Game review: Ni No Kuni

So pretty, and yet...

Written by ritabuuk and dubiousdisc
Posted on July 16th 2018

Please know that this page is going to be full of unmarked spoilers for Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, so, if you don't want spoilers, don't read this page.

Ni No Kuni box

Back when, Rosy had seen the pre-release pictures of Ni No Kuni, and they looked very pretty. After the game came out, we downloaded the demo on the PS3, and we were interested. This game was notably a collaboration of Level5 (of Professor Layton fame) and Studio Ghibli (of... Studio Ghibli fame). Specifically, Level5 did the story and the gameplay. Studio Ghibli worked on the art and animated the characters. We liked Professor Layton, and Studio Ghibli movies are always beautiful and are such an experience, so how could a game born of such a collaboration be bad?

We bought the game, and in the beginning, we were very satisfied. Things are setting themselves up, everything is beautiful, there's lots of gorgeous cutscenes, the monster designs are cute, the plot is interesting and is sure to be poignant, there's an entire book of magic within the game... Given how, at the time, the previous games we had played were total stinkers, we'd fire up Ni No Kuni and be like, wow! We're playing a game that is not shit! Wow! Yay!

Little did we know that, actually, this game doesn't deliver on any of its promises. In the beginning, we thought the plot was setting itself up, and then we realized... it wasn't going anywhere. In the middle, this game just fell apart. Even visually, it started being less pretty and polished. Then the ending is a travesty. And we felt so betrayed.

We split this article in three pages for ease of navigation.

The beginning

Motorville

So, Ni no Kuni literally means Second World. The game takes place in a fantastic universe where two worlds coexist like the opposite sides of a coin. In one world, there is the town of Motorville, which has an early 20th-century Detroit San Francisco sort of setting, and also looks somewhat like the town in Kiki's Delivery Service. As the name might suggest, everyone in Motorville is obsessed with cars. The game begins there. Oliver and his friend Phil have been trying to build their own car. Phil convinces innocent little Oliver to sneak out in the middle of the night for a test-drive. They decide to do so right next to a body of water, which turns out to be a terrible idea, since the car of course malfunctions and plops in the water, and Oliver almost drowns. Luckily, his mother noticed that he had left in the night, and she manages to arrive in time to save him. Unfortunately, the stress of the cold water strains her already weak heart, and Oliver's mom passes away as a result of all this.

Drippy

Oliver grieves alone in his room for days, not talking to anyone. While he is crying, his doll comes to life and introduces himself as Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies. He says Oliver is the "pure-hearted one" told of in a prophecy, and Drippy needs Oliver's help to save his world. At first Oliver isn't really interested, but Drippy manages to change his mind by suggesting that Oliver can probably bring his mom back to life in the process. Drippy explains that everyone that exists in one world has a "soul mate" in the other world who is fundamentally linked with them. Drippy knows the soul mate of Oliver's mom: the Great Sage Alicia, who is currently held captive by the evil Shadar. If they can save Alicia, they can probably save Oliver's mom too.

To reach the other world, Oliver has to become a wizard. Drippy supplies him with a magic book and helps him get a wand, and then they open the portal and set out into the second world.

Portal
The first time Oliver travels to the Second world, we get an animated cutscene showing the elaborate gateway that appears.

Ding Dong Dell and the introduction of the Virtues

Ding Dong Dell

The first town in the magical world that Oliver and Drippy visit is Ding Dong Dell. It's a gorgeous town with all sorts of passageways and arches and stairs up and down, like an actual old European town... This beautiful town of stairs showcases the fact that the developers animated Oliver climbing the stairs, step by step, not just sliding like in most other games. Wow.

Wizard
Diagram of a wizard, from the Wizard's Companion

In Ding Dong Dell, we learn about a key mechanic of the game: restoring broken hearts. The point of wizards in this universe and their main goal is to help those they encounter have balance in their heart. As Oliver explores the world as a pure-hearted wizard in-training, he will encounter people who have lost an important facet of their hearts, and he needs to help them them recover their particular lost virtue and be whole again. What being brokenhearted clearly is... is depression. But a wizard like Oliver will help them restore the virtue that has gotten out of balance in their hearts. They do so by finding someone with an excess of the virtue that the broken-hearted person needs. Having too much of a virtue can be just as bad as having a deficit, and so a wizard simultaneously helps both people and also grows themselves on their journey as a wizard.

Isn't this a beautiful thing? In this world, wizards are not just magical fireballs and flashy boom-bo-boosh!, they are wandering mystical therapists. How wonderful.

King Tom
King Tom, scratching his kingly balls

On Oliver's path of becoming a wizard in this magical world, he's first introduced to the virtue of enthusiasm. At the front gate to Ding Dong Dell, we find that one of the guards just can't stir up the will to do his job and open the gate for the growing group of people waiting to go in. The other guard, in the meanwhile, is too busy doing aerobics to do anything to help. After a trip to the nearby forest and learning the Take Heart and Give Heart spells from an ancient sentient tree called Old Father Oak, Oliver is able to transfer the excess enthusiasm from the one guard to the other guard who is clearly without.

This first example is silly and a bit simple, but it is indeed the first example, and it shows the negative impact of both too much and not enough of this particular virtue. Upon entering town, we learn that other villagers are also suffering from listlessness, and especially the village's ruler, a large anthropomorphic cat named King Tom. Upon curing King Tom's enthusiasm problem, his spirit becomes infectious, and now others in town are brimming with this virtue. We can then go around town, collecting the enthusiasm from those with too much, and distributing it to those with too little, and seeing all the different ways that too much or too little enthusiasm can impact people's lives. Good good. Things are pretty simple since everything is all about just this one virtue, but things are just getting started, right?

The introduction of Familiars

Mite
Meeting Oliver's familiar

We hadn't realized before getting the game, but Ni no Kuni is about catching and battling with Pokémon. Or in this case, familiars. Familiars are creatures that have come to life out of someone's heart -- or out of the random wilderness whenever the game needs enemies for you to fight. As a wizard-in-training, Oliver brings forth his own familiar made out of his own heart -- a Mite which we named Smitey -- to help protect Oliver in this magical world.

We assumed that this familiar would be an important part of this story. After all, it's made out of Oliver's very heart, right? And surely it is also meaningful that Oliver's heart brought forth a Mite rather than any other type of familiar, right?

Thumbelemur Seed Sprite
The Thumbelemur and the Seed Sprite

Along Oliver's quest, he will soon befriend a few other familiars that already existed in the world, and they follow him to help him: a Thumbelemur and a Seed Sprite.

The way the battle system of this game goes is, you can either control Oliver and cast spells and so on, or you can send a familiar as a proxy. Each familiar has different abilities, and familiars have abilities that Oliver cannot have and vice versa, and so you'll need to switch between Oliver and each of his familiars to do different things.

A cute thing you can do in this game is feed your familiars delicious treats. When you do that, your familiars do a happy animation, and their stats rise. Perfect. We felt like Ni no Kuni did a better job than even Pokémon here, in which it merged petting your creature with boosting their stats.

For the most part, we really like the designs of the familiars. A lot of them are cute or cool, and they all feature a branching evolution where there's one possible final form that's a straightforward progression from the first and second forms, and an alternate final form that is more of a tangent. So, when evolving your familiars in Ni No Kuni, you usually don't end up in the quandary that happens with Pokémon, where your top favorite amazing critter ends up turning into something completely different that you don't like.

Branched evolution
The example in the Wizard's Companion showcases the branched evolution of the Whambat.

As soon as Oliver gets the book of magic at the very beginning of the game, you can flip through the pages and see all the possible familiars and all of their evolutions. When we started playing the game, we read through this part of the book. We didn't realize that this was the entire list of every familiar, so we accidentally spoiled ourselves for the whole game. We thought it was just the starting list of familiars. Oops. It was still cute to encounter the familiars in the wild and see them in action, but we probably would have preferred to have been more surprised.

But they gave us the book, and Drippy told us to read it, multiple times. We're good students and we like to read, and we were intrigued by the game, and so we read it. Which negatively impacted our experience of the game. Thanks Drippy.

This game has party members?

So, the game starts with Oliver and Drippy exploring the second world. Drippy is showing Oliver around, explaining how things are in this world, and helping him become a wizard who will be strong enough to fight Shadar.

Oliver and Drippy
Oliver and Drippy

Drippy speaks in a rude way with a very evident accent, sorta like Sebastian from Disney's The Little Mermaid, but he's friendly, and surely he'll become Oliver's best friend by the end of the game, right?

Oliver is established as a good little kid, and there is a prophecy that says he is the pure-hearted one, whatever that means. He's good and little, and surely he's going to come of age during the plot, right?

In battle, it's Oliver and his familiars, with Drippy helping from the sides. The game so far feels like a very personal fairytale journey, probably happening in Oliver's mind. It has a very calm and introspective feeling, walking around these beautiful places and meeting characters such as the wise Old Father Oak and King Tom.

Golden Grove
In the Golden Grove

Al Mamoon and Esther

When we get to the desert city of Al Mamoon, we meet Esther, the daughter of the Great Sage. Shadar has made her heartbroken, so now she sits motionless in her tent, not moving and not talking with anyone. Her father the Great Sage has completely given up. Instead, he just sells bananas, and he's not willing to do anything to help Esther, and he's certainly not willing to do anything to help Oliver on his path of becoming a wizard. Drippy surmises that Shadar has not only broken Esther's heart in the magical world, but he has also messed with the heart of her dad's soulmate in Motorville, which is impacting the Great Sage in strange ways.

Myrtle
Myrtle at the window

So, Oliver and Drippy travel back to Motorville, where they find Myrtle, a girl that briefly appeared in one of the first cutscenes. Oliver was aware of her existence at that point, but he had never met her before, because she was always inside her house and looking wistfully down at Oliver and Phil building their car. It turns out that Myrtle is Esther's soulmate, and she is being trapped in her house by her father, who is the soulmate of the Great Sage. Myrtle's dad believes she is too sick to encounter the outside world; he is also a raging workaholic and lashes out at his wife as well. Since we hear from the Motorville gossip circuit that he used to be a sweetie and only recently became an abusive asshole, Drippy diagnoses him as being brokenhearted and missing his kindness, and possessed by a Nightmare to boot. We have to fight his Nightmare before we can restore him. We do so, and when we see his poor wife delivering a home-cooked meal to her brooding husband in his workshop, we are able to tap into her kindness and use that to restore him to his true self. Once he has kindness again, he makes up with his wife, and Myrtle is allowed to leave the house. It has been so long since Myrtle went outside that, at first, she's afraid, but then she is brimming with courage as she does so. Oliver is able to take some of Myrtle's courage and bring that back to the magical world for Esther -- who apparently needed courage to stop being a zombie.

Clara
If you haven't watched this series, or if you have watched it when you were a child, please consider watching Heidi. Now! You'll thank us later.

By the way, Myrtle's plotline and appearance are clearly inspired by that of Clara from Heidi, Girl of the Alps, which was made by some of the key people that then would go on to form Studio Ghibli.

Here, we were a bit impressed that the plot tackles the idea of a depressed and abusive father and husband, but annoyed at how it is his wife's kindness that cures him. It's just a shitty trope that the ever-suffering woman must always be the force that saves the man she loves, without the man ever needing to have introspection and actually take steps to improve himself. And because of the way this is handled, it's implied that it was a good thing that the wife endured all this abuse and continued making adorable bento boxes for her ungrateful husband, instead of doing anything to protect herself (and Myrtle) from his spiraling self-destruction. While we don't want to minimize the grossness of this trope, which has real-life implications, at this point we were giving the game the benefit of the doubt of this being a one-off unsavory plotline, and didn't consider the game immediately damned. It's something that we were thinking we'd have to call out in this review, but, so far, we had otherwise nothing but positive thoughts about this game.

Esther's familiar
I hope you like penguins!

Anyway, Esther wakes up, and it's revealed that she has a familiar. She's said to be an expert of familiars. But she's not actually a wizard, which is strange since she's the daughter of a Great Sage, and familiar-taming is said to be one of the major branches of magic. Look, this is just an excuse to make sure that she's not competing with Oliver in terms of expertise. Because now she's a party member. What? There are party members?

Now, in battle, we can switch between Oliver and Esther, and between Oliver's familiars and Esther's familiars. Esther is also capable of befriending wild familiars, so... this is starting to get crowded.

Together with Esther and her dad (who's not playable, but shown to be walking with us on the map), we go to a temple where Oliver and Esther have to do these trials of friendship, even though they literally met five minutes ago. But they're best friends and able to overcome these trials of great friendship together. Somehow.

First party
And now we have a party! But why?

This was the point of the game where we started having doubts on our glowing first impressions. Esther is essentially not introduced - she's just shoved onto the party without any buildup, disrupting the entire vibe of the game that was before. We were having this quiet introspective adventure, and now here's the annoying bard yelling at us and twanging on a harp. And everything about Esther's introduction is tell don't show. We're told she's the expert of familiars, but, beyond her ability to befriend familiars in battle (which amounts to switching to Esther, pressing a button, and waiting), we never get to hear her talk about her relationship with familiars, why she's into this branch of magic, what is with her own familiars, what does she think of Oliver's familiars, and so on. Nothing. We're also told that now Oliver and Esther are friends, but there is nothing proving that. He helped her like he would have helped any other NPC in the world, except that now she's stubbornly following us without any particular reason. The game tells us that now we can play as Esther in battle, but the player can only control one character at a time, so, except for capturing familiars, why should we switch to Esther, who is otherwise a healer and less useful to control than Oliver? And we're feeling bad about not liking Esther and not switching to Esther enough, because we would want to like her, and the last thing we'd want to do is overlook the female character, but the game gives us no reason to care.

As a character, Esther barely is one. She's responsible, but she expresses it by essentially bullying Oliver, who is already constantly being yelled at by Drippy. So, now Oliver is traveling the world with a party of people yelling at him. And Oliver really doesn't deserve this constant barrage of abuse. Oliver is not a main character like Lloyd from Tales of Symphonia, who is presented as someone who rushes into things without enough forethought and who needs other characters' direction to avoid messing everything up. Oliver is shown to be inexperienced, but humble, learning quickly, and carefully doing his best. So why is everyone treating him like he's incompetent and careless? It was already weird when it was just Drippy mistreating Oliver, but we assumed that was Drippy's character, and that this would change over time as he grows to respect Oliver and overcomes his own faults. But now, it seems that we were giving the writing too much credit, and what we thought was a character flaw to be addressed in a future story arc... is actually just "quirky antics". But it just comes across as inexplicably mean, and the game seems to be waiting for us to laugh at the inexplicable meanness of Drippy and Esther towards Oliver. But it's not funny.

The Cowlipha
Queen Lowlah, the Cowlipha

Anyway, since even after he's cured, Esther's dad is still useless, we're told to go talk with another Great Sage -- perhaps the ruler of Al Mamoon, the Cowlipha, can direct us to where we can find another Great Sage. So we go to meet her. The Cowlipha is a giant anthropomorphic cow, and she's lying in bed in her throne room, demanding cheese. We can't get an audience with her until her cravings are satisfied. We go to Motorville, and her soulmate is Leila the milk lady, and she's also obsessed with eating cheese. We're able to use a bit of cheese from Motorville to magically transform the milk fountains in Al Mamoon into a giant hunk of cheese, and so we bring it to the Cowlipha. There's a cutscene of tiny Oliver climbing onto this giantess to feed her cheese and this is really disturbing and fetishy and was this necessary?

The Cowlipha's cutscene
We didn't want to upload this picture, but we kind of have to show you this. We're so sorry.

But that's still not enough. Drippy comes to the conclusion that the Cowlipha is brokenhearted and lacking restraint. Eventually we get the restraint from the Cowlipha's advisor, and she's healed.

Leila and the cheese
What was this about?

This was really weird and pointless. Why was Leila so obsessed with cheese? In the opening, she seemed like a reasonable woman, and she was taking care of Oliver now that his mother had passed away. Was Leila obsessed with cheese because the Cowlipha was brokenhearted, or the other way around? But it wasn't treated as if Leila was acting weird, just as if she's always been like this. Which doesn't really match what we saw of her in the beginning of the game.

And why was there this whole arc revolving around cheese addiction of all things? It would be one thing if the cheese was a kid-friendly stand-in for a serious discussion about addiction, addressing its connection with depression, and then Oliver the magical therapist can help the characters he meets battle against their addictions... but that wasn't what happened here. This whole part was just, haha, cheese. Cheese is funny, right?

Anyway, the Cowlipha is better now, and she directs us to another, hopefully more useful, Great Sage. He's the ruler of Hamelin, and he's a bishonen, and she keeps a picture of him close at all times. She gives us the picture and a letter of introduction, and she tells us that we'll need to go to Castaway Cove to get a boat to Hamelin.

Castaway Cove and Swaine

Swaine
Swaine

When we get to Castaway Cove, we walk into a robbery in progress. Oliver and Esther thwart the robbery, but now the thief wants to get his hands on our letter of introduction and the picture of the other Great Sage. Drippy says that this thief is brokenhearted and missing his restraint, and he's possessed by a Nightmare too, so we fight the Nightmare and we restore his restraint. The ex-thief now introduces himself as Swaine; he seems very interested in meeting the Great Sage, and wants to come with us to Hamelin.

And now he's a party member too. What?

Swaine is not a wizard, but he has a familiar. This makes him exactly the same as Esther in practice, but Esther is presented as the expert of familiars, while Swaine is notably not. He just has a familiar for reasons that are never explained.

The kid that tamed the Thumbelemur
Kid, don't go thinking that just because you personally tamed a wild Thumbelemur at the age of eight or whatever makes you qualified to deal with familiars.

As a side note, the game is very contradictory in what it tells us about having familiars. On the one hand, taming familiars is a major branch of magic. On the other hand, having the ability to tame familiars does not necessarily make someone a wizard, like in Esther's case - but this ability is considered a special talent and is apparently very respected, even though it's not respected enough to make an expert of familiars worthy of being called a wizard. On the third hand, early in the game, Oliver and Drippy met a kid that had befriended a Thumbelemur, and Drippy flipped out because the kid was somehow not equipped for having a familiar, even though he had formed a special friendship with it, and so Oliver had to force the kid to part with his pet and special new familiar friend, to instead bolster our own arsenal of familiars. So, a kid naturally forming a friendship with a familiar is bad, but Oliver can have a familiar because he is a wizard-in-training, and Esther can have a familiar because she is the expert on familiars. And Swaine can have a familiar... because... he's a party member and all party members need to have familiars.

Sewer
The lovely Familiar Retreat.

By the way, since we completed the trials of friendship with Esther, she can tame any familiar we see in the wild. And the ones that we are plot-mandated to acquire (Oliver's Mite, the Thumbelemur, etc.) don't need to be in our party anymore, if we would rather have other familiars. We thought Oliver's Mite would be a major character, since it's the familiar that he made out of his own pure heart, but it's actually... not a character at all. It's just a battle proxy if you want, and, if you don't want, you can just dump it in the sewer and never look at it again. We're not being silly, the in-game place where you store familiars that are not currently in the party is literally the sewer, accessed through manhole covers. How whimsical. We can replace the creatures born from the party members' very hearts with random swashbuckling cats we find on the beach. The Seed Sprite was born in front of Oliver and insisted that he help the pure-hearted one on his journey... and you can choose to dump it in the sewer. The kid from before had to be forcibly parted from his Thumbelemur friend... and you can choose to dump it in the sewer.

Why have this concept of the familiars born out of a character's heart if this doesn't matter in the least? It almost feels like this game was originally conceived to have a static party, but then someone was like, oo, we can make it like Pokémon and catch any wild creature! But they didn't actually think about the implications of this mechanic on their world. In Pokémon, it was already a bit weird when in the first few games there would be some hardcoded dialogue referring to your chosen starter, considering that you can put it in the box and never use it again after you catch another Pokémon. But this was rectified in later games, where such dialogue would instead refer to whichever Pokémon was currently first in your party, and your starter wouldn't be touted as your best friend, but merely as your first Pokémon.

Hurly
Swaine's familiar, the Hurly, goes directly into the sewer.

Ni no Kuni could have taken a lesson from that. At this point, we can have a total of nine active familiars in the party, and five of them are introduced in the plot and seem to be important, but they're not. They can be swapped out, even though it feels bad. When Esther first arrived in the party, we were a bit annoyed that she came with the penguin, since we didn't care for its design, but we were also reluctant to make her part from this important familiar that came out of her heart... plus, Esther has an affinity for bird-like familiars that means that, when she uses the penguin, it will be stronger than normal, so, okay, fine. But then Swaine arrived, and we saw his burly dude familiar, and we were just, no. No, we're not having that grunting eyesore in our party. And, in his case, the game doesn't even give you any additional reason to keep it: Swaine doesn't have a special affinity for that class of familiars, so it would be better to swap it for something that benefits from his boosts, like a mechanical kind of familiar. How did Swaine even summon a familiar out of his own heart that doesn't suit him?! Is that just how much he sucks at magic?

Oh, yeah, Swaine is not a wizard, he can't do magic, he's not an expert on familiars, and he's not even an expert of alchemy (the third branch of magic, which is essentially unexplored by the game). Nope, Swaine is... a thief. Wait, didn't we cure him of his nightmare-induced kleptomania? Yeah, but it's useful to have a thief. And because Lupin III.

Lupin III
Lupin the Third!

Lupin III is the grandson of famed gentleman thief Arsène Lupin and the protagonist of the comic series of the same title. There are many anime interpretations of Lupin III, which the fans tend to distinguish by the color of Lupin's jacket. Miyazaki's first directing job was on some episodes of the green jacket series; his first film work was on Castle of Cagliostro (where Lupin also wears a green jacket). And here is Swaine, a thief who wears a tattered green jacket and uses gadgets to steal things. However, Lupin's personality didn't make it into Swaine. Swaine's personality is mostly... he facepalms a lot. That's about it.

It was hard enough to believe in Esther as a party member. But at least in Esther's case, we can think, well, she's a kid, Oliver's a kid, they formed a friendship based on their shared experiences of being kids, and, okay. But now these two kids are now party-member-tight with a random adult man of questionable morals. We don't believe this in the least.

At least the sailors that the kids commission to get them to Hamelin do indeed raise an eyebrow over this, and notably keep an eye on Swaine. Good. Though this plotpoint never goes anywhere. Swaine never earns the sailors' trust, and while the sailors are present for the remainder of the game (?!?), they are never on-screen ever again.

Artificial Stupidity

Battle

Now that we have a full party, we have to address the greatest problem with Ni no Kuni's battle mechanics: the AI of your party members is really something else. You have very limited capability to set the priorities of the AI-controlled characters, and then they don't even listen. We would usually set Esther to "Keep us healthy", since she's the one with the most cost-effective healing moves, and then we would go our merry way with Oliver, trusting that Esther knows what she's supposed to do, right? And there she is, charging headlong into battle with her HARP to get 1 point of damage by twanging at the enemies, instead of, you know, healing us, as we instructed her to. Or even using her familiars, you know, since she's the EXPERT of FAMILIARS.

The amount of damage she did to herself by running face first into the enemy would cause us to have to pull out the sandwiches and throw these healing items at her, thereby nullifying the cost-benefit of having her be a healer. And the time pulling out the sandwich is time not spent attacking, and now the boss is preparing its super move. Great.

We would see her do this really stupid maneuver, and so we would take control of her - quick, switch to Esther, save her from her own stupidity! But then, you know what happens? Now it's AI-controlled Oliver who runs directly at the enemy, whacking with his little stick, for also 1 point of damage. Nooooo!

One of the problems is that when the AI-controlled characters are out of magic points (MPs), they have no choice but to attack. The AI-controlled characters also unfortunately leave their familiars out until they are forced to retreat (it's a timed thing). If you call the familiars back before time runs out, they take less time to recharge. But the AI-controlled characters don't do that and get hit by the maximum recharge time. So, in the meanwhile, while they have no MPs and no familiars, they have no choice but to do stupid things. Meanwhile, you're expecting them to heal you, and don't realize they're having this predicament! It would help if we could see our allies' MP in battle too, and not just their HP. We're constantly interrupting everything to check if Esther has any MP, and realize that she doesn't, and that's why the healing that we've been waiting for doesn't happen. There's plenty room to show the MP bar always, why is it not there? It could go directly under the HP bar. It's just a few more pixels!

Basically, having three party members is giving you thrice the liability. It's like babysitting kittens. You pick one up, the other runs away. When it was just Oliver alone, we had things under control. Add the AI to the mix, and everyone dies, all the time.

Esther does the pissy harp move
Not another music-themed support move!

The AI doesn't have any respect for who should be getting the glims, which are health- and magic-restoring items that spawn in battle. So we'd see Swaine run directly to grab all of those rare MPs that he doesn't even need, he doesn't do magic, he just wastes the MPs by repeatedly pickpocketing the same monster, even though he already robbed them blind, and leaving no MPs for Esther, so she can't heal. Or, we'd see Esther run at the ultra-rare golden glim, which gives a full heal and launches a special move, so that she can do her pissy harp move when Oliver's Mite could have gotten that and done good damage to the boss, and instead now we're all dying, but with a stat-up. Thanks for playing for our funeral, Esther.

Part of the game developers' obvious attempts to compensate for the Artificial Stupidity are the commands to Defend All and Attack All, which cause all the allies to defend or attack. All the allies, but not the character you're controlling. So, if you want to really defend the entire party against the boss's special move, you have to do some split-second gymnastics of:

  1. Reaching Defend in the menu of the character you're controlling (which may require recalling the familiar, if it's a familiar that can't defend at all)
  2. Pressing X to make the character you're controlling Defend
  3. Pressing Square to send the command to Defend All to the allies
  4. Hope that you were in time, since Defend All takes a moment to register

Try doing this in the heat of battle. Also, you need to get the timing of Defend right, since it's a timed thing, or you will stop defending before the attack hits. If you're looking for a real challenge, try doing that with Evade, which is a split-second thing. Good luck.

Another thing that keeps happening to us is that, in this game, if a party member that you're trying to use a healing item or spell on dies in the meanwhile that you're doing so, the healing is just wasted, and doesn't go back on you or on anyone else. So, countless times, we've buried Swaine's already dead corpse in curry. It's just what he would have wanted (cries)

Swaine buried in curry
Lucky bastard gets to be interred in Zelos's homemade curry!

The fairygrounds

Curry aside, we have a boat now, and we're sailing around the sea. Meanwhile, we get cutscenes of the mysterious evil White Witch from the title of the game, telling big bad Shadar to go stop the pure-hearted one. Shadar chooses to use some giant eye-monster to attack the party at sea, and everyone ends up shipwrecked on an apparently deserted island.

The Fairygrounds
The Fairygrounds (haha)

Except now we're in Spirited Away, and there are fairies like Drippy everywhere having a festival, with stalls of food and drinks and on-going fairy comedy sketches. This island is called the Fairygrounds and it's where Drippy is from.

Drippy has always made a point of introducing himself as Lord High Lord of the Fairies, and he is indeed the son of the Queen Mother of the fairies. Except... all fairies are the children of the Queen Mother of the fairies. Drippy seems to have clout here, but does he really? This will never be explained, like about everything in this game.

Fairy mother
I thought fairies were supposed to be small?

Especially the next part, where we have to go into the mouth of the Queen Mother to help the unborn baby fairies go down the chute to be born, and fight the giant jellyfish that's living inside her. This is all presented as lovely and charming. Why is there so much fetishy shit in this game?

In any case, the baby fairies can now be born, the ship is repaired, and we can leave. The night before they go, the party overhears Drippy getting drunk with his pals, and while he thought he was having a private moment with his friends that he hasn't seen in ages, after having been cursed to be a doll for however long, he dares to mention that things sure changed after he first set out on his adventure, and he misses the good old days of doing comedy routines with his friends.

Without talking to Drippy about this at all, the party decides that he would be better off staying in the fairygrounds with his fairy friends, and even though it's painful, they'll leave him behind. So they fucking sail away without even saying goodbye, while telling themselves how selfless they are. When Drippy realizes that the ship is going without him, he runs over the very ocean to reunite with the party, and yells at them for having abandoned him. And for once he's completely justified.

Drippy and the comedy fairies
Right, let's dump him here with the annoying NPCs while we have the chance.

We generally hate this trope of, you would be better off without me, so I cut you off and shut the door and launch the rocket without consulting you, and even if you protest, I'm not respecting your opinion in matters that concern your own life because I know best what you want and what's best for you! We hate it in general, but in this case, on top of this hateful trope, it was like the writers were going through the motions of the trope, without it even making any sense. Drippy made a passing comment full of nostalgia and beer. Usually this trope is over life and death, staying together in a difficult relationship, enduring difficult times... here, it's just, ah, we had fun in the past, didn't we? And Oliver suddenly jumps to abandoning Drippy on an island, so that he can live the life that... he didn't ever say he wished to have. And they don't bother talking about it because they fear Drippy would not agree with them. Which is exactly why this trope is so hateful! Then they're sailing away to leave him stuck there, with no means to even know what's going on, or to rectify this obvious problem, and it's supposed to be important and dramatic... we figured that oh man, much later we're going to run into Drippy again and we'll hear all about his saga of reuniting with the party... but that's over in not even five minutes, since Drippy suddenly and temporarily gains the power to run across the ocean, for comic? relief?

Anyway, the moral of this story is: don't you fucking dare have complicated emotions, and especially, don't you think you're safe expressing yourself, ever, even when you think you're in private.

Hamelin and Marcassin

Hamlin
Welcome to Dystopia, we have chimneys.

Continuing on, we arrive in Hamelin, a steampunk dystopia where everyone is dressed as pigs. This is mandated by law and strictly enforced. New, oppressive laws come out every day. In fact, as the party walks through town, a new decree comes out against making eye contact, on pain of fines and prison time. And the ruler of Hamelin, who makes these laws, is the Great Sage that we're looking for. Wonderful!

But apparently, for all the dystopia going on, it doesn't matter that the party is violating the law and not wearing the pig masks. Our party right now includes a kid in a bright red wizard robe, a fairy, a girl with a bare midriff, and a guy wearing green tatters. For how much they stand out, the guards oddly turn a blind eye. It is not until after going through the entire town, doing several rounds of sidequests, and approaching the palace guards that the issue of clothing comes up. Since the Great Sage is not currently accepting visitors, the party hatches a plan to disguise themselves with pig armor and thereby infiltrate the castle.

Stealth in pig armor
Not as graceful as Solid Snake.

So, with their pig armor, newly acquired thanks to Swaine's sudden and temporary blackmail powers, the party is able to simply waltz past the front guards of the palace.

Except, once they are inside, even though they are all wearing the completely covering pig armor, somehow now the disguises are not good enough. While still wearing this clanky metal armor that limits visibility, we must now do the stealth part of the game. Why is the armor not enough to fool anyone? Why wouldn't stealth in our underwear be sufficient? Why are we using BOTH disguises AND stealth? It's like two of the developers were fighting over how this part of the game should go, and in the end, they did both ideas even though they don't make any sense together.

Marcassin thinks he's ugly Howl and the orange hair
No, seriously, this is the same exact scene.

When we reach Prince Marcassin, he is in the midst of a private breakdown, in which he says he is ugly and no one should see his face, and so it must be hidden behind the pig mask. This happens with a cutscene that is almost directly ripped from Howl's Moving Castle. At this point, we've moved from having characters that could belong in a Studio Ghibli movie but are otherwise original (Oliver), through characters that are heavily inspired by specific Studio Ghibli works but are not directly copies of any particular character (the Cowlipha and King Tom), through directly referencing some elements of a particular character's appearance but with a different personality (Swaine), to just, here's Howl, with Howl's hair, Howl's voice, Howl's mannerisms, and a scene directly referencing Howl in the movie.

Anyway, here we wondered what was up with the pig masks. Our best guess is that since Marcassin wanted to hide behind a mask, he did the monarchy thing of making everyone else do it too, and maybe it is a pig mask because of his abysmal self-confidence. But, as we will soon see, the town was already pre-themed around pigs fifteen years ago. How convenient!

This whole thing of the prince considering himself ugly is never actually addressed. Drippy diagnoses Marcassin's problem as a lack of belief.

Belief?

Belief.

Marcassin sends the party away, and he doesn't want their help. We mean, that's understandable. Imagine you were having a private breakdown in your own room, and a therapist breaks down the door and says, "I'm here to help you right now!" Wouldn't you call the police too?

Gasp!
What do you mean you don't want our surprise door-to-door therapy!

The party is miffed at being thrown out of the royal bedroom, but before they can decide what to do next, they realize that they've inexplicably gone back in time.

The Fifteen-Years-Ago King of Hamelin arrests the strange travelers that have suddenly appeared in his throne room. But Oliver calmly explains the situation, and the king goes with it that they are visitors from the future that need to find a way back to their own time. Pretty chill king. Well, he's a Great Sage, and he knows about the special Time Travel spell that every wizard can only use once in their lives -- for game-balance reasons.

Gascon and Marcassin
Little princes

We end up traveling together with the nine-year-old Prince Marcassin and his nineteen-year-old brother Prince Gascon. While going through the next dungeon with the two brothers, we learn all about their personal drama. The role of the King of Hamelin must be filled by a Great Sage. Although Prince Gascon is the elder son, to borrow from Harry Potter terminology, he's a Squib - with no magical abilities. Prince Marcassin, however, does have magic powers, and Gascon is supporting his brother by helping him with his magical training as much as he can. Marcassin looks up to Gascon very much, and while Gascon loves his brother, he feels like his father favors Marcassin and doesn't love him because he can't do magic and can't be the next king.

At the end of the dungeon, Oliver finds the Mornstar, a super special awesome magic wand. A mysterious stranger (that the player has seen associating with the White Witch) tells Oliver that he will need this legendary wand to win the game! He also teaches Oliver the spell he will need to return to his own time.

Dying king
What should have been the emotional high point of the game will never be discussed again.

But first, we go to say goodbye to the king. On the way, Prince Gascon says fuck all this, and runs away to find his destiny. Little does he know that the castle is currently under attack by Shadar. The rest of the party rushes to the aid of the king, but it is too late. Swaine holds the dying king in his arms as the king admits that he knows that he is indeed Gascon... Swaine gets to say goodbye to his dad as he passes away... and the party returns to the future, with Esther and Oliver vowing to each other that they will pretend they didn't hear anything out of respect for Swaine's privacy -- and so Esther doesn't need to think about how she was crushing on the past version of this old stinky man.

Before returning to the present, Oliver is able to tap into young Marcassin's belief in his brother. Back in the present, Oliver uses it to restore the current Marcassin's belief in... himself? in his brother? in his subjects? in his kingdom? ...well ...his belief. We thought his problem was poor self-esteem, given how he was screaming about how ugly he was, but this will never be addressed again. Marcassin then repeals all the ridiculous laws and, overnight, Hamelin is no longer a dystopia. Yay!

We needed to pause the game and marvel for awhile at how this story involves a time travel plot that is absolutely of no consequence. Have you ever heard before of a story where there is a time travel plot where it might as well have just been a flashback?!? Nothing is achieved that needed time travel to be achieved: they could have gotten the belief for Marcassin somewhere else, and the entire thing of the Mornstar is contrived. Really, the only benefit of this being time travel was for Swaine to have the moment to reconcile with his father and to say goodbye to him before he passed away. However, this has no visible impact on Swaine's character in any way. And thanks to Oliver and Esther's vow to never talk about this... they never talk about this.

Swaine
We have so much we could be talking about! But nah.

We thought that the main point of this game was Oliver coming to terms with the death of his mother. Right here, there's Swaine, who, in headcanon land (since this is never addressed), we can imagine had the biggest regret of his life that he wasn't there on the day his father died, and he never got to reconcile with him, and he never got to say goodbye, and now, thanks to the time travel event, he did finally get to do those things and have some peace and closure regarding the death of his father. Oliver obviously hasn't been taking the death of his mother well, since, he's gone to a fantasy land, possibly in his own head, where he's on a quest to resurrect his mother, in absolute denial... and Swaine here would be the perfect figure to say something, anything, to Oliver about any bit of what he experienced regarding the death of his father and... nothing.

Furthermore, not only is Swaine is the character whose dad has died, he's also the person who trained Marcassin in the magical arts in spite of not being magical himself, but Swaine doesn't talk about this with the wizard-in-training Oliver either! He doesn't teach him one thing about magic or otherwise.

Besides, beyond the effects that this time-travel event should have later in the plot, it should have had its effects before, too. Why didn't Swaine recognize Oliver and Esther when he first met them, since he met them fifteen years before as Gascon at a critical point in his life? Doesn't he know at least part of what is going to happen once he meets up with them? For that matter, is Swaine a nickname? How did he get that name? Was he being self-deprecating to call himself a swine, just like Marcassin with the pig mask? This will never be addressed.

Rosy wanted to say that the writers decided to have Oliver and Esther make their vow not to talk about these events out of convenience: now the characters have all time traveled and, without needing to even think about the implications, the plot can just move forward as if nothing happened. Easy as pie. While Denise sees what Rosy means, she wasn't really happy with the word "convenient", but couldn't come up with a better alternative. It's actually not "convenient" because it completely sabotages what should have been the primary goal of the story for a ridiculously short-sighted "benefit". It's like saying the convenient way to study for a test is to accept that you will fail the class and simply not bother to study at all. That is, indeed, the easiest solution, but not a convenient way to study -- it's the opposite of studying -- and then you must face all the consequences that will follow. In this case, the writers avoided the difficult task of needing to think through the complex emotions of the characters and write a powerful and moving scene that has a lasting impact on all of them, and the player, for the remainder of the plot... by simply not having that scene happen at all. They wasted an obvious opportunity to drive home what we thought was the entire point of this story out of absolutely absurd levels of laziness -- and, the consequences are that this story never has that poignant moment that it totally should have had.

Hamelin
Everyone is happy now. There's still pollution such that the sky is permanently dark, but who cares, as long as the prince is happy.

Likewise with Marcassin. He's been a tyrant for how many years now, but now he's fine, he repeals the awful laws, everyone can take off their pig masks, and, poof, everything is better. He doesn't have to deal with any lasting repercussions with his subjects -- everyone still loves him and respects him as their ruler. He doesn't go through any personal angst over what he has done. This, in another game, would have been a primary cause for conflict and character development through a redemption arc... the part where the more common mistake would be to make the character too angsty, to the point of annoyance. But Marcassin doesn't get to be annoyingly angsty or somewhat angsty or even slightly remorseful. He doesn't get anything. No character, no development. Which is funny to say about a Howl lookalike.

Also, if the ruler of Hamlin is required to be a Great Sage and has always been a Great Sage, why didn't Drippy or Esther or Esther's dad or anyone on the street know where we could find a Great Sage? Why did we have to feed the Cowlipha cheese to learn that there is a Great Sage in Hamlin. Of course there is a Great Sage in Hamlin!

Anyway, now that we've "conveniently" dodged all that character development that would have made the game, we're given the Travel spell to teleport around the world where we've been before. We learn that the Mornstar is not yet complete and needs three magical balls to be restored to its true form. So we have to wander the world, find the balls, and do all the sidequests along the way.

Notes

  1. Oliver's Mite, the Thumbelemur, the Seed Sprite, Esther and Swaine's personal familiars. Maybe six, when counting the familiar that you can pick as your reward in the Trials of Friendship.

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