I’ve made no secret of the fact that I really, really love JRPGs. So it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that when I was a little younger, particularly in my early teens, I was really into anime. Back then I watched it pretty indiscriminately, and frankly I didn’t have very mature taste. I thought all anime was more or less created equal, and tended to watch whatever was put in front of me. At the time that meant a lot of mecha stuff (particularly the more populist versions of Gundam), some shounen pulp (Dragon Ball, Naruto, the usual teenage boy stuff), and the occasional screwball comedy thing (I still have a minor soft spot in my heart for Azumanga Daioh.) Two films changed the way I viewed anime pretty significantly, though: Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away.
Watching those two films made me realize two important things: not all anime is created equal, and some of it is really, unbelievably, transcendentally good. It was around the time I first saw Spirited Away that my taste for anime generally began to wane. How do you go back to watching Gundam Wing after seeing the medium used for something as challenging and rich as what Hayao Miyazaki was creating? Seeing Spirited Away was, for me, like listening to the Beatles for the first time- it caused me to look back on everything I used to consider “good” with embarrassment and contempt. I became, like many people, a devout consumer of the works of Studio Ghibli. These days I’ve by and large returned Japanese animation, but thanks to the education I got from Miyazaki and Takahata, I usually seek out the medium’s more noteworthy material rather than consuming whatever pap is lying around. (I’ve been paying particularly close attention to the works of Mamoru Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai, and recently developed a minor obsession with Michael Arias’ Tekkonkinkreet.)
When Ni No Kuni was announced as a collaboration between Studio Ghibli and Level-5, creators of the Professor Layton series, I almost lost my mind. A golden-era style JRPG set in a Ghibli designed fantasy world being created by the company behind one of my favourite franchises seemed too perfect to be true. When Wizard Edition pre-orders opened up to Canadians I slapped down a hundred bucks right away. This past January I did almost nothing but play Ni No Kuni, getting wrapped up in its world in a way I hadn’t experienced since the likes of Final Fantasy IX. It’s one of the best looking games I’ve ever played. The sheer nostalgic joy of its world and mechanics had me grinning like a damn goon every time I played it. And it has one of the best soundtracks in the entire history of gaming, as composed by God Almighty Himself.
But glorious as it is, Ni No Kuni also has a substantial problem that left something of a sour taste in my mouth. Don’t get me wrong, I highly recommend this game to anyone who loves JRPGs, Studio Ghibli, or experiencing joy. But it would be irresponsible of me to heap the game with nothing but breathless praise in the face of what I consider to be a problematic flaw. Let’s talk about the endings of Ni No Kuni. See, the final few hours of Ni No Kuni have two major complementary defects. The first is that the game has simply too much ending. The second is that the game doesn’t have enough ending. Allow me to explain. And be warned, of course, that since what follows in an in-depth discussion of the end of the game, spoilers will be all over the gaff.
In Ni No Kuni the player takes on the role of Oliver. In the earliest stages of the game, Oliver’s mother dies after saving him from drowning. Shortly after her death one of Oliver’s stuffed toys comes to life. The toy- Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies- explains that his world has been conquered by the despotic Dark Djinn Shadar, and that Oliver, the prophesied “Pure-Hearted One,” is the only one who can stop him. Oliver isn’t interested though, until Drippy lets slip that travelling to the other world and defeating Shadar could yield an opportunity to save his mother. The two worlds are connected, Drippy explains, and so too are its people. A person living in Oliver’s world has a “soulmate” in Drippy’s, and the two share a special connection. Drippy explains to Oliver that his late mother, Allie, was the soulmate of the Great Sage Alicia, a powerful magician who fought against Shadar and lost. The bond between Allie and Alicia was broken when Shadar captured Alicia, and Drippy theorizes that if Oliver could defeat Shadar and rescue Alicia, the bond between Alicia’s heart and Allie’s would be restored, potentially saving Allie’s life. So, the basic premise of the game has Oliver and his butties traipsing through the other world with two goals: to defeat Shadar, and to save Oliver’s mother.
This story reaches its climax in the castle of Nevermore, Shadar’s headquarters beyond the Miasma Marshes. There are a lot of trippy plot reveals here which aren’t totally relevant to the discussion at hand, but to my mind the biggest and most important reveal is that Oliver’s mother cannot be saved. Allie was not Alicia’s soulmate, she was Alicia herself, who travelled to Oliver’s world to have her baby free from the tyranny of Shadar. Without a Great Sage to rescue and a bond between soulmates to restore, Allie cannot be saved from her fate. Although rescuing his mother from death was Oliver’s primary motivation for going on this quest, in the midnight hour it is revealed that it simply cannot be done. Oliver and his friends defeat Shadar all the same, bringing the journey to an end, but Oliver will never see his mother again.
And you know what? I really adored this ending. After defeating Shadar and learning the truth about his mother, Oliver realizes that his journey has given him new depths of strength and courage. He’s met lots of new people, made new friends, and had new experiences. Oliver will always miss his mother, but he has the resolve now to go on living. It is around this point that the player realizes that the point of Oliver’s journey was never to save his mother, but to learn to cope with her loss, and deal with his grief in a healthy way. By undertaking his adventure in the other world, Oliver was able to properly metabolize his own emotions, able to work through the feelings of loneliness and despair that follow a loss of that magnitude, and was able to develop a support network to carry him through this difficult time. This struck me as an extremely mature and complex take on the type of story the game was telling, and it really impressed me that the game was prepared to be that challenging with its narrative. In retrospect I ought to have expected as much from a Studio Ghibli story, but it was exciting to learn that Ghibli’s morally ambiguous, emotionally demanding stories are just as fulfilling in a 60 hour RPG as they are in a 90 minute feature film.
This is where the original Nintendo DS version of the story ends: with Oliver in an emotionally healthy place, having developed the skills necessary to deal with his grief. It isn’t, though, where the Playstation 3 version ends.
When Ni No Kuni originally came out for the Nintendo DS in Japan, it was subtitled “The Jet Black Mage,” a reference to Shadar (or rather, as he was amusingly named in the Japanese original, “Jabo.”) The Playstation 3 version, the only version to be distributed outside Japan, is subtitled “Wrath of the White Witch,” in honour of the game’s new antagonist: Cassiopeia. Ol’ Cassie was not present in the game’s original DS version, and frankly she isn’t inserted into the story particularly gracefully. Although there are several cutscenes sprinkled throughout the game depicting her chillin’ hard with her twelve followers, and behaving like Shadar’s superior, the game’s main cast never meets or even hears about her until after Shadar is defeated. This creates a minor narrative dissonance in the mind of the player, since Oliver and company are hellbent on defeating Shadar, who we the audience knows is not really the game’s chief antagonist, but I’m prepared to let that relatively slight infraction slide for now.
So, Oliver has defeated Shadar, made peace with the loss of his mother, and the game’s story and Oliver’s character arc have reached their conclusion. In the DS version, the story is now over. But, in the PS3 version, the game’s wheels keep spinning. At a festival in Ding Dong Dell celebrating the defeat of Shadar, Oliver announces that he intends to return to his own world, presumably for good. Before he can leave, though, Cassiopeia makes her presence felt, casting a spell that turns the citizens of the game’s various towns into aggressive braindead monsters. Oliver and his friends set out to make things right, a couple more hours of quests are unlocked, we get a new party member to play around with, and we even get a second final dungeon in the form of the Ivory Tower. Once we come face to face with Cassiopeia, the game goes about mildly rehashing the beats of its previous climax, revealing the antagonist to be sympathetic and misunderstood over the course of a three battle boss gauntlet. The first two battles are fought against Cass herself, and in the third Cassiopeia is actually a party member aiding you in the battle against the game’s final boss, the Zodiarchy. After the Zodiarchy is defeated, we get a little bit more cutscene action wrapping up Cassiopeia’s story, and then it’s credits.
This is what I mean when I claim that the game has “too much ending.” Shadar is defeated and Oliver’s character arc has come to and end: he has made peace wih the death of his mother. There is basically no reason for Oliver to stick around in the other world anymore, and indeed the White Witch arc begins with Oliver announcing his decision to return home. I think the emotional impact of the game would have been greater if Cassiopeia had been excised from the game, and the credits had rolled after Shadar had been defeated. In other words, the White Witch arc, at a strictly narrative level, adds nothing to Oliver’s story. His stated mission is accomplished, and his arc is complete: having to now deal with the White Witch is just purposeless narrative busywork. But remember, I’ve already made the seemingly contradictory statement that the game has not just “too much ending”, but also “not enough ending.” What in another world could I be talking about?
During the game’s final boss fight, Cassiopeia is helpfully lobbing spells around and generally being a pal. One of the spells she casts in battle is the much ballyhooed “forbidden spell”: Ashes of Resurrection. Now, the player knows all about Ashes of Resurrection by this point. One of the Twelve Tales of Wonder in the Wizard Companion, The Bear-Man and the Princess Tears, is a cautionary tale concerning the repercussions of casting the Ashes of Resurrection. The moral of that story is that the spell can be cast, but the cost of the spell is wildly unpredictable, extremely high, and leans towards the cruelly ironic. The entire White Witch arc also deals explicitly with the Ashes of Resurrection- Cassiopeia’s backstory involves casting the spell out of a desire to do good for her kingdom, only to accidentally bring ruin and despair instead. The arc is all about facing, understanding, and overcoming the spell’s potential for evil, or at least the repercussions of its misuse: Oliver and his friends are forced to restore Ding Dong Dell, Al Mamoon, and Hamelin after they are cursed with Manna, Cassiopeia’s corrupted version of Ashes of Resurrection.
After defeating the Zodiarchy, Ashes of Resurrection is added to Oliver’s Wizard Companion. The spell does nothing. It can’t be cast in battle to revive unconscious party members, the way Cassie uses it (which frankly would have been really helpful.) It also can’t be used outside of battle for gameplay or story purposes.
Now, throughout Ni No Kuni, (and particularly in the White Witch arc,) the game is teaching you about and warning you against the use of Ashes of Resurrection. We saw in the game’s “first” ending that saving Oliver’s mother was not possible, but the new material added exclusively for the PS3 version of the game contradicts some of what was given to us in the game’s “DS” ending. It is implied throughout the White Witch arc that saving Oliver’s mother might be possible after all, and that this is the new ending that the extended “PS3” ending is building towards. The game’s “second” ending, it seemed to me, was about saving Oliver’s mother after all, but at a price.
The fact that the game continues even after the completion of Oliver’s character arc, the Tale of Wonder in the Wizard Companion, the presence of Cassiopeia and her story of suffering the cost of casting the spell, Oliver finally receiving the Ashes of Resurrection, it all points towards there being more ending than we actually received in the game’s “second” ending. In fact, it all points to it so clearly that every few weeks I check GameFAQs or the Ni No Kuni wiki to make sure somebody hasn’t found it since I last played the game. The “true” second ending is foreshadowed so constantly and so clearly that I honestly believe it must have been simply written out of the game due to time constraints or something, because considering how much plot information is set up without being payed off makes almost no sense, and takes a lot of the wind out of my enjoyment of an otherwise completely wonderful game. What is the point of this strange plot tacked on after the Shadar arc? Why do we spend the game’s final few hours battling a character who has had nothing to do with Oliver’s journey up until this point? Why introduce a new antagonist whose motivations and history are wrapped up in the Ashes of Resurrection? My theory:
In the ending to Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch as it was originally conceived, Oliver can cast Ashes of Resurrection to revive his mother, but at the cost of never being able to return to the other world.
This is what I mean when I say that the game has “not enough ending.” The elements are all there, this ending is set up during the final few hours of the game, but it’s never payed off. The White Witch arc begins with a festival at which Oliver announces his intention to return home now that Shadar is dealt with. Oliver’s desire to return home is never payed off in the ending as it exists, but if his final action in the game was to return home permanently, that would satisfyingly finish a miniature arc that started at that festival. The story of the Bear-Man and the Princess Tears, in the game as it exists now, is basically just flavour text with no application in the game, but if my theory about the game’s original ending is correct, that story instead serves as an important bit of foreshadowing and an early warning to Oliver and the player about how Ashes of Resurrection works. It even gives more thematic weight and depth to Cassiopeia as a character, and makes her inclusion in the plot make a lot more sense: she represents the negative repercussions of using Ashes of Resurrection selfishly, or irresponsibly, or improperly. In order for Oliver to understand and use the spell correctly, he has to first defeat Cassiopeia, who symbolically represents the spell misunderstood and used incorrectly.
By casting the Ashes of Resurrection to save his mother, Oliver would not only accomplish his original goal (closing his arc in a different way than it was closed in the “first” ending), but would also bring a thematic and narrative conclusion to the game’s story that doesn’t exist in its current form. For those of you out there familiar with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory, Oliver’s adventures in the other world represent an almost perfect adherence to the Hero’s Journey paradigm, but Ni No Kuni ultimately fumbles the “Return” aspect of the “Journey and the Return.” In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell describes the final leg of the Hero’s Journey as being characterized by the hero taking the reward earned by the hero on his or her journey in the unknown world and returning it to the known world. “When the hero-quest has been accomplished… the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy. The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labour of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet, or the ten thousand worlds.” In other words, the Journey is not complete until the lessons learned or prizes earned on the Journey are brought back to the hero’s starting point, to be used for the good of all.
This is why, in Suikoden, Tir McDohl’s rebellion against the Scarlet Moon Empire is not complete until he returns to Gregminster. When he left, he was powerless and desperate, but in his journey he accumulated not only power and experience, but the specific “prize” of the 108 Stars of Destiny. With that power at his back, McDohl has the strength to return to Gregminster and defeat Emperor Barbarossa personally, establishing the Toran Republic. It’s why in Final Fantasy VII, Cloud and his party can’t advance against Sephiroth in the Northern Crater without first returning to Midgar, where their journey began, and finishing off the last few ShinRa employees with the knowledge and power they have accumulated during their travels. It’s why in the final leg of Shining Force II, Bowie and his band of do-gooders return to the continent of Grans, from which they were ejected by Galam at the game’s beginning. Armed with new experience and resolve, and in possession of the specific “prize” of the Force Sword, Bowie is now able to defeat Zeon. In Vandal Hearts Ash returns to Shumeria with his prize, the Vandal Heart, with which he is able to defeat Dolf. The final boss gauntlet of Kingdom Hearts begins in a distorted version of Destiny Islands, to which Sora has returned with the prized Keyblade to defeat Ansem. The “Return” element of the Journey and the Return lends a tremendous amount of weight and significance to the events of a story, and its exclusion from the plot of Ni No Kuni, which otherwise adheres so perfectly to the structure, leaves the work feeling cut short. In Ni No Kuni, in Oliver’s Journey, the prize earned should be the Ashes of Resurrection, and in order to truly complete his Journey Oliver must surely take his prize back home to Motorville, and use his hard-earned gift to restore life to his mother.
(Very important note: I’m not at all claiming that dogmatic adherence to Campbell’s structure is necessary for a story to feel satisfying or to be considered a “success”, since that would be short sighted and small minded and would represent a grotesque misunderstanding of Campbell’s writing. I’m merely suggesting what Campbell himself suggested: that the structure of the monomyth is inherently, subconsciously satisfying to audiences from all cultures, and stories featuring its elements tend to “work” for relatively straightforward “Hero’s Journey” type narratives. Oliver’s story in Ni No Kuni is very much an original flavour Hero’s Journey, so the story’s failure to include the “Return” portion of that structure leaves the game’s conclusion feeling truncated and incomplete.)
If my theory is correct and Oliver was originally intended to be able to cast Ashes of Resurrection to rescue his mother, then I honestly don’t know why that sequence would have been cut. It’s possible that time and budget constraints forced the team to cut back on what was originally a more complete vision of the game’s conclusion, but it seems like a lot to sacrifice. It might be that the team found it difficult to reconcile such a definitive conclusion to the game with the idea of having post-game content which required the player to have access to the other world, so they decided to change the ending rather than cut the endgame content. There’s even a chance that casting the spell is possible, and that we simply haven’t discovered how to pull it off yet.
The best idea I’ve managed to come up with (although keep in mind that I have absolutely no evidence to support this theory) is that the White Witch arc was originally intended to be an additional DLC chapter unrelated to the main plot. The self-contained nature of the arc, the way the game’s towns have been repurposed as dungeons, the filler boss fights which don’t advance the plot, the new final dungeon, the addition of a new optional party member, and the arc’s three to five hour running time all, to me, make the game’s final few hours feel like a DLC add-on. So, my theory is that the game originally contained no mention of any White Witches, and that the game was intended to be a straight remake of The Jet Black Mage for PS3, with a bonus mini-sequel DLC chapter in the form of the White Witch arc. At some point in development it was decided to make Cassiopeia part of the game’s main plot (perhaps to incentivize Japanese consumers who had already bought the DS original and saw no reason to then buy the PS3 version), so she was inserted into the game’s main story by way of a series of cutscenes featuring the White Witch swanning about looking villainous, giving orders to the game’s original primary antagonist to make her seem more important.
Or maybe that’s not a theory. Maybe that’s more of a coping mechanism. I love Studio Ghibli, I love Level-5, I love Japanese Role Playing Games, and I love Ni No Kuni. The fact that the game ultimately doesn’t satisfy me emotionally as much as I know it could is just way too upsetting for me to deal with. So, like I sometimes do, I’ve managed to twist myself into a couple of knots, intellectually, in order to keep that love intact. When I manage to convince myself that Ni No Kuni is the story of Oliver going on a whimsical adventure, making friends, learning about himself, and ultimately, painfully, learning to cope with the loss of his mother, I’m able to love that game, and that rich narrative, and that satisfying character arc, as much as I believe that game deserves. When I can convince myself that the White Witch arc was a pokey little DLC adventure, basically an excuse to get the band back together and do a little reunion tour of the other world, I’m even able to make peace with my confusion over those unnecessary final few hours of the game.
Taken as a whole, and with my critical faculties turned all the way up, I’d say that the game’s confused final stretch- that bizarre superposition in which the game has both too much and not enough of an ending- taints the game that came before it, and evaporates some of the joy that the game otherwise gave me. But, I’ve admitted in the past to being optimistic occasionally to the point of self-delusion, and I suppose at the end of the day I’m one of those weirdoes who is prepared to believe a lie if it means I get to continue loving something with a whole heart.
If Oliver were here, he would probably be able to get some Belief from me for his locket, to cure the kind of brokenhearted cynic who thinks less of an otherwise near-perfect game for its final-act fumble. And I’d be happy to give it to him. See you next time, my butties.