Video Game Review: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch [PS3]

Today we have a guest video game review from Max @ Impassionedcinema!

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch [PS3]

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
System: PS3
Genre: JRPG
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Level-5 and Studio Ghibli
Release Date: January 22, 2013

An English translation for the highly anticipated Level-5 and Studio Ghibli collaboration, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, has been a long time coming. What more could gamers of JRPGs ask for? Level-5, best known for their work on Professor Layton and Dark Cloud, has been a long-time fan favorite in Japan. While famed anime studio, Studio Ghibli, has been known for their outstanding animated films, taking audiences to worlds we’ve never seen before. On paper it sounds as though failure is not an option. In the end though, how did it hold up?

Ni No Kuni follows the story of a boy named Oliver. Oliver lives with his mom in the quant town of Motorville, where you guessed it, the residents are obsessed with motor vehicles. One fine day, Oliver is asked to sneak out of his house late at night in order to try his friend’s new car that he built. Catastrophe occurs and Oliver’s mother suffers heart complications while trying to save Oliver from an accident. Depressed over the loss of his mother, Oliver locks himself away until he is summoned by his doll, Drippy, to save an alternate world. Saving this parallel universe might allow Oliver to save his mother.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

There’s enough story in Ni No Kuni to fill a novel, but how does it play? Level-5 has imagined the gameplay of Ni No Kuni to be a hybrid of Pokémon and the Tales Of… series of games. Oliver and his companions control familiars in combat that share the same health bar, but have different attributes in attack, defense, magic, etc. Battles are initiated by running into the world map avatar of the enemy and conducted in real-time.

Collecting familiars is still as rewarding as it was in Pokémon all those years ago, but the payoff and percentage of captures are poorly balanced. Most players will be satisfied leveling and grinding their starter familiars till the end game. Most of the world map battles can be summarized as repeatedly tapping the attack prompt to overpower your enemies. If you aren’t powerful enough yet, expect to spend at least an hour grinding up your familiars. Casting spells is also troublesome. If your character is waiting to cast a spell, but another familiar on the battlefield casts before, get ready to enter the queue again. This is especially troublesome in the late game when trying to craft items by stealing from enemies. Most of the time they will be dead before you can even cast the spell.

The other problem is that tougher battles will likely be determined by how fast you can block as opposed to anything else. Most of the villains will have tell-signs before they summon a deadly spell and with those five seconds canceling an attack and setting up a block can be the deciding factor. Blocking has always been an underutilized aspect of JRPGs, but with battles playing out in real-time, it’s a race to set up the block. About twenty hours into the game, your companions are given the ability to set up their block by pressing a button on the controller. This is right after one the most difficult battles in the game. Why couldn’t Level-5 given you that ability far earlier?

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Up until this point, there’s been a lot of focus on the chunky battle system. Rightfully so though, because when the playtime of Ni No Kuni will likely exceed 60 hours, it should be fair and enjoyable. Luckily, the overall presentation should be enough to guide players to the end. Ni No Kuni is simply one of the best looking JRPGs ever created. While actual anime sequences become few and far between after the beginning of the quest, the character design and worlds exemplify the artwork from Studio Ghibli. It’s almost as if Oliver is another hero in the long legacy of Ghibli greats and the story could easily fit into the overall catalog of great films. The score of the game is composed by Studio Ghibli veteran Joe Hisaishi. While Ni No Kuni suffers from having only one piece of music for battle sequences like most JRPGs, it’s always exciting to visit a new town to see the spectacular art design and music come together.

Although the battle system leaves a lot to be desired, Ni No Kuni was the first JRPG I’ve completed this generation of consoles. Whether it was the hope that there would be a satisfying ending (there wasn’t) or seeing what Studio Ghibli had concocted for the next villain or town, Ni No Kuni held my interest to the end. When a game is entertaining enough that the final quest gets put off until the last possible moment, it has done something right. While Ni No Kuni isn’t the masterpiece Western gamers were waiting for, it is the masterpiece they needed. It has proven that JRPGs that don’t bear the name Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest can still be successful outside of Japan. Even more incredible Ni No Kuni is a console-exclusive to PS3. For an exclusive title to sell as well as it has is an incredible achievement. If you can look pass the mechanic problems of the battle system, Ni No Kuni is a recommended play-through for all RPG fans.

4/5 Stars

 
Written by Max Covill of Impassionedcinema.com

Movie Project #6: My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Country: Japan
Genre: Animation/Family/Fantasy
Starring: Hitoshi Takagi, Noriko Hidaka, Toshiyuki Amagasa
Running Time: 86 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I wanted to continue to watch more Studio Ghibli films, and this seemed to be the most highly-regarded out of those I hadn’t seen.

Accolades: Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film, Animage Anime Grand Prix prize, Mainichi Film Award for Best Film, ranked #163 on IMDB’s Top 250, ranked #41 on Empire magazine’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema

My Neighbor Totoro is as simple as it gets, but it is infinitely rewarding. Originally released on the same bill as Grave of the Fireflies (still the greatest animated film I have ever seen), Totoro remains one of Hayao Miyazaki’s crowning achievements, a children’s film that can be passed down from generation to generation.

Set in 1958 Japan, the film tells the story of a university professor and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei, who move across the country to be closer to the hospital where their mother, Yasuko, is recovering from a serious illness. Their new residence is an old house that the girls immediately believe is haunted. Rather than allow themselves to be scared — “they’re just dust bunnies” — the sisters embrace the spirits and settle in as best as they can.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

While the older sister, Satsuki, is off at school, Mei notices a small, white rabbit-like creature playing outside. She chases after it, eventually reaching a well-hidden area inside the forest. Inside, she finds an even bigger creature, a very large “totoro” who is in such a deep sleep he doesn’t even notice the little girl. She instantly becomes attached to this creature, dubbing him Totoro, and begins seeing him on their property from time to time.

Even though Totoro only speaks in loud roars, he becomes a much-needed friend for Mei, and it isn’t long before Satsuki starts seeing him as well. When the girls tell their father about these mythical creatures, he smiles and doesn’t act for one second that he doesn’t believe them. As such, it’s refreshing to see an adult in an animated film not dismiss a child for these whimsical thoughts.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

It’s difficult to put into words what makes My Neighbor Totoro so great. The wild imaginations of children are expertly captured, and I can’t think of a better film that nails the general sensibilities of youth. The bond between the little girls and Totoro is heartwarming, especially as they are essentially using this creature as their way of coping with their sick mother. “Adult” issues are brought up and handled with care, and there is not even the slightest notion of condescension.

The sisters are believable, lifelike characters, and their jubilant behavior while exploring their new house is fun to watch. Totoro and his many smaller relatives are wonderful creatures, and it’s easy to see how they have remained popular worldwide over the years. There is also an incredibly unique “cat bus” that transports Totoro around the forest, one of the coolest looking modes of transportation I have ever seen.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

In a nutshell, My Neighbor Totoro is a beautifully-animated film that has a little something for everyone. It made me feel like a kid again, which is rare in itself. An absolute must see, even for those who generally sway away from animated films.

9/10

Poll Results: Favorite Studio Ghibli Film

It was a close race, but we have our winner:

Spirited Away

THE RESULTS:
– Spirited Away: 5 votes
– Grave of the Fireflies: 3 votes
– Princess Mononoke: 3 votes
– Howl’s Moving Castle: 2 votes

Judging by the lack of votes, it seems like more people need to experience the films of Studio Ghibli! If that’s the case for you, you can’t go wrong with any of the films listed above. I’m not a huge fan of animated features, but there’s nary a Studio Ghibli film that I didn’t enjoy. In fact, Grave of the Fireflies may be the best *war* movie I have ever seen, animated or not. I cannot recommend it enough.

This Week’s Poll: We are in the home stretch of 2012, and there are still plenty of upcoming films to get excited about. My question for you this week is: what TWO upcoming films are you most excited to see?

Quick Reviews: Detour [1945], Ghost Dog [1999], Series 7 [2001], The Secret World of Arrietty [2010], Mass Effect [2007]

This has been an unexpectedly busy month, but I still found time to do a new batch of mini-reviews:

MOVIES

Detour [1945]
Detour [1945]
This short Film Noir (runtime: 68 minutes) has gained a lot of respect over the years, and rightfully so. Tom Neal stars as Al, a piano musician who decides to hitchhike from New York City to Hollywood in order to meet up with his starry-eyed dame. Along the way, he gets a ride from a well-off bookie in a convertible. This is where shit hits the fan. While taking a turn driving, Al pulls over to put up the top during a rainstorm. It is at this time that he notices the bookie has passed out, and upon opening the car door, his new friend falls out and hits his head on a rock. Al freaks out, takes his wallet and car, and continues on to Hollywood. He meets the femme fatale of the film, Vera (Ann Savage), and boy is she a cold-hearted woman! She is easily one of the nastiest women I have seen in a noir, and poor Al just can’t catch a break. It’s amazing just how much plot was able to get crammed into this brief film, and it is worthy of its praise as one of the more underrated Film Noirs. I could have done without the tacked-on final scene, but this is an enjoyably dark and gritty way to spend an hour. 8/10

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai [1999]
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai [1999]
Talk about an unorthodox badass. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is an inner-city self-trained samurai, a guy who acts as a hitman and lives in a pigeon coop. His best friend is an immigrant who doesn’t speak a lick of English. Ghost Dog is a weird dude, but he is lethal with a weapon, and he isn’t afraid of anyone despite getting tangled up in some nasty mafia business. This Jim Jarmusch film is a little slow in spots, but its odd humor (i.e. an old mob gangster belting out some Flava Flav jams) and killer RZA-curated soundtrack work greatly in its favor. 7.5/10

Series 7: The Contenders
Series 7: The Contenders [2001]
This dark satire of reality TV is equal parts Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. The concept is that six contestants are chosen via a ‘random’ lottery, with the ultimate goal being to kill off the other participants and remain the last person standing. Director Daniel Minahan, a former reality TV producer himself, does a terrific job making the movie feel like an extended marathon of an actual reality show, complete with Will Arnett as the narrator. The movie has a cool premise, and the production fits the theme perfectly, but it never really digs into anything meaningful. Yeah, reality TV sucks, and it’s fun to bash it, but the spoof could have had more of a bite to it. Still, an enjoyable enough movie, and a mindless way to spend 87 minutes. 6/10

The Secret World of Arrietty [2010]
The Secret World of Arrietty [2010]
Studio Ghibli’s latest feature is a somber and melancholy affair, yet remains charming at the same time. Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is a “borrower”, a little person who lives under the floorboards of a house with her parents (voiced by real-life couple Amy Poehler and Will Arnett). They make a living by borrowing unneeded supplies from the human beings (i.e. sugar cubes, tissue paper, etc.). Arrietty forms an unlikely friendship with a young terminally ill human boy, Shawn (David Henrie), but these types of interactions are risky for the borrowers, who could lose everything if discovered. The plot plays with our curiosity, but its slow-moving pace may not fare well with young children, and it takes too long to get to the meat of the story. The animation is gorgeous, as expected, but the soundtrack is just cheesy and feels out of place. Arrietty is a decent movie, but does not compare to the high marks previously set by Studio Ghibli. 7/10

VIDEO GAMES

Mass Effect [Xbox 360, 2007]
Mass Effect [Xbox 360, 2007]
After starting and stopping my campaign a couple times, I finally sat down and played through the entirety of Mass Effect. Yeah, I am quite a few years late to the party, but better late than never. This sci-fi action/RPG epic was a lot of fun, though it started off slow as hell. It wasn’t until I left the Citadel, the huge political space station, that the game picked up. I became hooked once I was able to explore the galaxy and began visiting untouched planets. Driving the Mako vehicle was a bit of a chore, to put it mildly, but the rewards of new side quests and items made it worth it. It was a lot of fun to explore character relationships (I romanced Liara) and make an effort to either be “good” or “bad” (I opted for Paragon until the very end — let’s just say I wasn’t a fan of the Citadel). Mass Effect isn’t a perfect game by any means — the freezing and drops in frame rate were especially annoying — but the great story made this a fun experience anyway. Can’t wait to play through the rest of the trilogy. 8/10

Have you guys seen any of these movies or played this video game? What do you think of them?

Movie Project #35 and #36: Grave of the Fireflies [1988] and Crash [2004]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Grave of the Fireflies [1988]
Grave of the Fireflies [1988, Isao Takahata]
Starring Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi.

Grave of the Fireflies is unlike any other animated film I have ever seen. It is simultaneously beautiful and devastating as it shows life in Japan near the end of World War II. The movie follows two orphaned children, 14-year-old Seita and his 4-year-old sister Setsuko, as they struggle to get by in their war torn village. They find temporary solace in the home of a distant aunt, but she makes it clear that they are a burden on her and her family, and they are hardly welcomed in the household. Later, the children attempt to live on their own, but it is obvious that Seita is not in a position to take care of a young child. It’s heartbreaking to watch the two children fend for themselves as they struggle to acquire even basic nourishments.

This is an incredibly sad and tragic film, one that is made even more powerful because it is based on a true story. Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience, to say the least, and it may very well be one of the best anti-war films ever made. An absolute must-see. 10/10

Crash [2004, Paul Haggis]
Crash [2004, Paul Haggis]
Starring Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton.

Out of all the movies in my project, the inclusion of Crash is what garnered the biggest reaction. The initial response from commenters was mostly negative, but then it started to get some vocal support as well. It’s clear that this is a polarizing film, and that’s why I wanted to see it. As the credits began to roll, I had just one question: How the hell did this movie win Best Picture???

There really wasn’t much I liked about Crash at all. The film tries so hard to tackle the touchy subject of racism, even going so far as to incorporate at least a half dozen different races, all of whom make derogatory comments to each other. There are no likable characters, and they all act irrationally. The whole movie felt artificial and forced to me, as characters found ways to incorporate racist remarks into *EVERY* single dialogue exchange. Look, I know there are a lot of racist fucks out there, but I still have a hard time believing people speak this way all the time. Some of the character behavior was simply ridiculous, too, such as that of Terrence Howard’s character, who exploded into a fit of rage that was completely out of character considering his past actions. The entire film had an air of pretentiousness to it, right down to the pompous soundtrack that tried to make everything more dramatic than it really was. With hackneyed writing and dozens of pathetic stereotypes, Crash is an embarrassment that should not have even been nominated for Best Picture. 4/10