I’ve been saving Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for a rainy day since it came out on the Nintendo Switch in September 2019, and my “rainy day” turned out to be my first winter back in Philadelphia, which has hit me with far more snow than I expected. Wrath of the White Witch is magical and delightful, and it’s the perfect game for cozy days indoors.
Wrath of the White Witch is a seventy-hour JRPG that’s intended for kids around the same age as the game’s protagonist, who is around ten years old. It was developed in collaboration with Studio Ghibli by Level-5, which makes the Professor Layton and Yo-kai Watch games.
As indicated by the game’s title, it takes place in two closely connected worlds, a high fantasy world of wizards and castles and talking animals and a world loosely based on our own. You play as Oliver, a boy who travels between a suburb of 1950s Detroit and the fantasy world with the intent of finding a way to save his mother, who has recently passed away from an illness. The idea is that Oliver’s mother’s “soulmate” in the fantasy world has gone missing; and, if he can find and rescue her, then this might have an effect on his mother’s fate in his own world.
The game’s combat system is much more complicated to describe than it is to actually play. You have three characters who can move freely across the battlefield while executing commands. You control one, and the others are controlled by AI. The AI is unfortunately not that smart, but almost none of the battles are actually that hard. The classic JRPG strategy of “just be five levels over where you probably need to be” works perfectly every time, and there’s also an Easy Mode that you can switch on and off whenever you like.
Each of your three characters can equip three familiars, which you can catch in the wild and train like pokémon. You’ll use your familiars to fight, but there isn’t any pressing need to balance your team or do research into the strengths or weaknesses of individual creatures. There’s also no pressure to catch new familiars, or even any way to check your progress if “catching them all” is your goal. The familiars are cute and fun to play with, and there’s no drawback to just using the ones you like. You can also feed them adorable status-boosting snacks if you want to.
The combat system is fairly deep, but it took me about five hours of gameplay to start moving beyond a basic sort of “attack by hitting the enemy with your stick” mentality. Wrath of the White Witch originally came out on the PlayStation 3 console in 2011; and, true to that era, it tries to explain everything to you with copious amounts of text. Oliver is accompanied by a companion named Drippy, who’s a little like Fi in Skyward Sword in that he will repeatedly interrupt gameplay to explain mechanics you could easily have figured out for yourself. Thankfully, he eventually backs off, which makes it much easier to experiment and thereby figure out the ins and outs of battle strategies.
There are a few other aspects of Wrath of the White Witch that show the game’s age. To give an example, it reminds me somewhat of Final Fantasy XII in that it forces the player to sit through more than two hours of exposition and pointless tutorial missions before the game actually begins in earnest. I won’t lie – this is horribly tedious, and you just kind of have to sit there and be patient.
Bits and pieces of the game’s story are a little tone-deaf as well, especially given its secondary setting in the United States at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
There is one African-American character in Wrath of the White Witch. His name is Rusty, and he beats his wife. Like, right in front of you. His back is turned to the camera when he does it, but what’s happening is obvious. This is one of the only real instances of the game portraying a negative emotion stronger than mild anger or gentle sadness, and it’s… I mean, this is a poor word choice, but it’s striking.
One of Oliver’s traveling companions in the fantasy world is Esther, a girl from a vaguely Orientalist desert city modeled on Silk Road culture. Her counterpart in Oliver’s world is his best friend’s neighbor, a girl named Myrtle. Oliver has seen Myrtle out of her window, but he’s never spoken to her because she’s ostensibly too sick to leave the house.
It turns out that the Myrtle was sick but has gotten better, and that she doesn’t leave her room because she’s scared of her father. Rusty, a car mechanic, has had to work overtime to pay for her hospital bills, and he’s been taking his frustration out on his wife, which terrifies Myrtle. Since Oliver is a wizard, he can use magic to heal Rusty’s heart, help Myrtle overcome her anxiety, and thus inspire Esther to embrace the courage she needs to go on her own journey.
This is very much a ten-year-old’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, and it makes sense in its own way, but…
Both Myrtle and Esther have straight blond hair, bright blue eyes, and peach-tinted pale skin. It’s weird to call anyone speaking Japanese “white,” but almost everyone in the game is a generic light-skinned anime person. This means that the abusive husband’s racial identity really stands out.
He gets better, of course. After Rusty’s heart is healed, he apologizes to his wife and hugs his daughter, and everything is okay. He helps you out with a sidequest later on in the game in a way that demonstrates his high competence as a mechanic. But still, for there to be only one Black person in Detroit… And for the one Black character in the game to be violent like that… And for both his wife and daughter to be coded as white… I just feel like there’s a lot of racial history at play here that isn’t given sufficient depth for its inclusion in the game to be worthwhile.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s more to American culture than hot dogs and hamburgers and saying hello to your neighbors from across their white-picket fences as you stroll down Main Street. If you’re setting a game in the United States, you should have more than one Black character, and you need to be aware of the historical violence and deep cultural wounds created by stereotypes about Black male violence against white women.
I suppose you could counter this with, “But Wrath of the White Witch is a Japanese game for children that flattens and parodies all of the people and cultures it incorporates into its fantasy world,” and that’s fair. At the same time, I’m happy that Japanese game developers have since figured out that it’s okay to have more than one Black or dark-skinned character in any given game, and that it won’t break anyone’s sense of immersion to have NPCs walking around with a variety of skintones.
(Just as an aside, I want to emphasize that I’m not cherry-picking an example here. There are a few other examples of problematic portrayals of racial and ethnic difference in Wrath of the White Witch, as well as many other examples that could be drawn from JRPGs in general. This is a serious and complicated topic, but addressing it isn’t really the point of this blog post. If you’re interested in pursuing this further, the essay collection The State of Play is a great place to get started.)
So there are elements of Wrath of the White Witch that betray the game’s age, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of its reflection of the then-current state of transnational conversations concerning representation. Still, most of the game is an absolute treasure.
The cel-shaded graphics are amazing and have not aged a day. The animation is spectacular. In particular, the way that the mantle of Oliver’s cape moves is a technological marvel. You really do feel as though you’re walking around in a Studio Ghibli movie, and it’s incredible. The world map is gorgeous, and the towns are intricately detailed and full of life. You can tell that Level-5 and Studio Ghibli put a lot of love and attention into designing the world, and it’s an enormous amount of fun to explore and take on sidequests.
The translation is brilliant, and the voice acting is lovely. The level of detail put into the sound design is pure Studio Ghibli. The score by Joe Hisaishi is everything you’d hope it would be.
I’m not saying that every game needs to have an active fandom, but I wonder why this game is relatively uncelebrated in my circles of social media. There were precious few JRPGs on the PlayStation 3, which was odd after the immense popularity of JRPGs on the PlayStation 2, so you’d think a high-quality game like Wrath of the White Witch would have stood out. Then again, I myself never managed to get into it back when it first came out despite having started it a few times. My guess is that Wrath of the White Witch’s innocent charm and nostalgic JRPG elements help it work well as a pokémon-style portable game on the small screen of the Nintendo Switch.
I know that a sequel, Revenant Kingdom, was released for PlayStation 4 in 2018, but I was too obsessed with Breath of the Wild at the time to pay much attention to it. Revenant Kingdom is partially set in contemporary New York, and I get the sense that it’s intended for an adult audience. I think it might be worth checking out once I finish up the last few postgame sidequests of Wrath of the White Witch just to see how the world of the story (and the worldview of its creators) has changed in the past ten years.