I guess it’s just in my nature to be excitable. It’s just such a great time to be a gamer, with so many great games coming out that cater to every possible taste, that we want the games we like to be the signal in the noise. We want the games we like to be noticed, darn it. Because if other people like a thing, I’m not wrong for liking it.
Maybe I’m that guy. The guy who always hyperventilates over whatever the newest thing is because this time it really is the best. Thing. Ever. I called Torchlight 2 the new Platonic Form of the Action RPG. And now, after playing Ni no Kuni, I think we may have a new, close to perfect form for the JRPG. Maybe, like the JRPG as a genre itself, I’m glossing over the faults because I’m enamored with the things that are right, and I’m afraid of losing them. That’s where I’m coming from with this review. Be governed accordingly.
I’ll give you the tl;dr version right now so you can save yourself a lot of time. If you like JRPGs, you will probably like Ni no Kuni. If you love JRPGs, I have a really hard time seeing any way you won’t like Ni no Kuni. If you dislike JRPGs, first of all who are you and what are you doing at RPGFan, and second of all you will probably hate Ni no Kuni. Not just dislike it, hate it.
JRPGs have long represented a certain play style, a certain way of presenting a story. Ni no Kuni is all of those things multiplied by a million. Hate long boss battles that might kill you? Move on, nothing to see here. Hate having to engage in the occasional experience grind? Hoo boy you’re gonna want to keep walking, seriously. Hate games where you have to collect and level up lots of companions/Pokémons? Dude, seriously, move along because you will want to kill this game with fire. Hate JRPG storytelling tropes that force you to collect crystals/gems/more Pokémons to make even bigger, more powerful McGuffins that will eventually give you the power to vanquish evil? I feel like I’ve warned you the best I can, so if you hate all of this stuff and are still here, I refuse to accept responsibility for whatever you do after sitting with Ni no Kuni for a dozen hours.
But, what if you like that sort of thing? What if you don’t mind a bit of the old grind if the battle system is constantly engaging? What if you like games where you can either spend hours and hours leveling up if you want to breeze through foes or you can apply some clever use of tactics to move along much faster than that? What if you don’t mind going to collect gems if the context in which you are collecting those gems includes engaging, interesting characters and a protagonist who is putting on a brave face in the midst of his own understandable grief?
Let’s talk a bit about the battle system. You know how RPGs are kind of built on the whole “Attack-Spell-Item-Defend” system? Games like Final Fantasy XII and XIII have tried to refresh that style of combat with things like macros/gambits, more automated approaches, and so on. Whether they succeeded has nothing to do with Ni no Kuni. What Ni no Kuni does aspire to do, like those games, is to automate and streamline certain aspects of combat to give things a more dynamic feel. Single button presses change tactics (the “there’s an opening; everybody attack!” button for example), but you can also take control of anybody on the battle field at any time. Combine that with the importance of positioning, and you’ve got a battle system that gets crazily hectic without being cheap. Everything behaves a certain way for a reason — if you’re getting your butt whipped, it’s your own fault for not coming to the fight prepared.
The battle system has too many variables to discuss here without boring anybody but stat junkies like myself who love to tweak things every possible way. Ultimately, there are a whole bunch of different rock-paper-scissors systems occurring simultaneously. Certain elements really mess up certain enemies, for example. Certain types of familiars (these are the Pokémon style creatures you collect that come from the POWER INSIDE YOUR HEART instead of a ball or something I guess) will wreck other types of familiars. Certain types of food will power up certain types of familiars more than others. Certain types of equipment are better suited to certain fights and certain… well you get the idea. It’s variable on top of variable, and if you balance the variables right, you can win a lot of fights against a lot of enemies that are a lot stronger than you.
Oooooor you could just grind away for a couple of hours, level up to an absurd degree, and walk through them. The choice is yours, my friend.
I don’t want to spoil the story, but I want to say this about it. I think Ni no Kuni has a really, really good story, one of the better ones I’ve seen in a while. The game is so fun to play that honestly I wouldn’t even care if I had to collect three gems to make a bigger gem to make Voltron or whatever (I’m mixing metaphors aren’t I), but it’s not that. The game deals with grief and loss in a compelling and mature way and does so through the eyes of a young boy. From the rather ambiguous way the story is told, I’m not convinced that we are supposed to take everything we see in this game at face value. But even if we do, the story is wonderful in the way fairy tales are wonderful. The Studio Ghibli influence is very much on display here not just in the terrific art and graphics, but in the narrative itself as well.
And the music. My goodness the music. Even if you hate games in general, it’s worth taking a little bit of time to listen to some of this soundtrack. “I’m walking around looking for things to fight” music simply does not get any better than this. Later in the game when you take flight, the music will make your heart flutter a bit and give you a little shot of adrenalin. It reminded me of getting on the Big Whale in Final Fantasy IV back when it was called Final Fantasy II and oh goodness that was so many years ago, let’s move on.
Ni no Kuni is everything that is wonderful and amazing about JRPGs piled on to unabashed excess. It is a love letter to the genre. It makes no apologies for the types of things that JRPGs are criticized for now and other games have gone out of their way to cast aside. It is all wrapped up in a charming and moving narrative with a soundtrack that will surely contend for “Best of the Year” honors, if not one of the better in recent memory period. I do not hesitate to give it my fullest recommendation to anybody who has recently played and enjoyed a JRPG, for there is surely something for you here.