‘NI NO KUNI: WRATH OF THE WHITE WITCH’ (E10+)
When Level-5 (the game developer responsible for the “Professor Layton” series) and Studio Ghibli (the animation house responsible for “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away”) team up, you know the result will be something special, and “Ni no Kuni” doesn’t disappoint. In terms of design, this is a perfect fusion of the cel-shaded aesthetic of the “Tales” role-playing games with the collectible pet battle system of “Pokemon.” In terms of narrative, this is a deeply emotional story about a boy desperate to reconnect with his dead mother, exploring a whimsical parallel universe that might just make that possible. We follow young Oliver on his quest, accompanied by an instantly classic sidekick of a fairy with a lantern as a nose piercing, and around every corner, fantastical creatures and subtle life lessons await.
Oliver and the companions he gathers along the way are all capable of defending themselves in typical RPG fashion, but more often than not, you’ll create a buffer between your principals and their adversaries, leaving combat to the Pokemon-like critters you collect, known as “familiars.” These creatures level up and grow with satisfying consistency, but there are so many of them that you’ll eventually lean on a few while the rest languish untested in your inventory. The battles themselves, for the most part, are respectably challenging, but random encounters are frequently inescapable and can begin to feel like a grind. Fortunately, the charming art style works constantly to mitigate any combat fatigue, and the music—oh, the music!—is so magical, you could watch paint dry to this soundtrack and still be completely enthralled. If you’re yearning for a good RPG, there are few others in a world this vivid, populated with characters this delightful.
‘THE CAVE’ (T)
Xbox Live Arcade
“The Cave” is one of those games that falls just a few technical issues short of greatness. It’s a point-‘n-click adventure-style platformer in which you guide three of seven available quirky characters (a knight, a time traveler, a hillbilly, etc.) through a sentient and vocal cavern that mocks your actions with a sarcastic commentary. The titular subterranean backdrop ultimately highlights the worst character flaws of its explorers, to darkly comic effect. But switching between characters to send them on specific tasks and then wrangling them together when they must work in conjunction leads to a lot of irritating backtracking. It’s an experience that alternates between awe and annoyance.
‘KNYTT UNDERGROUND’ (M)
Yet another “Metroid”-style, subterranean platformer, “Knytt Underground” puts its emphasis on quick reflexes. In true Samus fashion, you can even transform yourself into a ball, bouncing to previously inaccessible areas. Though finding the solutions to certain jumping puzzles will leave you feeling like a genius, these moments are interspersed amongst the tedium of exploring lifeless screens on a gratuitously large overworld map. If you stick with it just for the sake of the narrative, you’re doomed to disappointment. The game developer himself eventually shows up as an in-game character just to poke fun at what a letdown the ending is. CV