Wonderful. Magical. Charming. Majestic.
The superlatives available for the fascinating Ni No Kuni hardly do it justice, for it is an effulgent, expansive and enchanting experience. It also marks a key milestone in my life; not in the past decade has a Japanese role-playing game encapsulated me with quite the vigour that the Studio Ghibli and Level-5 developed title managed. Ni No Kuni is not just a tale of good versus evil, it brings a sense of wonderment with it. On this epic quest you’ll be coalesced with a world so rich and detailed you’ll never want to leave.
Wrath of the White Witch scribes the tale of a Motor City boy who, following a tragic family event, finds his world empty and alone. Oliver finds himself grieving and consumed by misery before fate steps in and lifts a long-standing curse on a fairy from another world, the exuberant Mr. Drippy. The lantern-nosed creature explains how there is a mirrored version of our world – which is somewhat magical – and everybody within it shares a soul with someone from our very own world which are referred to as soul mates. As the prophesied saviour, Oliver has a wizarding ancestry that grants him access of this marvelous world.
Ni No Kuni translates as “Second Country” which is where the majority of the game takes place – although not exclusively. Oliver, as the Pure-Hearted One, has been persuaded by Mr. Drippy to save his world from the evil and villainous Djinn Shadar, a being so powerful that even Kings fear to utter his name. However, Oliver believes that he can reverse his recent tragedy in this new world, thus forming a partnership between the him and Mr. Drippy. Their reasons for doing so may be different, but their outcomes are aligned.
Famous for their expert animations and style, the work of Studio Ghibli is clear for all to see. The zest they grant to the environments and characters is astounding and almost unparalleled. Sporting a style akin to a blend of the many successful animes (such as Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro) by the Tokyo-based team it brings dreamlike forests, dazzling cityscapes and far-stretching landscapes to life. Multiple decades of mastery are on display and it feels as though you slipped into a Ghibli’s fables and one that will rival anything on the market for sheer visual brilliance.
No astounding view would be complete without a rousing and beautiful score to accompany it. The Joe Hisaishi composed and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra performed soundtrack is one of pure class and can stand alongside Hisaishi best.
Such a spectacular setting paves the way for our characters. Oliver and Mr. Drippy are the main two, but as with any title there’s an array of supporting roles. None of the characters are overly complex, with innocent black-and-white attitudes towards life; they carry out errands and quests for those in need, all the while progressing towards their target or defeating Shadar.
Often, localised games from Japan end up with poorly translated dialogue and misunderstood humour, but that’s just not the case with Ni No Kuni. With some of the most engrossing voice work in videogames it’s a huge part of what makes the title so enjoyable; whether it’s Mr. Drippy’s coarse Welsh accent or one of the many interesting personalities along the way, they’re all quite brilliant.
There’s very little wrong with Ni No Kuni, and most negatives can be put down as annoyances rather than problems, and the first one raises its head here. There are cutscenes using Ghibli’s actual artistic animations, portions rendered in-game with voice work and then the rest is rendered without any audio and just text-based dialogue. It’s a shame that such a large proportion of the game is without the wonderful voice but it is, due to the volume of scripts within the game, understandable. However, the way it chops and changes between the three styles is often grating and only serves to highlight the potential quality if the entire game was voiced.
Outside of the game’s incredible appearance lays a complex yet highly accessible series of features. Now, although my catalogue of JRPGs played is not the most extensive, there’s little in Ni No Kuni that strikes me as particular groundbreaking or new, but each and every aspect is ideally thought out and expertly executed. There’s also a staggering amount of it: real-time combat, a levelling system, weapons and equipment, spells and magic, alchemy, bounty hunting, Pokémon-esque creatures called Familiars, and various forms of transport to name but a few.
“Multiple decades of mastery are on display and it feels as though you slipped into a Ghibli’s fables and one that will rival anything on the market for sheer visual brilliance.”
Within the world that Studio Ghibli has crafted, Level-5 has developed a deceptively deep combat system that reveals itself piece-by-piece in an elegant fashion as you move through the story. Early on you are introduced to familiars – who will perform the bulk of your combat – and their usefulness; these delightful companions are formed by the power of a wizard’s heard, until later when you are able to tame and befriend them. Much like Pokémon, each has their own elemental strengths and weaknesses, are able to keep hold of weapons and armour and even learn special attacks; not to mention they can also be metamorphosed into new and improved forms.
As a balanced mix of real-time and turn-based combat, the action even pauses to allow you to make your decisions once an option is selected. With up to three familiars for each character at any one time, attack, defense, spells, provisions or tactics your options there’s a great deal to learn for the best results against your foes.
Familiars have a stamina gauge that depletes over time meaning you have to swap them out. Some are more close-combat oriented whilst others better casting spells from a distance. Understanding which to use in particular scenarios is the key and the ability to quickly change between them allows for some great tactical possibilities. Defending is just as important as attacking as well, especially so when a foe is about to unleash a huge attack. By ensuring you are holding a defensive pose when the attack hits you’ll not only greatly reduce it’s damage, but often earn some additional health and mana which can be very useful. The need to be close enough to hit enemies also creates a near-vs-far engagement, which when combined with all the variations provides a complex yet understandable system.
During combat is where some of the game’s other minor bugbears arise though: with combat often requiring a quick decision, selecting your option is anything but that. Granted, once you get more use to the system switching becomes like muscle memory, but it’s not really that intuitive to begin with. Also, further down the line when more characters are introduced you’re able to take control of them or advise them on what sort of strategy to utilise. However, the AI controlled characters are terrible. They will more often than not get themselves knocked out, leaving you to fight the good fight on your own – which is how you spend a large portion of the game early on so you’ll be used to it.
“A perfect blend between visual style, quality gameplay and creative brilliance.”
Given the expansive nature of Ni No Kuni, it would have been easy to become overwhelmed with everything there is to learn, but instead it’s just another aspect that is down to a tee. As you’re eased through each new feature, it’s explained clearly and concisely and, although it can hand-hold a bit too frequently at the start, it’s never too quick to rush into the next thing. It does mean that the early stages (read: first few hours) seem a tad sluggish, but this is a game best served slowly and really savoured.
There’s vast number of side quests to assist those in need and bounties to collect, all of which are easily sought out and maintained. Many require you to restore the hearts of the town or city folk, who have been brokenhearted by the evil Shadar. They may be missing some courage, kindness, restrain or a number of other things that you will need to take from those that have plenty and give to those in need. Plus there’s an entire alchemy segment which will see you mix and match ingredients to form new items.
It would be amiss of me to omit any mention of the Wizard’s Companion, a vast book filled with information on everything and anything within Ni No Kuni. Acting as a reference at times, it’s a simply stunning addition to a game already brimming with knowledge and detail. Browseable at your leisure it adds an extra layer of personality and believability to an already vibrant world.
Other than a few minor grievances and the grind of gaining experience sometimes bordering on choresome, Ni No Kuni is a masterpiece. Not since the turn of the millennium with the tenth number version of a popular series have I been quite so encapsulated and blown-away by JRPG. It stands as one of the best of this generation for sure and will be remembered for some time. A perfect blend between visual style, quality gameplay and creative brilliance.
Wonderful. Magical. Charming. Majestic. Indeed.