Too Much and Not Enough: The Ending(s) of Ni No Kuni

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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.

Drippy!

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.

Mite

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?

Shrimpaler

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.

Setups and Payoffs

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.)

Oliver's Journey

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.

The Dark Djinn Shadar

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.

  • PixieDDix

    I do agree with the problem that inflicts the Whit Witch arc to the story. But playing the game (I finished a couple of hours ago) I didn’t have a problem with it, I didn’t wanted the game to end that a couple of extra hours was grat in my mind. The problem is with the payoff. I was expecting something more, not just flowers and a return to home. I wanted a festival, I wanted to see all of my friends and say goodbye to them, I want a reunion with the people I love in Motorsville. I want to see wath Esther and his father are up to, or how are Swaine and his brother. THeres’s nothin like that in the game and it was really a let down. But still, Ni No Kuni made laugh, cry and cheer. Ni No Kuni is definetly in my top 3games on the PS3 and definetly in my top 5 of RPG’s.

  • geeb

    That was fantastic man. I really do think the game would have been more satisfying story-wise without any reference to the white witch. Just finishing with the defeat of shadar/his antithesis (and ironically himself) would have presented an amazing example of self-betterment and coping with loss. Ending on this note would have been similar to Infamous’ ending. Comparatively, the white witch is the beast. Sure she’s involved with the whole overarching plot which has autonomy over the game’s main plot but shouldn’t this make her story sequel material instead of a handful of hours tacked on? In the first portion of the game you’re dealing with the duality of Oliver, saving his mother, and all things relating to essentially a mortal world. The white witch and her council invoke a sense of omniscience and appear completely juxtaposed from the going-ons of the mortal world. To suddenly discern who the white witch is and to end the menace of this godlike council in a few short hours just seems too easy. In some way it seems like the writers wanted to offer up a large framework of threat to make Shadar seem like only a trivial piece of it. The abrupt arc of second plot just strikes me as deus ex machina. Also, I would consider the small arc ending in the revival of his mother as deus ex machina too. I think Oliver’s development of character and newfound independence are an important part of the story. However, that might have been the actual ending up until they decided to push it forward to make a sequel? There are rumours going around there will be one, though they may not be legit.

  • Dylan

    Excellent article – really enjoyed it. I thought that being given the forbidden spell but not being able to use it added weight and ‘cool factor’, but I wasn’t thinking of it as critically as you. I also enjoyed the audience knowing about The White Witch throughout whilst the characters remain oblivious (I also liked that same plot device in another great JRPG of this generation – Resonance of Fate), I thought it added suspense and intrigue.

    I do agree that the endings feel a little muddled and simultaneously over/ending-whelming. It all makes sense now I know the second ending was added later.

  • Jonatah

    Thanks so much for this insightful article. I loved this game so much – I can’t remember the last time I was so joyfully immersed in a video game. And I was deeply moved by the first ending – it was incredible. I finished the rest of the game tonight and I feel let down. The second ending didn’t even feel like and ending – there was no celebration, no goodbyes, no indication of who Oliver would become. Disappointing! If I ever play through again, I’ll stop after the battle with Shadar.

  • Vivifyingly

    I think it may have been cut for less straightforward reasons… It’s easy to be quick on the assumption that these sorts of cuts are budget- or money-related. My own theory is that this was what the writers wanted, though it was a decision they made last-second, for the following;

    My theory is that the writers realized a little late that it could detract from the overall message of moving forward in the face of loss, along with the kind of unsavory implications this could present to any players/audience who have lost their own family members. Imagine the player who identifies with Ollie after losing their own mother, feels some level of closure with the natural ending of the story, and then having that closure tipped sideways when Ollie’s able to bring his mother back at essentially no cost. I couldn’t think of a way to present this in a “fair” light, in which the resurrection of his mother would incorporate a fair trade-off. If the resurrection required him to be unable to return to that world or practice magic again, the decision would immediately be a given, since deciding not to resurrect his mother would qualify him as shallow. If the resurrection, instead, would resurrect the mother at the cost of having them exist in separate worlds, there might be some artistic notion there… But it would also present death as an unsatisfactory fate; generally anyone who has suffered loss or is currently grieving would prefer messages incorporating acceptance.

    Even in fantasy, all “satisfying” storytelling is subtle allegory for human emotion and lessons in living.

    I’m enjoying reading your articles, by the by. Just discovered your site. Hope you continue!

  • Lion Repshire

    Oh my goodness… the catharsis I got from reading this article is so wonderful that I want to be your friend. You have done me such a serious favor. I can only return it by thanking you for writing this and praising your very perceptive analysis of this work.

    I was captured quite immediately by your experience with anime, as mine has been quite the same, tastes gradually narrowing from the typical never-ending series to mature and nuanced storytelling, and Shinkai and Hosoda form what I call my holy trinity of anime directors with Miyazaki, so we are very much looking in the same direction. I was also very enamored with Tekkon Kinkreet. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced that I didn’t write this article myself and then cast Breach Time and now read this from the future, having forgot I originally wrote it as my payment for meddling with time.

    I needed to read this article after that ending. I too was incredibly fulfilled by the ending with Shadar. I wept. I wasn’t alone and I was choking back tears to not turn into a giant blubbering sap in front of my company. I thought the game might end there. It felt natural to end it there, but since the game was named after the White Witch I had suspicions it would continue on, and I was right. Cassiopeia felt like such a tack-on to the game that I felt that the game should have been called Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the Dark Jinn and had her eliminated altogether. I had no idea that this is basically what the DS Version is like. Don’t get me wrong, Pea was a touching character, but her arc with the White Witch was such a facsimile of Oliver and Shadar’s it was almost a slap in the face to have to play several more hours of the game to witness it, and like you noticed, there was no real payoff or send-off at the end, unlike the arc with Shadar.

    The similarities between the endings made the second one feel totally impotent. A kind-hearted person becomes blackened by tragedy and strife and becomes a powerful being that threatens to destroy the world, only to be overcome by a character representing his/her younger self’s innocence. There was literally no difference in the storytelling other than a different set of characters… What was the point? I didn’t even feel much emotion when Pea finally re-united with Cassiopeia and helped her realize her own inner good. It was a plot device that’d been played out already just hours ago, but in a much more compelling manner, with characters we were far more attached to, who had shown complexity and worth throughout the game. There was an added heartwarming element in the fact that Alicia’s younger self was a force that tried to help save Shadar as well, and that while her attempt was unsuccessful and incomplete, her legacy carried on through Oliver COMPLETELY of his own will and ignorant to his mother’s actual identity and intentions. That’s what made Oliver’s mission so compelling. He chose to do it all despite that many of the sacrifices he made to help others often conflicted with his own progress in his goal of saving his mother. With Pea, she was born specifically for the sole purpose of preserving the good aspect of Cassiopiea, so she was much more a plot device than a character.

    I also got the feeling that when Oliver got the resurrection spell it would mean he could potentially bring his mother back, and felt that that was opening up a whole new can of worms, but then nothing resulted from that, and I do feel that was an unjust and bizarre plot factor to leave hanging.

    Anyway, please keep writing. You are a wonderful writer and I am so glad to have benefited from reading your thoughts on this. If you ever feel inclined to exchange banter on anime, gaming, and storytelling in general, I’d be happy to oblige.

  • Charles Caulkins

    I liked the idea of Shadar as a main villain rather than the White Witch, solely because he was much more personal and confrontational to the heroes than a witch no one even knew existed. Maybe if there was some foreshadowing or mention of her in the story scenes, it might have made it less wonky. Even her final bosses were wonky.

    But I don’t necessarily agree of playing the game forever either. I couldn’t get myself to play the game further after I beat the final boss. I tried just to get all the cool end-game stuff, but once I tried to find and kill a rare golden Tokokoko again (which would have been hard, lucky and time consuming) I thought “why bother?” For a trophy?

    It’s sort of like your analysis of the journey; it has to end with some knowledge or conclusion else it might be meaningless. The story of Cassiopeia is great, but it just fails to mesh with the original story plot that was the DS game, and I REALLY wish there was more to be said, like how exactly Shadar breaks peoples hearts. It’s a great game, but still makes you wonder about a detail or two.

    I really like your analysis here though. Shows a lot of creative thinking and love for a game I also enjoyed.

  • Chris Fodor

    Thank you. My 9 year old daughter played through it and I watched about a third of the time. I’m a gamer and I watched her beat Shadar this morning and go back to Ding Dong Dell and I was extremely confused. She didn’t care, as at 9 she’s not thinking about the larger storyline… she just wants more adventure. I’m going to ask her when she gets the Ashes spell which choice she would make if she could… cast the spell and remain in the other world forever, saving Ollie’s mother in Motortown… or go back to the real world without saving her. A very good launching point for discussion of choices and consequences.

  • Paul Zimmerle

    *rubs chin*
    Describing how I feel about this is complicated.

    I just discovered that there WAS an older game, the Jet-Black Mage, which featured no White Witch or the like. Only now that I look back on it do I notice these potential issues. While playing with the game, I didn’t really noticed. I felt some of the “Muwahaha” scenes with Cassie were a bit excessive and Pea herself was a bit hammy, but it all seemed to fit in to me. I’m a sucker for tragedies of ancient peoples, I think. Were it not for Cassie, I feel like there would be loose ends in the Tomb of the Wizard King, among other things. Could it have been integrated better? Yeah, probably. I can’t really disagree with that. I’d also like to have seen Xanadu in full form instead of destroyed as it was.

    As for the bit about the Ashes of Resurrection… yeah, I have literally no problem with that. I won’t lie, an ending where Oliver gives up on magic and the worlds he can traverse sits extremely poorly with me, because it devalues them. It makes the struggles and suffering of the other world fundamentally pointless except as a stepping stone on this one kid’s personal morality play. An ending where Oliver becomes a traveler of both worlds means that it wasn’t just some theme park he visited – it’s a real, breathing world that he is fundamentally a part of. Bringing his mother back to life by answering the flaws of Cassie’s approach is also acceptable to me, because it’s the hero seizing and mastering the divine lightning.
    Does that leave people who identified with his loss in the lurch? To a degree, sure – but it offers a different narrative, that we should not fear change and be ready and eager to embrace that which can fundamentally alter our ways of life. At the risk of sounding preachy, how are we ever to access new ages if we fear new technology for the emotional impact it might have on those who came before? Maybe we can’t spare people from death today, but in new ages to come we might, and someone who is bold enough to seize that lightning and put it to good use opens up a new age of man.

    Perhaps moreover, it teaches us sacrifice, and how to do right for others even when it inconveniences ourselves. If casting the Ashes of Resurrection brings his mother back but forever forbids him entry to the other world, then it teaches Oliver that his need for his mother’s presence is less important than her right to live. It would be him outgrowing her, returning the gift of life that she gave him in grand fashion. She would know that her son had become a truly great wizard who shattered all expectation, conquering his dark self and even the errors of the past. Even if they never met again, they would have each other in their hearts, and the price would have been worth it.

  • ben

    Reminds me of the manga ending of Full Metal Alchemist. i could see a progression of the second story arc going that way.

  • Sahil lawton

    Excellent article. No no kuni has trumped every other game I’ve played(even the high budget one’s like gta 5 and the uncharted series. The final battle with the white witch wasn’t as good an ending as the one with shadar, but nevertheless a pretty good ending. I’m not too happy about the fact that after you defeat the white witch everyone still acts like you need to beat her again. But regardless, I still wish that I could erase my memory to play this game and feel like I did the first time

  • Steven

    huh, interesting post. Never thought about it that way. I also didn’t know about there being a ds version that didn’t feature the white witch.
    I was gonna write about what bugs me about the ending as well, but it’s a completely different issue I have with it.
    I actually really like the white witch and how she appeared throughout the game.
    I understand your problem with the ashes of resurrection, but I simply interpreted it as I always do when a game has resurrection in it; I considered the spell to be just a revive (from fainting/k.o.) spell.
    (I also don’t consider manna and AoR to be the same spell, and the story of the bear is just a story to me)

  • Asinus

    Really great write up about the ending(s) of Ni No Kuni. I’ll admit– I’m kind of a weirdo. When I really, really like a game, I have an aversion to finishing it. Some games, sure, I put them down and forget about them, and then there are the ones that I just want to go on forever. This was one of them. I put the game down a couple years ago, and just decided today, when a commitment-free day off, to finish it. It turns out I was only about 20 minutes from Shader! I really liked the “Shader Ending.” I also thought it was very fun of them to send me back to Ding Dong Dell to celebrate! I honestly thought I was going to take some 5th act happy ending farewell tour. As an aside– when I was younger, I had a “big dream” that seemed to last for months or years. It was a huge adventure that ended with a fairly epic battle and my shooting a gold knight in the back of the head from above. I had a discussion about that with someone in the dream, about how it wasn’t noble, but it’s just the only way we could have finished it. Then I commented to someone, “It’s too bad that no one will know about this?”
    “WHy not?” he asked.
    “Because it’s a dream.” His reply to me was that it’s not really possible to say which was more real.
    I then went around and said goodbye to everyone. There were hugs and tears.
    Then I woke up.

    From the beginning of Ni No Kuni, before he even leaves for the other world, I saw it as childhood wish fulfillment. I assumed that Oliver wouldn’t be able to bring back his mother and he’d have to deal with her death (maybe because of the Ghibli involvement, or maybe because of how it was grounded in a “real” world). I’m not saying this to be smug (“I knew that was going to happen… *snort…”)or anything, either! I had to stop playing for a little bit because when that dawned on me because it actually made me cry. Hey, I was really stressed out at the time and the game was such a beautiful piece of escapism! Don’t judge!

    Because of that, the “Shader Ending” was perfect. I assumed that the White Witch was possibly in another dimension or something and could only get corporal beings to do her work. I didn’t really care about her or resolving the plot. However, when the zombie plague hit Ding Dong Dell, I thought that I HAD inadvertently installed a DLC pack (so it’s funny you mention that). It was so discordant and really diminished the ending I thought I was seeing and hoping for– the farewell tour, returning to his real life, coincidental echoes of my own dream, etc.

    The “cities as dungeons” part was kind of annoying. The new boss fights were tedious, and the Ivory Tower was pure repetitive boredom. I almost rage quit until I realized that I’d been walking around through that place for about an hour and would have lost a lot of levels and gear.By the time I got to the save point, I was done. I honestly don’t care about the White Witch at all. They should have left well enough alone and kept the original ending.

    I suppose we can pretend!

    Thanks again! Feels good to vent.

  • Douglas

    I just beat the game today. You have a interesting point of view and I agree with some parts of the article. Oliver not reviving his mother is OK for me, but I think the main problem with the “second” ending (after beating Zodiarchy) is it being too short. The Queen planted flowers in Nazcaa and… that’s it. The “first” ending was longer, deeper and sounded more like a ending. In that point, I agree with you: The White Witch looks like a rushed DLC. But I still think this was a good addition gameplay-wise. Extra dungeon, enemy and bosses extended the fun of the game.

  • Rodrigo

    Nice article! Felt the exactly same way when I finished it.