray. The timer-based real-time combat keeps things interesting throughout, and the ability to swap between your familiars and Oliver's magic-wielding adds a lot of depth to things as you progress through the adventure. The only real annoyance here is the insane number of encounters you'll face as you explore the world. These can become tiring especially in the very early stages. Thankfully they seem to become less frequent later on as the fights become more involved. Regardless there is a needless amount of combat grind to get through.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch makes the transition to modern machines completely intact and rather elegantly. While some additional bells and whistles would have been appreciated, what Level5 and Studio Ghibli have delivered is just as magical now as it was early in the decade.
+ Charming voice acting.
+ Endearing and emotional story.
+ Fun familiar based combat.
+ 4K @60FPS can look great and is achievable on modest hardware.
- Too much handholding.
- Far too many random battles.
- Does not post much of a challenge.
- Lacks many PC settings.