Originally Reviewed: 2013
How much can ambition hamper a video game as an end product? Can initial brilliance and promise provide an unenviable task for developers to maintain it throughout the game’s entirety? And if the quality of a game’s beginning is ultimately too good to replicate for 40-odd hours, does that make it a bad game?
Ni No Kuni is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious titles released this generation that, through the exciting collaboration between Level 5 and Studio Ghibli, promised to be one of the most aesthetically and ergonomically astounding RPGs ever created. But promise can’t be promise forever. At some point that promise has to be realised; and Ni No Kuni doesn’t build on its initial ambition for enough of the experience for it to be as all-conquering as it really should have been.
To step into the world of Ni No Kuni is to step into one of the most beautiful and majestic worlds that video gaming has ever seen. A spectacular mix of beautiful cell shaded graphics and the instantly recognisable hand-drawn brilliance of Studio Ghibli are a match made in visual media heaven. With the hand-drawn animated cutscenes popping up between the normal gameplay with expert timing, the game’s opening hours are just astounding.
What you are treated to in the opening hours is a really refreshing tale that doesn’t skimp on the emotion as young boy Oliver becomes the accidental cause of his mother’s death. Guilt-ridden, he spends his days locked away in his room sobbing until his tear drops magically bring to life one of his stuffed toys; turning it into the Lord High Lord of the Fairies named Drippy. Drippy explains to Oliver that the young boy might be able to save his mother, as every person in the world has a soul mate linked to them in an alternate world, and Oliver’s mother’s soul mate is very much alive, but in need of rescue.
It’s very easy, especially for those uninitiated with Studio Ghibli, to dismiss Ni No Kuni’s story as being childish, but to do so is missing the point. Sure, it’s very wholesome and is far from being described as adult, but it’s actually refreshing to see a game centred around helping people, smiting evil and saving the people you care about. It’s a charming little tale of a young wizard in a magical world that will tug on the heartstrings of even the most hardened players.
Ni No Kuni’s gameplay is very much of the modern JRPG variety. Players move around the game world where enemies are shown on the world map, instead of being unavoidable random encounters. When fighting, a mix of real time and turn based combat is the order of the day, ala the ‘Tales’ series, with an added homage to Pokémon. Homage being a rather kind way to describe it – as players can capture and train familiars, which are grouped by type, and teach them various moves to use in battle. Despite it not being the most original idea in the world, the system is a pretty decent hybrid of popular styles.
Despite the familiar styles, it’s the implementation of the real time aspect of battling that causes frustration. The system starts off fiddly and gets even fiddlier once you learn all the new mechanics (which you’ll keep doing well after the 10 hour mark). You do feel like you’re grasping it better as time passes, and especially when you’re grinding through easy fights, but you’ll never feel in total control. Some things, like defending, are just annoying to do as there is no button actually assigned to a defensive stance. Instead you have to switch to a character that can actually defend and then scroll through a list of commands to find it – all before the enemy’s attack has happened.
Actually selecting things in the list of commands was initially the biggest pain of all. The suggested method of using the left analog stick to move and the D Pad to select actions ensures a pretty exhausting workout for the left thumb, at times even requiring some kind of Dual Shock yoga. However, and with no help from the many, many tutorials, once you figure out that you can use the triggers instead of D Pad, it’s like a revelation, albeit serving mainly as a better way to work an awkward system.
You can help yourself in battle by completing the numerous side quests and bounty hunts to collect merit stamps that can be exchanged for enhanced abilities. The majority of the side quests involve using Oliver’s magical locket to take a piece of the hearts of people brimming with extra amounts of certain traits like kindness, restraint, love etc. and give it to others who have been left broken-hearted by the evil wizard Shadar. Most of the side quests are, unsurprisingly, pretty repetitive for the most part and lots can be done by talking to clearly specified people, taking their heart, walking a few yards and giving to someone broken-hearted. As with most RPGs, this doesn’t stop you from grinding through the side quests regardless, and some of the rewards are very worth the effort.
Despite the repetitive nature of side quests, there is a ton of stuff to do in Ni No Kuni. JRPGs always feel overwhelming because of all there is to do, and Ni No Kuni is no different, with such time passers as reading the wonderfully created Wizard’s Companion, creating objects and weapons through alchemy and, of course, capturing and training all the familiars in the game.
The familiars aspect is aptly titled as it will be very familiar to any Poké fans out there. It’s a good system, obviously, but doesn’t really differ much from what we’re used to. It can be annoying to build up a familiar to be very strong, and need to evolve them into the next stage, only for them to evolve and start back at level one again – rendering them pretty much useless for the next 5-odd hours. There are some interesting little monsters out there – from zombie pirates to huge bunches of bananas – but they don’t necessarily present anything much better than your designated starting trio. If anything, the whole familiars aspect of the game shows how awesome a proper 3D Pokémon title could be, and Ni No Kuni excels with a mix of familiar and magic attacks in battle.
Ni No Kuni’s gameplay was always going to be secondary to a game with such massive production values. The voice acting is pretty solid throughout, with the strong Welsh accent of Drippy being a real highlight on an excellent character. The biggest problem the game has, and the one that brings us full circle here, is that it totally blows its load in the first quarter of the game. Around 10 or so hours in, the game just stops with the animated Ghibli sequences and eventually stops with the voice acting too, leaving you to stab the X button through lines and lines of text. Sure, it’d cost a bomb to have Ghibli animate effectively a 20 hour movie, but it’s just a damn shame to see such a gorgeous and ambitious experience dwindle away into a reading exercise just when it’s getting to the meat of the story.
Ni No Kuni is a stunningly beautiful and wonderfully charming JRPG. Its heart-warming and emotional story is backed up with a robust, if slightly fiddly, battle system that encompasses several popular styles to create a unique, yet ultimately underwhelming experience. There is plenty to do in the game for those who want 100% completion and the whole thing is ably supported by an engaging story with likeable characters and decent voice acting.
It’s inevitably just a let down that a game so wonderfully presented in a perfect match of movie animation and superb cel-shaded graphics was ultimately too ambitious to maintain its wonderful opening and seemingly endless promise. A great game, but one that perhaps we all expected too much from.