Back in 2013, Level-5 invited us into the world of Ni no Kuni, a colourful and charming RPG that made waves due to its collaboration with the world-famous Studio Ghibli. After years of asking for a sequel, fans got it last year with the release of Ni no Kuni II, with Level-5 choosing to re-release Ni no Kuni on PS4, Switch, and PC. For Switch, the original Ni no Kuni. For PS4 and PC, Ni no Kuni Remastered, which is an enhanced port with 1080p resolution, steady 60 FPS, and the small amount of DLC Ni no Kuni received. Six years later, how does Ni no Kuni hold up?
The journey starts when young Oliver sneaks out of his home one night to drive a new car invented by a friend of his. Unbeknownst to him, Oliver has been identified by the dark forces that rule “the other world” — “ni no kuni” in Japanese, which is the inspiration for the game’s title — as the saviour of their world. In an effort to kill him, the villains sabotage the car and Oliver ends up almost drowning in the river. His mom rescues him, but dies of complications the next day. Oliver’s tears free a fairy from the other world named Drippy. Drippy tells him of a way he can bring his mom back from the dead: Oliver can save her soul in Drippy’s world and have his mother revived in his world. Feeling responsible for his mother’s death, Oliver resolves himself to enter the other world to save his mom.
Though this is the premise of the story, you can sometimes forget that’s what Oliver’s real goal is. There’s a lot to take in when you dive into the other world, so it’s easy to forget Oliver’s reason for being there. This is especially true since it seems Oliver himself is most eager to help out the residents of this world. The main villain of the game, Shadar the Dark Djinn, has wreaked havoc throughout the land by leaving anyone who stands up to him “brokenhearted,” and Oliver makes saving these people his priority as he travels throughout the land. Oliver is everyone’s perfect child: eager, responsible, polite, and always willing to lend a hand if he can. It’s almost impossible not to like him.
Spending time with Ni no Kuni feels like an authentic adventure, filled with wonder and whimsy. It has that childhood nostalgia, filled with the excitement of seeing this beautiful world spread out before you. Oliver and the companions he travels with are off to save the world, but they’re also there to share in the journey throughout Ni no Kuni. The story isn’t overly complex and it doesn’t have any real twists, but it’s still a charming one with a light-hearted tone that is sorely missed in these days of dark RPGs.
Speaking of Oliver’s companions, they include the aforementioned fairy Drippy, the spunky Esther, and the reformed thief Swaine. It’s pretty clear that Oliver is meant to be the main standout in Ni no Kuni, since I didn’t feel much for Esther or Swayne. It feels like they’re both just along for the ride, and they don’t contribute much to the story after you recruit them. Drippy is the only companion with any real presence, and his speech pattern makes him endearing.
Ni no Kuni employs a Tales-like battle system. You have a 3D battlefield where you can maneuver around, perform basic attacks, and use skills in a traditional manner. For the most part, battles aren’t too intricate, with your health and MP being the only things you need to worry about as you travel through the world. Occasionally, Drippy will toss “glims” onto the field which will restore HP and MP if you touch them. In an attempt to make the battle system more interesting, there’s a mechanic that rewards interrupting enemy attacks or defending powerful attacks. Doing this will result in a “Nice!” message and an increase in the amount of glims for that battle. Since attacking is automatic once you hit the “attack” command, interrupting enemy attacks can feel like it’s by luck rather than any kind of skill or timing.
Ni no Kuni features a monster-collecting system which is reminiscent of the old Dragon Quest Monsters games. Feeding enemy monsters food they like will increase the chance that they join you after they’re defeated in battle. This may be a turn-off for some since it comes down to luck to recruit monsters, but I think it’s quite interesting to recruit new familiars in this fashion.
The game’s difficulty can fluctuate. As long as you fight every enemy you encounter, you are in good shape on the normal difficulty. However, sometimes when you go to a new area, the enemies can surprise you with their ferocity. Not only have the enemies’ levels increased, but there are new enemies to contend with using skills you may not have seen yet. Getting a Game Over can be costly, as it’s either giving up half to all of your money or going back to your last save point. Getting Game Overs in dungeons is particularly painful since save points in dungeons are limited (however you can save anywhere on the overworld). Later in the game, you can start to free-roam around the overworld, and obviously some areas are tougher than others. The game doesn’t tell you that, however, so you might wander into enemies that can one-shot you if you aren’t following the intended path.
Even though this game is called “Ni no Kuni Remastered,” it doesn’t really feel like a remaster. That’s not a bad thing. Ni no Kuni released late in the PS3’s lifecycle, and it already looked amazing when it was new. The PS4 brings these visuals to a higher resolution, but the strength of Ni no Kuni was always its art. Level-5 are experts at bringing us charming art that resembles the cartoons and anime we watched when we were younger. However, one of the big points about the visuals is Studio Ghibli creating the cutscenes for the game. (Side note: if you haven’t watched any of Studio Ghibli’s movies, please do: they’re amazing.) The cutscenes are always a treat to watch, though I do wish they were more evenly split throughout the game. It seems most of the animated cutscenes play at the beginning and end of the game, with the middle of the game filled in with in-engine cutscenes.
Speaking of Studio Ghibli, famed composer Joe Hisaishi who has worked on about half of Studio Ghibli’s movies, was asked to compose the music for Ni no Kuni. As usual, he does an amazing job with its soundtrack. There are plenty of great themes throughout the game, and even some of the general ones, like the overworld theme, are good background music to play at any time. The voice acting is a mixed bag in general, but I found the English voice acting a bit weak at times. The game does have dual audio, so it covers those who have their dub preferences. The highlight is Drippy in both English and Japanese. You can tell the voice actors had fun doing Drippy.
Six years after its original release in the West, Ni no Kuni still stands strong among its peers. While I don’t believe there’s enough new material to truly warrant a repurchase, for any stalwart fan wanting to see its best form on a current gen platform or anyone playing it for the first time, this version is certainly worth a playthrough.