Have you ever tried a food, thought “Well, that was OK,” but then found yourself a week later thinking “Dang, I’ve got to have that food again?” For me, that food was Indian-style curry, and I’ve now found its gaming equivalent. When I started playing Ni No Kuni, I was neither disappointed nor impressed, except with how great it looked. And yet, as I came back to it weekend after weekend, I found myself enjoying it more and more. It was never a bad game; it started out as merely “pretty good” and later turned into something special.
Ni No Kuni begins in Motorville, a Norman Rockwell-esque town in Middle America, and it stars a young Motorville-ian named Oliver. Bad things happen, though, even in Motorville, and Oliver is affected by one such thing shortly after the game begins. As a result, he finds himself drawn into another world where magic is real, where he hopes to find something to help his mother back home. But as cliché would have it, he’s actually the hero foretold by prophecy to save the world of magic from the Dark Djinn Shadar and his master, the White Witch, who threaten to destroy it.
The setup is fairly conventional, but the heart of the story is also the heart of the people. You see, a big part of Shadar’s work is “breaking people’s hearts” and stealing some positive element from their lives. Confidence, love, and compassion are all fair game, as are several other traits. Fortunately, Oliver has the ability to take an overabundant helping of those same characteristics from people and transfer it to the poor souls who Shadar has harmed.
This central concept factors into the plot from start to end, and I really thought that it was carried out well in the main plot. In side-quests, however, I sometimes questioned the characteristic that the game had assigned to a particular NPC’s problem. This wasn’t a huge issue, I just wondered from time to time if an NPC’s woes were really caused by a lack of courage, or if they sounded more like he’d lost faith in those around him.
Oliver is a kid, but over the course of the game, he is forced to deal with some very difficult issues, and he does so admirably. In fact, there was one instance where I thought he was being too mature about the whole thing, until Oliver explained to another character what was going on in his head, and I realized that it made perfect sense. That’s good writing. I must admit that the handling of the problem that starts Oliver down his path is a bit ham-fisted, but the resolution of that problem is handled in such an elegant manner that I am willing to forgive its having gotten off to a rough start.
Of course, Oliver is hardly unopposed in his quest to save the world, or even just to travel from town to town, and so we move to matters of Ni No Kuni’s gameplay. Battles are turn-based, but they feel more like a hybrid between a traditional turn-based system, one with active time battle meters, and a straight up action game. Boiled down to the essentials, in each turn, you take any of the traditional RPG actions (attack, cast a spell, use an item, etc.), and each choice takes a certain amount of time. Once that action’s done, you can take another turn, but some actions have cooldown timers, so if you want to take them twice in a row, your next turn’s not going to start right away. You can roam the battlefield freely, and doing so is important for dodging your enemies’ attacks and setting up your own.
Each of your human party members can equip three “familiars,” that bear more than a passing similarity to Pokémon. (This is not a bad thing — I love Pokémon, and I’ve been watching for someone else to take the formula and do something cool with it for years.) Each familiar has a set of skills that it learns as it levels up, and after a certain number of levels, you can use an item to evolve the familiar to a new form with better stats and new skills to learn. Each familiar has a sign that affects the damage it deals and takes in a rock-paper-scissors fashion, so a balanced set of familiars fighting a balanced pack of enemies often results in seeming chaos as you and your AI teammates switch out your familiars to best combat their current foe.
Once you get the system down, it’s a lot of fun, and battles only become boring if you deliberately pick fights with enemies much weaker than your team. Even normal battles require a bit of strategy to win, and if you stop paying attention, you’ll find your party in trouble quickly. In boss fights, strategy is still required, but you also need good timing as you watch for the boss to telegraph big attacks. When they do, you can either tell your team to batten down the defensive hatches or try to get in a quick attack that will interrupt the boss’ attack and stun them for a few turns. I don’t talk to my TV when I play most games, but this one was so engaging that I did so frequently. Even at hour 80- or 90-something, taking down someone who gives a lot of XP or nailing a boss just when they were about to hit me with something big was very satisfying.
Of course, a complex battle system would fall apart instantly were it not controlled well. Happily, Ni No Kuni controls superbly. Most of the controls are pretty standard both in and out of battle. It’s worth noting, however, that the developers have made an effort to put everything that you need quickly or frequently at the press of one button. For example, in battle, you can use the triggers to select your next command while you run around to get in position for it, and another button is dedicated to letting you switch familiars. Outside of battle, I really like that when you’re shopping, you can instantly see which familiars can equip a piece of equipment and how it would affect their stats. Then, when you buy it, the game lets you select a familiar and equip the item right then and there without leaving the shop menu.
As fun as it is, however, Ni No Kuni does have a few gameplay issues; two in battle and one more related to its design. First, on the free-roaming battlefield, enemies and allies alike want to take a straight path to their intended target, which sometimes results in a traffic jam of uselessness for a turn or two. Chuckle-inducing when it happens to foes, less so when it happens to your team. Second, your teammates love to use MP. Stumble into a fight with people you could destroy in one or two simple attacks? Well, your AI buddy loves that “rockfall” attack that chews up his MP, so he’s gonna use it anyway. It’s definitely not an issue that’s unique to Ni No Kuni, but it’s still frustrating from time to time.
The design issue is that it takes too long to open up your all of options. You’re probably a dozen hours into the game before all of your combat commands are opened up to you, including recruiting your enemies as familiars, and during this time, your only mode of transport is walking from town to town. Once your party is filled out and you’ve learned all of the battle commands, you quickly gain access to a boat, then a fast-travel spell, then other (awesome) modes of transport. The game gets a lot more fun at that point, and it’s not as far in as Final Fantasy XIII’s legendary 20th hour turning point, but I still wish some of those gameplay elements had opened up a lot sooner than they did. This is a game where the learning “curve” is more like a ramp.
Having made my complaints, let’s turn to something about which I have zero complaints whatsoever: the graphics. Ni No Kuni’s visuals were done by Studio Ghibli, and despite the change of format from their normal movies to a video game, they have done their usual amazing work. The towns and environments are gorgeous and varied, and as you run around town, the buildings look like they were hand painted. The world map that you traverse is equally good, and when you bring up the minimap, it’s accurate enough that you can actually trace out the path you’ll need to take to get to a hard-to-reach spot. The attention to detail is just on a whole different level from what I’m used to seeing.
The enemies/familiars are similarly great. Animation in and out of battle is great and appropriately cute or menacing, depending on the character. When you’re in a fight, each of your party members’ familiars is surrounded by a different colored transparent orb that makes it easy to know at a glance who is on your side and who’s not. Also in battle, one corner of the screen shows your party members’ HP and the other shows the enemies’ HP and their signs, so you can instantly tell if you need to start throwing healing items/spells around or if it’s time to switch your familiar to one of a different rock-paper-scissors affiliation.
Finally on the visual front, I would be remiss if I did not compliment the developers for their outstanding work on The Wizard’s Companion, an in-game book that Oliver carries with him at all times. You access it through the menu, and although it is pretty empty at the beginning of the game, it fills up over time with pages about the spells Oliver has learned, background on the regions he’s visited, descriptions of items, and for no reason other than the joy of having them, fairy tales. The writing’s great, the illustrations are fantastic… I’m in awe. It’s an amazing little artifact, and although the gameplay wouldn’t have suffered the tiniest bit if it didn’t exist, it adds another touch of heart to things because it’s there.
The game’s audio presentation holds up equally well to scrutiny. The music is excellent, and it changes nicely from area to area. The in-town songs are laid back and appropriate to their settings. The battle themes are intense, but not distracting. And the music you hear when you step onto your final mode of transport (which I won’t reveal here) is majestic as all get-out. Every character’s voice acting is top-notch, and I was happy to see a bunch of different British accents represented rather than the one standard TV-speak version. I will leave further elaboration on music for a future soundtrack review, but suffice it to say that you will never find yourself reaching for the mute button.
It can be odd to think back on the journey a great game takes you through. Before Ni No Kuni’s release, I was not dying with anticipation for it. In fact, I only got interested in this game when it hit shelves in the US, and I bought a copy on a whim. I started playing a few weeks after my friends, who had been really excited about the game, did. I only have time to play on the weekends, so I know this was a game for the long haul. Over my first few weeks with Ni No Kuni, one by one, almost all of my friends said to me “It’s fun, but I think I’m done playing it.” I’ve thought a lot about that phenomenon since then, and I’m still not sure why it happened. Was my experience more fun because I couldn’t play it more frequently? Did I only push through some barrier because I was reviewing it for RPGFan? I don’t know, but no matter the answer, I’m glad I did. The entertaining battles and the resolutions of plot threads as the game progressed toward the final credits were worth paying the cost of a slow start to the gameplay. This is a game that we’ll be talking about for years to come, and I’m happy to have played it.