Ni No Kuni, the RPG collaboration between Level-5 and Studio Ghibli, sounded like the perfect game for me. So when I finally got home from university and had access to my PS3, I bought the game, started it up, and subsequently lost 40 hours of my life to the game. Ni No Kuni is everything I thought it would be and more. It is a gorgeous looking game with a fantastic soundtrack, and plenty of deep RPG elements to sink your teeth into. The story, which is animated beautifully, is compelling enough, but it is the combination of excellent humour and heartwarming moments which really sets this game above the rest. Overall, Ni No Kuni is a stunning success, and it is one of the best RPGs for this console generation.
The first thing that hits you when you start the game is just how dazzling it all looks. Playing on the PS3 on my HD TV at 1080p, the gorgeous animation and art style just looks magical. Its cartoonish aesthetic shimmers with pure joy, and the explosion of colours is a welcome change from gritty brown FPS games. Of course, I’ve always loved the animation style of Studio Ghibli, particularly the way it combines a kind of rural nostalgia with a sense of wonderment and magic. The game starts you in quiet Motorville, a suburban neighbourhood full of kind-hearted strangers. Before long though, Oliver, the main character, is whisked into an alternative dimension, a world where fairies and monsters live, featuring both lush pleasant meadows and steaming hot desert landscapes. Everything from the characters to the backgrounds are beautifully designed, mostly in pastel shades but with bright sparks of neon colour everywhere. I honestly think this is one of the best looking games on the PS3, and that has nothing to do with its graphical processing prowess or its fidelity. It’s simply the enamouring and highly endearing art style of Studio Ghibli, which really raises this game above its cohort. After playing Ni No Kuni, even the beauty achieved by say, Square Enix, cannot hold a match to this breathtaking game.
In terms of story, I really want to avoid spoilers. All I can say is, I was so emotionally connected to the characters within the first hour that I actually cried at one of the events. Again, a lot of this is down to the excellent work by Studio Ghibli in its animation, but I have to say that the dialogue is fantastic too. In particular, I should mention Mr Drippy, the welsh fairy who isn’t afraid of insulting the hapless Oliver and, at times, getting quite meta with his revelations and breaking the fourth wall in terms of RPG conventions. However, I have to say, if you’re looking for a groundbreaking and unique story, you won’t find it here. Ni No Kuni sticks fairly close to J-RPG conventions, though luckily Oliver is at least much more likeable than your typical RPG spikey-haired mopey teenager. Whilst the midgame story is fairly predictable and sticks to conventional RPG tropes, towards the end, the quality seems to pick back up and the story starts to get charming again.
So whilst the plot is a bit obvious, the charm of the characters carries the subpar story along quite well. In particular, I wanted to point out that the villains of the game have realistic motivations which are definitely something you don’t see a lot of in many games of this genre. The heroes though, sadly, have fairly obvious motivations but each has their own individual charm and personality which helps to pad the story out.
Plus, it’s not just the main characters either. The world of Ni No Kuni is wonderfully fleshed out. It doesn’t quite get past the whole puppet theatre vibe you get from most RPGs, and NPCs are still stuck with just two or three lines of dialogue and doomed to repeat the same actions over and over. But the way to get more out of the side-characters is by completing a whole bunch of ‘errands’, which are basically just official sidequests which you can sign up to do. Side quests are fairly varied though all rather typical RPG stuff. What I like most though is the reoccurring side quests which make you feel like you know the characters a bit more. For example, there is a man who loses his diary constantly in every new continent and requires you to fetch it for him; it’s only a small tidbit, but it helps to make the game world feel more alive and full of character.
What is particularly interesting though is a new mechanic unique to Ni No Kuni which involves fixing people’s broken hearts. Essentially, throughout the world, Oliver encounters many people who have had pieces of their heart stolen by Shadar, the Dark Djinn i.e. the Big Bad of the game. To fix them, Oliver must find someone else who has an abundance of some quality like kindness or courage and use a spell on them to capture a piece of their heart in a locket. Then, Oliver returns to the broken-hearted individual and restores their heart with the piece trapped in his locket. It’s a neat little idea, and it’s the main driving force of the game as most of the plots are resolved by restoring people’s hearts.
Unfortunately, this element is disappointingly underdeveloped, particularly in sidequests. I think this is because the game just makes it far too easy for you to figure out what to do. It really holds your hand. People who have excess qualities will glow green on your minimap; people who need sidequests completed glow blue. If that isn’t enough, Mr Drippy will remind you every single time you accept an errand exactly which piece of heart you need to find. In the end, this interesting mechanic gets reduced to another standard fetch mechanic. Oh a young girl is being mean to her friend? She must lack kindness! Good thing another villager standing right next to her is glowing green and has an abundance of kindness. Yeah, it’s stuff like that which makes these particular errands feel very shallow.
What about the other main element of the game which is the combat system? Well, it starts off very slowly and rather dull as it slowly introduces new concepts and mechanics over time. But once it gets going, it’s rather fun. Combat is based around a system of using familiars, as well as using your main party members. Familiars are like Pokemon, and there’s a huge variety of them in the game. They correspond to different elements, they have a multitude of abilities, they can inflict damage or status changes…basically everything you’d find in your standard J-RPG. All the creatures you fight against can be tamed for your own use. During battle, you choose a command such as attacking or using an ability, and then there’s a timer which pops up. There are a lot of timers in this game; everything once used goes on cooldown. Whilst you’re waiting for things to come back up, you can control character movement in the battle arena which is essential for avoiding nasty hits.
There’s a decent amount of strategy involved, particularly in boss battles, as carefully juggling the cooldowns of moves in-between moving and positioning is key. Of course you could always just grind until you’re over levelled and then battles are easy, but personally, I liked the challenge of being perhaps slightly under levelled but winning anyway due to having good organisation.
This difficulty will be a welcome change for some people, particularly as a lot of J-RPGs in recent years are just too easy. For those who don’t enjoy grinding, you could try easy mode to breeze through battles. The difficulty in Ni No Kuni spikes at times, but I personally thought the combat system was enjoyable enough for this not to be a massive issue.
Furthermore, this is one of the few RPGs which actually require you to use items. I’m sure most people, including myself, spend a lot of time in RPGs hoarding and amassing huge troves of useful items. Trust me, in Ni No Kuni, there is no point in hoarding things or you’ll just be needlessly frustrated. Plus, there is plenty to do whilst grinding; from discovering hidden forest grottos to foraging for ingredients, the world map is full of little delightful secrets which will keep you entertained as you fight a Hot Cog familiar for the 50th time in an attempt to tame it.
In conclusion, Ni No Kuni is a fantastic little package. Whilst it doesn’t revolutionise the genre, what it offers is a highly polished and entirely complete game. It’s a game which both plays with and embraces old school RPG conventions. For this console generation, I’d go as far as to say this is the quintessential J-RPG experience. You’ll find everything you enjoy about RPGs here from its rich and imaginative world to its heart-warming story and characters, and you’ll play through the game mastering its mechanics and exploring the world. I would wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone who’s a fan of J-RPGs, you really can’t wrong with such a stunningly gorgeous game.