Developers: Level-5 | Studio Ghibli
Publishers: Namco Bandai
Being invited to spend three hours in the company of Ni No Kuni is akin to delightful torture. A twenty-minute, combat-oriented demo can give you a flavour for the game, not to mention something to write about, without sucking you in too much. The fact is that, having lost track of time with Oliver and Drippy in Level-5's gorgeous JRPG, I didn't want to leave. Thank god we don't have too long to wait until it's actually out, then!
We covered the game's opening scenes in our last hands-on preview, but here's a quick refresher. Our hero is a young chap named Oliver who, one a fateful night, decides to sneak out of his house in Motorville and test-drive the souped-up car he's built with his chum. Only it goes wrong, the wheels literally fall off, and Oliver ends up in the local river, unable to swim. Anyway, to cut a long story short, his mother rescues him, then dies because she has a weak heart, Oliver wakes up an imprisoned fairy after crying all over it, and the fairy (named Drippy) reveals that the world he comes from is inhabited by close doppelgangers of those who live in Oliver's, and that their souls are connected.
Essentially, our man Olly decides that he's going to venture into Drippy's world, learn to become a wizard (one of the last of a dying breed), save Drippy's world from the nefarious machinations of an evildoer known as Shadar - the Dark Djinn, save his mum's doppelganger, and thereby hopefully restore his mum back in Motorville.
It's a concept perfectly suited to a Studio Ghibli film, the sort that would make grown men weep. There'll be a large section of the gaming audience who'll have little interest in the whimsical exploits of a thirteen year old boy, and a fairy that's shaped like an apostrophe and talks like how we'd imagine Tom Jones might if he were on speed, and dashing around fetching things for kingly cats and having to deal with some utterly outstanding, and truly terrible (ie. amazing) puns. But equally, Ni No Kuni might just be another of those rare beasts: a game purposefully designed to offer something different, something that looks outside the "core" experience, that manages to deal with big themes like love and loss without having everyone speak in gravelly voices and saturating everything in grey.
Our first sojourn around Ding Dong Dell - the primary town you'll encounter when you first step into the "other" world denoted in the game's very title - is your typical JRPG town. There's an inn, an armourer, and so on and so forth. A capital city, Ding Dong Dell has a splendid palace wherein the King resides. And he's not amused. But instead of deep melodrama, Level-5 settle for rib-tickling wordplay and left-field whimsy. A town populated by humans and animal hybrids alike, everything is made into a pun. So the inn is called the Cat's Cradle after the feline nature of the owner. The imposing crow who sells you weapons owns the Cawtermaster. King Tom, as you might expect, is an enormous cat, and he's cross because he's lost his red herring.
It's goofy stuff at times, but that's ok. If you're busy worrying why Oliver is so easily led by a cuddly toy that just popped into life, or the swift U-turns in mood or character that befall the equally, hilariously irritable and cuddly Drippy, you're rather missing the point. Instead, Ni No Kuni offers up the gaming equivalent of a Radox bath: something that will charm your senses, something that you can soak in for hours in utter bliss.
Not that it isn't challenging. The combat system, employing a familiar real-time structure with Pokemon-esque minion management, seems straightforward at first, and indeed the game does take a little while to get up to speed. But after the first hour or so, you'll end up venturing into a deep forest to seek out the Old Man of the Woods so that Oliver might learn his first spell, and here the creatures who visibly block your path (no random battles, wooo!) will prove a little more challenging. You'll be swapping Familiars in and out, restoring control directly to Oliver whenever you need a spot of magical buffing to be done. We didn't quite make it in so far as to see the alignments of Familiars make too much of a difference, but having played demos a little further in, there'll be tactical considerations to bear in mind there, too.
The difficulty of the bosses, and indeed the more hardy animals you fight, make snouting out glims on the battlefield even more important. Glims are little blue and green orbs, occasionally flung out by your enemies should you land a palpable hit, or occasionally at certain time intervals during the longer engagements. Blue is for mana, green for health, but as glims only hang around for a matter of seconds, if your bars are low, disengaging from combat to snatch them up is generally a good idea. Find a boss' weak spot and hit it hard and they'll drop a golden glim, which instantly refills your health bar, and allows you to execute a Miracle Move, to finish them off once and for all.
You feel a little bit bad sometimes, though, given how the foes you're facing are often absurdly cute. It's clear that something is wrong with Drippy's world, with the inhabitants crestfallen or overly aggressive, such has been he influence of Shadar. At one point, trying to get back in to Ding Dong Dell, Oliver and Drippy find that the gate has been closed, because the guard in charge of entry is suffering from an unshakeable apathy about everything and everyone, crippled by an existential crisis of the self known as being Heartbroken.
Not to worry, Oliver is a wizard! He has a wand, he eventually nabs himself a cape; a wizard he must be! So Oliver's recourse, under the guidance of a fairy so incredibly Welsh that even his subtitles are written in dialect, is to find a fellow with verve and joie de vivre and extract a little bit of his enthusiasm to help mend the apathetic chap's heart and allow him to get back to his job of letting people into the city.
It's a similar change of personality in the King that leads Oliver to find Tom's red herring, and then over-compensation on the part of His Meowjesty (yes, really) to leap immediately back into the fray and dive into the sewers of Ding Dong Dell to singe-handedly deal with the city's rat infestation. Needless to say, young Oliver lends a hand there too.
It's bizarre stuff, and you question none of it, if only because it's a game that dares you to join in, opening up your mind and engage with the dazzlingly imaginative creativity on display. Ni No Kuni translated means 'Two Countries', referring the two worlds in which the game is based. But the game itself is another world for the player, a virtual watercolour landscape waiting to be explored with a story waiting to be told. And we can't wait to get back there.