In Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch, saving the world isn't so much about doing battle with the forces of evil (although that's certainly part of it). Instead, it's about mending the broken hearts of the people within it. Whether it's restoring the enthusiasm of a depressed town guard or snapping the bovine ruler of a desert kingdom out of their all-consuming cheese obsession, it's the personal struggles that come to define this otherwise bright and breezy adventure. They give it a lot more heart than your Dragon Quests and your Final Fantasies, where the extent of people's troubles often stop at 'please kill ten of these giant rats for me so I can give you a stat-boosting sock in return'.
It's the kind of warm, fuzzy goodness you might expect from a game made by RPG veterans Level-5 and animation studio extraordinaire Studio Ghibli, and there's equal warmth and fuzziness in the way our young hero Oliver goes about fixing these problems as well. Instead of sitting the afflicted down for a motivational pep talk about how it's okay to cry into a tub of ice cream every now and again, Oliver can simply magic up the emotion they're missing, by borrowing a bit of it from someone else who has it in abundance - for example, the aforementioned guard's spirited buddy, or the cow queen's patient and restrained vizier. Squint a bit and, yes, you'll realise that what he's doing is essentially a series of dressed-up fetch quests, but gosh darn it if they aren't the most wholesome and uplifting set of fetch quests I've seen in ages.
The sad thing is, as I started patching up more and more of these brokenhearted citizens, I couldn't help but see the whole game as this kind of whipped personality cream I was skimming off the top of their ultra virtuous neighbours - especially when you compare it to its infinitely superior sequel, Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, which came out early last year. Now that was a game absolutely brimming with fresh new ideas and more perfectly tuned systems than it knew what to do with - a bit like that depressed guard's energetic buddy. In Wrath Of The White Witch, on the other hand, it only feels like you're getting a very tiny portion of what that game had to offer.
Gone are the sequel's dynamic RTS battles and enthralling town management sections that made Revenant Kingdom feel so refreshing (Oliver is, after all, only a lad trying to save his mum, rather than a usurped boy king trying to rebuild his kingdom). Gone too, therefore, are the dozens of sidequests which fed into those systems.
Without all that, what you're left with is a much purer, more traditional take on the genre that follows the JRPG rulebook almost to the letter. That's no bad thing, of course, if it's done with the same degree of polish as, say, the ultra-streamlined Dragon Quest XI, or with a gripping battle system like that of Octopath Traveler. But Ni No Kuni doesn't really have either of those things. It might look all cuddly and kid-friendly on the outside, but as the hours wore on, I found it to be increasingly mean-spirited - and often outright frustrating.
Don't get me wrong. This smartened-up version of the PlayStation 3 original is a sumptuous and handsome remaster that looks absolutely gorgeous on PC. This is especially true when you've got it running at 4K and 60fps (or higher, thanks to its uncapped frame rate option for those with high refresh rate monitors). Bar some slightly flat-looking character models in the early hours of the game, it looks every bit like the interactive Ghibli movie you'd hope it would, especially thanks to the gorgeous orchestral score by Ghibli stalwart Joe Hisaishi.
Alas, it seems the vat of remastered fairy dust ran dry after sprucing up the overall look of the game, as the rest of its underlying systems remain unchanged. And yes, sadly, that includes its stupendously bad companion AI.
My difficulties began when I found I was lacking a good, old-fashioned tank character to absorb incoming damage. Like Revenant Kingdom's boy prince Evan Pettiwhisker, Oliver's talents lie in hanging back and casting spells as opposed to rushing in swords (or in this case, twig wands) blazing. He's also your only party member for quite a large chunk of the game's opening act.
It's a tension that's partly remedied by the game's Pokémon-like Familiars system, through which Oliver can send out tiny monsters to do some of the sword-whacking for him. Again, you only have one to start off with - the orange goblin Mitey - but eventually you gain the ability to tame more cutesy creatures after defeating them in battle (or, in Ni No Kuni parlance, by impressing them so much with your fighting prowess that they instantly fall in love with you and can be 'serenaded' into service).
The battle system you're sending them into is quite unusual. You move around an enclosed battle arena selecting attacks in real time, but time freezes the moment you enter a drop-down menu to look through your item inventory, for example, or cast a spell. Each option has its own cooldown timer, and while attacks will play out automatically for a set length of time, you can cancel them at any time if you need to switch up your strategy.
Your Familiars abide by these rules as well, and they do - to an extent - give you a bit more flexibility in how you can approach certain enemies. The more you acquire, however, the bigger the strain they become on your collective resources. For starters, Familiars share the same health and magic meters as you do, so you'll need to ration how often you take advantage of their damage-dealing magic attacks instead of using your own. Go bananas on Mitey's heavy-hitting Cut Loose attack, for example, and you'll have nothing left in your own reserves for a last minute heal when your collective HP gets low.
Familiars also have limited stamina bars, which means they can't be left out in play indefinitely. In theory, this should create a steady rhythm of swapping them in and out as battles evolve over time. But when you've got three party members with three Familiars each who all have their own individual weapon, defence and accessory slots, there's a lot to handle. Apart from anything else, I found the sheer cost involved in keeping everyone tooled up was almost always out of balance with the flow of money I accrued from battles and side quests. As a result, there were some Familiars on my team that were next to useless most of the time: even though they'd been levelling up along with the rest, their lack of equipment meant they either got pummelled immediately, or were completely ineffective, in battle.
Then there are the party members. Admittedly there are only two more in addition to Oliver, but man alive are they the biggest bunch of imbeciles I've ever seen in my life.
I thought I'd be able to leave the bulk of the healing to Esther when she eventually pitched up, for example, but even this proved to be too optimistic. Despite equipping Esther (and Oliver at this point) with the maximum of three Familiars each, Esther kept refusing to switch up when her main Familiar's stamina expired. Battle after battle I watched her plough moronically into the front lines, doling out single units of damage with each strum of her useless harp until eventually she got herself killed. It wasn't through my own neglect, either. Most of the time, she carked it either because she was taking damage faster than I could heal her myself, or because she'd spent all of her limited magic points earlier in the battle so she had nothing left.
To make matters worse, she also didn't seem to understand how to use her own 'Defend' ability. Now, normally I ignore such options in JRPGs, but here it's really quite important, as the game itself makes clear in the very first boss battle. There are some attacks, you see, that will absolutely nuke you if you don't tap Defend at the right time. This is particularly true when it comes to boss battles, but learning when to use and deploy it effectively is key to winning any of the game's tougher fights.
Esther, however, just couldn't get to grips with it. More often than not, she left me to slog it out on my own, as she and her Familiars stood around gormlessly waiting for the next big lightning beam, giant rock, fire ball or some other such fatal attack to smack her in the face. My long-awaited tank Swaine wasn't any more with it when he finally arrived, either, as he proved to be just as cretinous as old Esther.
Eventually, I got to the point where I had to look this up. Everyone raved about this game when it came out in 2011, and Ni No Kuni II had an absolute beaut of an AI looking after your other two party members. Was I the only one to have encountered this problem with the original? Had I just fundamentally misunderstood this entire battle system? Alas, Google 'Ni No Kuni AI' and the answer is plain. It is, in short, terrible.
If it was some weird quirk you only encountered in a very small portion of the game, such as in Ni No Kuni II's infrequent RTS battles, for example, it would probably be just about forgivable. But when it's something this big that affects what you're going to be doing and engaging with for 95% of your time, it's simply not good enough.
I've struggled through a good chunk of the game now, and while I haven't quite had time to finish it completely yet, the thought of having to babysit these bumbling morons through the final boss battle just fills me with a kind of existential dread. And before you ask why I can't just revive them or top up their magic points with items from my inventory, I would kindly direct you back to the 'I never have enough money to buy anything' conundrum I mentioned earlier. Yes, I could spend hours and hours grinding away until I had more money than I knew what to do with. When you're dealing with idiots of this calibre, I'm just not sure they deserve it.
If you're at all intrigued by Ni No Kuni, I'd strongly advise you to just go and play Revenant Kingdom instead. It's a far more enjoyable JRPG than Wrath of the White Witch, and it won't make you feel like snapping your keyboard in two out of a white-hot fury of your own (if only because its actual mouse and keyboard controls are much easier to get to grips with in the first place).
And if you've played Revenant Kingdom already, well, go and play that again. The main story beats are almost laughably similar to Wrath of the White Witch, so it's not like you're even missing out on a brand-new plot, either. Much like that weary town guard you encounter at the beginning of the game, I've ultimately been left broken-hearted by my experience with this Ni No Kuni remaster. And alas, there's nothing in the real world that can magic it all better.