Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Part 1: The First 8 Hours)
Note to Reader: This review will be divided into 2 articles, and this one covers the beginning of the game up until your second party member joins.
If it were up to my wife, Oliver would be left to die and the worlds would fall into ruin—but the animals (see monsters) of the “Another World” would be safe and free to mutilate whomever they choose. Such is the curse of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3), a game so full of life, detail, and utter adorableness that you won’t want to harm anything that inhabits it (until monsters are chomping at your torso).
You’ll first meet 13-year-old Oliver as he is peer-pressured into sneaking out of his house one night to try out a friend’s homemade car—a vehicle that is the hallmark of the sleepy 50’s-inspired town of Motorville. We get our first glimpse of Oliver’s cleverness as he carefully negotiates a conversation with his mom to find out how he can get away with leaving in the middle of the night.
But Oliver’s being watched from another realm; in a Wizard of Oz-style scene, a mysterious helmeted figure in a cloak peers across worlds at Oliver, noting to her bird-of-darkness that Oliver is the “Pure-Hearted One” the prophecies speak of who will save the world. She does not like that one bit, and waves a spell across space that sabotages the car. After a series of unfortunate events set in motion by this sabotage, Oliver survives, and locks himself in his room for days. But his tears awaken a stuffed doll he has had since he was a child, bringing back to life Drippy, the once-cursed Lord High Lord of the Fairies (who, notably, has a small lantern that hangs from his nose). Drippy wastes no time when he realizes Oliver has no clue of the bigger picture (and this helps to keep the pace up for the player, as well). Drippy concisely explains that there are multiple worlds, and a dark djinn called Shadar (from Drippy’s world) has terrorized the people. In a Kingdom Hearts-like move, Shadar stole pieces of the people’s hearts and left them “brokenhearted” so they never rise up against him. Oliver’s magical tears proved that he’s the pure-hearted one of legend, and Drippy quickly spews out some history and rules of the universe.
But Drippy needs Oliver. All living things have a “soul mate” in the other world—a connected counterpart that shares some of their traits but are not similar enough to be a doppelgänger. Oliver’s mom’s soul mate happens to be Alicia, one of the four Great Sages, though she was taken out of commission by Shadar and the only way to ensure Oliver’s own mother will be alright is to help her soul mate. Drippy recognizes that, given a wand and a spellbook, Oliver has it in him to become a proper wizard and, using said spellbook, they cross a gateway to the other world (where the majority of the game will take place). The spellbook, a. k. a. the Wizard’s Companion, is a fully realized, fully browsable book you can read from the in-game menu (the special edition of the game came with a printed hardcover version as well). The book runs 300+ pages and unlocks bit by bit as Oliver progresses through his journey. Spells are described, tales are told, and background is given on all major aspects of the world. It deepens the player’s understanding of the game world while simultaneously serving as a plot device, though any mandatory plot information is given outside of the book. This book was clearly given a lot of love and attention; it resembles exactly what you would imagine a fairytale spellbook would look like, and you can easily spend hours panning and zooming around its content—in fact, Drippy encourages it!
The first 8 hours of the 40—60-hour adventure spends its time letting us get to know Oliver and Drippy, both as characters and as a duo, and it does a great job of balancing the pacing without holding your hand too hard through the tutorials. Drippy gives out some info in brief tutorials, but the majority of the player’s information comes from characters who are actually intelligent, clever, and can draw their own conclusions. Oliver is a great lead, as despite his youth he is as wise as the wizard he sets out to become. You won’t end up yelling at the screen during a dialogue when you know an answer—either Oliver or someone else involved will quickly catch on to what needs to be done and helps keep the plot moving. Oliver is no whiney, stuck-up, kid with amnesia or a cold heart: on the surface, he’s a regular lad who grew up with a regular family, and he cares about the worlds and the people within them. He represents the wholesome son with every fiber of his character, down to his expletives (he cries often out, “Jeepers!”). And while he may be the chosen one of legend, he works for his greatness, and he works hard.
Level-5 and Studio Ghibli have done a great job at realizing the worlds and answering every question a player could possibly have about it. The other world is a world of magic, though magic in practice is rare: Shadar left all great wizards brokenhearted or defeated, and most wands were lost or destroyed in fear of Shadar striking back against magic-users. Monsters run loose as well, making the world a dangerous place.
Not all creatures are aggressive,though; tamed monsters are called “familiars.” Not too long into their journey Drippy teaches Oliver how to summon a familiar from his own heart, and the result is Mitey: an adorable little warrior with a sword and shield. And while Oliver does fight on his own for much of the first few hours (he excels at magic casting but is weak in physical attacking), he benefits from Mitey’s high physical attack and defense ratings. Battling with Mitey becomes a Pokémon-style mechanic of controlling the creature and giving it commands in an action-RPG way—you’ll manually run around the area, landing and dodging attacks based on your proximity. As you’d imagine, different creatures have different strengths, weaknesses, and abilities, so oftentimes Oliver will have a better chance at winning a battle using a familiar than by doing the fighting himself (he later acquires Lemahl, a lemur with high evasion and quick jabs of medium-strength attacks, and Sid, a healer that can learn magic attacks). But switching back and forth is also a helpful battle strategy, as Oliver has his own set of spells that come in handy, and can use items. You’ll find yourself looking for fights because they work so well and feel so good without being too easy. Oliver or Mitey run around the battle area with Drippy visibly cheering from the sidelines as Oliver takes on such ridiculously cute creatures as the Ruff and Baatender. The dynamic changes after the 8 hour point, when your second party member joins, and I’ll discuss that in Part 2 of this review (coming soon).
Beyond: Two Souls at the Tribeca Film Festival
As games continue to increase in realism, more and more film industry players’ interest has been piqued. This year, the Tribeca Film Festival has explored games as cinema within several of its events, and on April 27th hosted a screening of new Beyond: Two Souls footage to demonstrate how creating the game has been similar to creating a film.
Anticipation built as people waited on a line that ran halfway down the long New York City avenue to enter the School of Visual Arts’s Theater 1. The medium size theater merged old New York with today—a fitting setting for an even celebrating traditional cinema merging with a modern medium such as video games. The HD theater screen treated the audience to 35 minutes of chronological in-game footage—a mix of gameplay and cutscenes that highlighted the acting and storytelling overall. While it was clear the lengthy clip was a polished chunk of the game, a trained eye could see there had been some careful editing involved to make it theater-appropriate: There were no load times, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some bits were edited out for the sake of in-theater pacing. But the portion shown was a coherent narrative—there was a beginning, middle, and end to this plot arc, and it further highlighted that the acting and storytelling worked so well that you could piece together what brought protagonist Jodie to that point without having played the previous parts of the game.
The footage showed Jodie (motion captured and voiced by Ellen Page) as a young adult living on the street. She’s run away from her old life, from herself, but without any plan for what comes next. The result is her getting a helpful hand from a homeless man with a heart of gold and his equally homeless posse, including a pregnant woman who ran away from her husband. The whole game could take place with these characters and the player would likely be satisfied with that, but it’s made clear that this is simply a snapshot in the slideshow of Jodie’s life.
Jodie has been connected to an entity she calls Aiden for as long she can remember. She doesn’t tell her new friends about it, but that doesn’t stop her from using Aiden to help them out when necessary: It breaks into a supermarket to help Jodie find supplies to help deliver a baby, shields her as she runs through a burning building and leaps from what would have been a painful height, and more. The footage shows us glimpses of Aiden’s involvement in Jodie’s life (both wanted and unwanted), how the burden of being linked to this spirit has broken her, and what life on the street is like for her. The acting is top-notch and the script is believable. Quantic Dream has clearly pushed the quality of their game-making from what Heavy Rain accomplished, and while Beyond: Two Souls utilizes the same control scheme of emulating the activity Jodie is doing through similar movements and button-presses on the controller, the storytelling has evolved. The full game runs about 10 hours—enough time to follow Jodie through 15 years of her life, to watch her grow, wither, and restrengthen in a way a film would have a difficult time portraying. We get more time with her, but we also get to see her story at our own pace, and that is where video games excel.
Following the footage was an interview and Q & A with David Cage (CEO of Quantic Dream), lead actress Ellen Page, actors Kadeem Hardison and Eric Winter, and moderator Harold Goldberg. The actors raved about their experiences acting for this game, and David Cage explained how motion capture for Beyond: Two Souls was different from Heavy Rain. In Heavy Rain, the actors had to do two takes: one for audio, and one for motion capture in which they had to repeat the lines they recorded so their face would look correct when speaking—and this was done individually, even if other characters shared the in-game scene. In Beyond, however, audio and motion capture were recorded together, and the actors acted out a scene as a group, just like they would on a film (albeit with cardboard props that would be filled in digitally later on). Motion capture was recorded over a 12-month period, moving at a rate of about 30 pages per day through the 2000-page script, including the capture of many stunt actors.Ellen Page noted, though, that it does become difficult to maintain the emotional intensity of a scene when you have to record multiple responses to the same dialogue (due to the player being able to choose how to respond).
As David Cage put it: “You don’t need a gun to interact [in a game],” and Beyond: Two Souls, like Heavy Rain before it, doesn’t rely on action or violence to tell the story. I’ll know more when the game is released this October on the PS3, but from what I’ve seen and heard, I am very excited to see this game through.
- Me: I got Ni no Kuni. Gonna start it tomorrow or the day after.
- Gus: What is that?
- Me: JRPG drawn by Studio Ghibli. Getting rave reviews. PS3.
- Gus: You saw my PS3 collection, right? I'll get around to it in 2016.
- Me: The battles are Pokémon-ish. You yell out commands to creatures.
- Gus: ...2015.
Gaming Diary: Mark of the Ninja (4/2)
I played some Mark of the Ninja tonight, and hit the plot twist. My favorite part of tonight’s session was when I, as a ninja, lured three guards—individually, mind you—to investigate a spot while I hung upside down above them and leaped on top of each one with my sword, [down arrow] + X-ing them to their silent doom.
I was also turned into ash by the same laser 4 times, but we won’t talk about that.
Beautiful concept art.
Lara Proves She’s That Kind of Croft: A Tomb Raider (2013) Review
Before 2003’s Prince of Persia reimagining and 2007’s Uncharted, Tomb Raider captured the late 1990s with a difficult 3D platforming adventure based around caves, treasure, and the supernatural. Exploration, gunfights, and the fear of imminently falling to a bone-shattering death pulled players onward in hopes that British archaeologist Lara Croft would uncover what she was looking for. Instead, players uncovered a tale of ancient artifacts, Atlantis, mutants, and, ultimately, greed. And in many ways Uncharted is the snarky male version of Tomb Raider, and Tomb Raider is the female version of the snarky Indiana Jones.
Being the female Indiana Jones aimed at teenage boys who played video games, Tomb Raider as a series began with a toned, busty, Barbie-esque archaeologist in short shorts who wielded dual pistols. She killed wolves and armed men in self-defense as she explored ruins that were filled with ambivalent paths and potentially life-ending falls. But Lara Croft onlyslightly evolved (and slowly) over the course of many games, many years, and many people chanting “sexism”, and while the gameplay, puzzles, and stories evolved, Lara was still a lean, busty woman in short shorts and a tank top—even if her world knowledge and British accent attempted to show her intelligence.
But Crystal Dynamics’s 2013 prequel and reimagining turns Lara into a real person. She retains her signature tank top and ponytail, but now she looks like a person you might actually meet. She’s a realistic weight, her chest size matches her proportions, and she’s wearing pants.
The game doesn’t stop there with its push to separate itself from the sexist content and issues of the series’ past games and of games in general: the entire adventure is about men being mean or horrible toward women, and the women rising above it. Lara’s archaeological theories are not taken seriously by her male superiors, men capture her and try to kill or, in one case, briefly attempts to rape her (though if you’re quick you can have Lara kick the attacker in the nuts before killing him), and men attempt to sacrifice another woman from Lara’s team. Furthermore, the group of men opposing Lara and her team are trying to resurrect the powerful queen believed to once rule their island for the sake of gaining power.
Tomb Raider & The Legend of Zelda
Two-thirds through the game, I realized why it appealed to me so much: at its core it’s a next-gen Zelda game. There’s a wind temple (literally a temple surrounded by wind), a fire temple (literally a temple on fire), and various traversing through water and ice. Lara acquires weapons and tools as needed and must retread the map to get access to previously inaccessible places, and she has to save a girl who has royal blood—who was captured by an ugly, power-hungry man.
What Worked, & What Could Have Been Better
But there are other games mixed in. Any current-gen gamer will see Uncharted in there, and it’s easy to forget that Tomb Raider was one of Uncharted’s influences. But Tomb Raider in turn borrowed from it, working in over-the-shoulder third-person shooting and action-movie-style scenarios. And because the game has so many cutscenes, quick-time events were included so the player is rarely just watching. The button-pressing mostly works, melding God of War-style button pressing with a watered down Heavy Rain contextual system (alternate between the shoulder buttons to crawl; wiggle the left stick to shake free).
The game does a good job of showing Lara’s transformation from a meek woman who struggles to be taken seriously to a scorned woman with a fiery vengeance. The game’s tag line is “A Survivor is Born”, but it’s clear from the start that she already was one. Lara is kidnapped, trapped, wounded in various different ways, and forced to wade through sludge and tiptoe over dead bodies. And yet, she still avoids harming anyone until it comes down to life or death, even though she is armed with a bow. Lara feels the weight of her first kill, mumbling in disbelief to herself, and telling her crewmate over the radio that it’s surprising just how easy it was. She has the instincts of a survivor. She knows then that if she doesn’t continue to fight—doesn’t kill—that the only end to the horrid experience would be hers.
The game doesn’t have you murdering masses all at once (I’m looking at you, Uncharted), but instead eases you into it by having Lara sneak around for a while and only attack when there’s no other option. She’ll yell out things like, “You don’t have to do this!” and other similar pleas. There’s a very human experience here. Lara grips walls as you walk near them, automatically ducks when enemies are in sight or earshot, and dictates diary entries at specific campfire rest points. You as the player feel Lara’s emotion and growth. When she suffers a horrible accident, you feel the weight of her wound; she even shivers from the cold (but for some reason never takes a coat off of the many corpses). And her combat skills are filled gradually, too. Lara cannot get up close and melee attack an enemy until she’s well into her adventure, and gun-based finishers come even later. It was confusing at first, as I tried to figure out which button was for a melee attack, but once the ability opened up I realized how much sense it made: that someone fighting to survive would not be brave enough to take someone on head-on until they’ve become more used to the situation and more experienced. Lara is stuck on the mystical island for days—plenty of time to get desperate, get angry, and get brave. When a crewmate compares her to her daring, adventurer father, she tells him that she’s “not that kind of Croft,” but she proves that she most certainly is. Lara wades through fire, water, wind, and ice, and by the end of the game she’s charging after her friend and yelling threats, her body full of scars and her clothing battle worn. You would not want to cross her.
While the game is very solid as a whole, there are some bits that could have made the game even stronger had the developers followed the paths they had introduced. Early on, Lara becomes hungry, which leads to a hunting tutorial. However, the only survival that is highlighted going forward is Lara’s need to not get killed by the natives or the environment. Hunting and berry collecting exists solely for the collection of experience points and salvage points (salvage is the currency you use to upgrade weapons at campfires). There’s no endurance meter, no sense of fatigue except for her heavy breathing (which does not seem to effect her battle performance), and no sense of hunger. I went most of the game without killing any animals besides wolves (it was self-defense with them). And while there is a fair amount of exploring, the optional tombs are very small, prompting you to solve a one-room puzzle to get to the treasure. Those wanting the elaborate tombs of the Assassin’s Creed series will be disappointed (but we can always cross our fingers for larger tombs as DLC, right?). Puzzles in general are not plentiful or difficult (straying from the series’ roots), though more puzzles may have gotten in the way of the plot’s fast pace, as Lara is not exploring, she’s fighting for her survival and the survival of friends who are in imminent danger. The balance of exploring, climbing, ledge-grabbing, and rope-climbing is mostly balanced with the heavy amount of shooting. The pacing (for the most part) works.
This reboot series begins with a Lara who is grounded in the real world and doesn’t believe her father’s myths, so the game does a good job of hinting at the supernatural and leaving it as a question up until the very end. Cinematically and thematically, Tomb Raider is one part LOST, one part Arrow, but it works. And while the end-battle was not as difficult or epic as games in the original series, as my wife said, “at least it was no fist-fight with the Pope—worst battle ever.”
I played the game on a homemade gaming PC with an overclocked Intel i5 2500k processor, 8gb of RAM in Windows 8, and an AMD Radeon 7850 graphics card with 2gb memory on a 50” 1080p TV through Steam’s Big Picture mode. It ran beautifully on “Ultimate” settings, running between 30 and 45 FPS (according to the in-game benchmark option). I had the TressFX hair engine on, and having seen how fantastic Lara’s hair looked, I would never want it off, though the frame rate dipped during some close-ups of her head because of it. The only glitch I encountered was an occasional hair-flickering glitch, but it never lasted long. I was constantly in awe of the art design and graphics. I was very satisfied to have gone with the Steam version over a console.