Ni No Kuni Review, Refreshing Yet Familiar
Platform: PS3 /Genre: Japanese Role Playing Game
Developer: Level 5 / Publisher: Namco Bandai
It’s inevitable that developer Level 5’s Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch will be compared to other fabled Japanese Role-Playing franchises such as Pokemon and the Tales series; but after closing in on one hundred hours of playtime I’ve come to realize that even judging this wonderfully gripping game against those heralded peers is inaccurate. Indeed, the only fair comparison one should make is to the animated films from the famous Studio Ghibli, who lent its fantastic art talents to Ni no Kuni to create a living, breathing interpretation of a Miyuzaki film in video game form.
But does it really deserve to be mentioned alongside classics such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and others?
A very nice touch that your first familiar mirror’s your appearance.
Certain themes are almost always present in a Miyuzaki(creator of Studio Ghibli) film: A young, innocent and kind protagonist; a setting that evokes the beauty of nature and often the slow degradation of society through industrialization at the expense of nature; persevering through tragedy without compromising your morals. Ni no Kuni can put a checkmark by all the familiar aspects fans of Studio Ghibli have come to recognize and appreciate. Not only are Ni no Kuni’s visuals impressively reminiscent of the animated works from which it’s inspired by, but also the similarities in narrative and thematic characteristics as well.
Oliver, the kind main character, resides in Motorville – a place that immediately evokes tranquility and a simpler time in civilization like the 1950’s. Following an unfortunate series of events, Oliver sets forth on an adventure of reclamation and self observation, wide-eyed and unsure of himself. On the surface the narrative of the game could be seen as trope-driven with nothing more than a beautiful coat of paint on an otherwise stale story. This is wrong, or at least a very cynical perspective. It has been said that every story has already been told, so to assert that any storytelling device or characterization that’s common is clichéd is inherently incorrect. I call it comforting. Ni no Kuni can be both comfortably familiar and refreshingly new.
Throughout the 35 or more hours it will take to beat Ni no Kuni, allusions to fairy tales will present themselves – usually with a twist. Even some enemies are named from these quotable tales, such as Hickory Dock. Somehow, even moments in the game easily predicted often provoke an emotional response. Several times I found myself moved to tears. The tale of Oliver and his friends is one rife with touching moments, chilling anxiety and melancholy resignation. Enhancing these moments are the mostly great voice acting and beautiful score by Joe Hisaishi (performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra). But as great as the audio is in the game, it does have its pitfalls.
Almost immediately Oliver’s doll-turned-highly animated Lord High Lord of the fairies, Mr. Drippy, steals the show – err game. His fast talking, Welch accent accompanied by an indomitable wit makes his character a real standout. Oliver, however, seems to lack the emotion his jovial counterpart possesses. Not to say Oliver is an annoying character or that the boy voicing him sounds off; simply, too many times Oliver’s reactions (be it happy, sad or melancholy) are too alike. Most of the cast around him are excellent, so it definitely makes Oliver stick out.
What’s much more troubling than the main character’s lack of emotional depth is how often entire scenes are wholly text based. As a fan of JRPG’s I’ve become accustomed to reading paragraphs of dialogue, but for a game with such good overall voice acting and a heavily story-driven experience it was a letdown at times to see an important scene have a couple lines of spoken dialogue only to then play out with text.
Along the same lines, as great as the soundtrack for the game is, I was unpleasantly surprised to see the same tracks repeated throughout the game. You generally don’t spend an inordinate amount of time in any town, but I would have appreciated different themes as each city is vastly different. Still, I cannot fault Level 5 too much because the sweeping songs are sometimes altered and, let’s not lose sight of this, they are very good. In fact, I’d say that almost every song is highly memorable – which is why I crave more.
Ni no Kuni is a superb mix of new and old JRPG elements – and the combat system is a perfect reflection of that. The emphasis is on the growth and use of your familiars by equipping weapons, feeding them treats to increase stats and selecting a certain move set to be used in combat, among others. That’s one of the strengths of Ni no Kuni. The battle system is more complex than one might think. The basic premise of switching between familiars and their human owners is not overly difficult to grasp, but the intricacies are.
So damn cute.
Your familiars’ health and mana are shared with their human owners, which creates an interesting dichotomy. Some familiars are unable to defend, but can evade. This ensures a philosophical choice must be made: offensive or defensive? Yet, the multifaceted layers of strategy never explained by the game are only exciting if the player stumbles upon them. You can switch a familiar out in the process of being hit to avoid most, or all of the damage. Such interesting and fun ways to execute your battles creates a sense of accomplishment because you feel like you’ve done more than simply pressed X over and over. Mastering countering and the subtle differences in your party’s attacks is truly exhilarating – if not without its problems as well.
You only control one single character at any given moment, so there are times when you are somewhat reliant on the AI for assistance, or at least to not be dumb. Unfortunately, often the computer makes the most incongruous decisions possible. Tell everybody to defend and, for no apparent reason, the computer doesn’t. Ask the computer to focus on healing and you’re skating on thin ice. However, while not as frequently an issue, the most frustrating problem is the AI pathing for your familiars. A large portion of the combat is about positioning, as there are attack patterns (such as a line of fire or a cone of cold) as well as enemy weak points; as such, selecting an attack only to see your character run into another and have its move delayed is one of the few poor design choices. Sure, at times it could be a failure to properly position my familiar, but there are times when a team member’s familiar runs in front of my own blocking it. What exacerbates this is the fact that canceling your move results in a delay incentivizing just letting your little guy do nothing. The core of the battle system for Ni no Kuni is undeniably good, with its share of setbacks.
The same could be said for the sidequests.
Being an open world JRPG, Ni no Kuni allows the player to partake in two main types of sidequests: errands and bounties. The former consists of anything from the mundane fetch quests to more unique and interesting tasks. At the heart of these are errands to mend people’s troubled hearts. As part of the story, many of the townsfolk throughout your travels have had a piece of their heart stolen, and it’s Oliver’s job to fix it. While the premise sounds cool, and indeed it fits in with the main narrative well, it amounts to looking on your minimap for a green dot, talking to green dot until the game tells you to cast a spell, then talking to the individual missing a piece of their heart until the game again tells you to cast a spell. It’s an exercise in tedium as there’s no thinking involved. In cases such as this you generally can’t even just cast the spell – you must scroll through the dialogue. Some of the other sidequests are similar in that you are given a task requiring your wizarding prowess only to have the game tell you what spell needs to be cast.
Not all errands are as mindless, thankfully. While the bulk are fetch quests and mending hearts, several quests are given to Oliver with only a hint as to what needs to be done or where he needs to go. These, even if they boil down to being very simple as well, are highly refreshing as you – the player – have to actually put thought into your goal. My favorite of these are a series of riddles where upon you must actually consort your Wizard’s Companion (Oliver’s spellbook and overall encyclopedia of knowledge) in order to figure out the answer. The game every so often makes you feel as if you are actually a wizard searching for answers.
Speaking of Oliver’s spellbook, I must commend Level 5 for putting so much effort into creating an engrossing and informative fount of knowledge. Virtually everything you need to know is in the book, including familiar information (spawn locations, evolutions, loot, etc.), alchemy recipes, spell information, short stories and more. Truly it feels like spellbook a wizard would own, even if the player is forced to look to it for information a little too often.
As for bounties, they are exactly what you would expect: unique monsters more powerful than random encounters but usually not as difficult as bosses. Although straightforward, each fight was a welcomed chance to engage in an interesting fight for profit. Bounties, as well as errands, give merit stamps upon completion. These stamps, while echoing the theme of Oliver striving to help others, more importantly gives specific benefits. Whether it’s increased experience gain or chance to tame familiars, or unlocking Oliver’s true potential as a wizard, collecting these merit stamps by completing sidequests offers a compelling metagame to the player.
One of the many beautiful environments in the overworld.
And so we have Ni no Kuni, a game rich in emotion and a deep combat system not without its flaws. Yet, every time I recall an instance where I was disappointed or frustrated I remember the much more common occurrences of joy and fulfillment. To parse each element for negatives would mean missing the wonderful, lovingly crafted whole. Ni no Kuni does a great service of reminding us why we loved the JRPG’s of yesteryear while giving us a glimpse at the potential of what the genre can, and hopefully will, evolve into.
So, does Ni no Kuni deserve to be in the pantheon of Studio Ghibli’s critically acclaimed animated films? In its own, unique way, yes.
+ Touching story
+ Complex combat system
+ Stunning visuals
+ Wonderful soundtrack
- Computer AI
- Most Sidequests are mundane
- Too much text dialogue