Developers: Level-5 | Studio Ghibli
Publishers: Namco Bandai
NB. There are some light story spoilers in terms of the set up and Oliver's motivations, but that's it.
There's a reason why I love RPGs - perhaps the greatest being that it's such a rich and varied genre. Sometimes I want to forge my own path and write my own stories in a world of fantasy and adventure. Other times, I want to dive into a narrative-rich experience that sucks me in like my favourite books might, and lets me fill in the gaps between plot points. There's a sense of immersion with which I've always connected, from tabletop to page-turner to PC to Game Boy to Xbox to iPad. Much of it has to do with investment, and the time and careful consideration that goes into setting things up the way we want them and developing characters in certain ways. But more often than not, it has to do with exceptional world building, and the sheer thrill of escapism.
Level-5 and Studio Ghibli know more than most about weaving fantastical webs designed to captivate the mind and warm the heart.
It's one of those collaborations that you dream of, really, and one that fans might never have thought would genuinely occur given Ghibli's famed director Hayao Miyazaki's apprehension over video games as a worthwhile medium. But although he might have little to do with Ni No Kuni himself, the strong sense of morality and strength of character that oozes from the works of his such as Ponyo, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Spirited Away, are clearly evident in Ni No Kuni. It's clearly been a labour of love, enormous in scale and yet rich in detail. The name gives it away: Ni No Kuni, roughly translated, means 'second country', stirring up connotations of another world, a concept that works on a number of levels.
The dream, of course, is that playing Ni No Kuni is like virtually living out a Studio Ghibli film - one in which you play a more direct role. But have Level-5 pulled it off?
The answer, for the most part, is yes. As with a number of Studio Ghibli films, the story kicks off by laying out its main themes on the table early on: family, a tragic loss, friendship, and boundless love - love that might inspire courage in the face of adversity, and save entire worlds from destruction. You step into the shoes of a young orphan named Oliver who, after crying for three days straight, wakes a rather oddly-shaped fairy named Drippy from a magical slumber. Drippy explains to Oliver that he comes from a parallel world, but was cursed by an evil djinn named Shadar, and begs Oliver for help. Having recently lost his mother, Oliver is rather reluctant to go or do anything, until Drippy explains that the two worlds and the people in them are linked, and that by rescuing Drippy's world, Oliver might be able to bring back his mother in his own.
"We're off to another world!" Drippy shouts, having armed Oliver with a wand and taught him a few rudimentary spells, and thus the adventure begins.
The game take a leisurely pace to get into the swing of things (as you'll no doubt have noticed if you've watched our video of the game's opening half hour), but once you reach Drippy's world , the pace begins to increase. It's clear, though, that this is a game designed to appeal beyond the usually niche audience of JRPG fans, with new gameplay elements incorporated gradually, and two difficulty levels incorporated into the game (switchable at any time) to appeal to those who simply want to enjoy the flow of the game and the narrative elements without thinking too much about every battle.
Shadar's influence has scared off most of the fairies, and wild beasts roam the world, chasing down adventuring boy wizards and their companions should they travel too close. Happily, the beasties are all quite visible - there are no random encounters in Ni No Kuni - and you can sneak up on enemies to nab an advantage, and vice versa. Once you've bumped into an enemy, you'll be whisked awaay to the battlefield, to come face to face with a combat system that's one part Dragon Quest VIII, one part Tales of Graces, and one part Pokemon.
As you'd expect from a JRPG, things start off with you choosing an action from a menu. You have your basic attacks, spells, items, and the option to run away. Green for health, blue for mana. So far so good. But battles unfold in real-time, giving you the opportunity to dash around the immediate battlefield Tales-style, and are generally conducted using cutesy critters (Familiars) that you can collect, train, and evolve, whose main purpose seems to be fighting other cutesy critters. Select 'Attack' and you'll engage in auto-attacks for a short space of time; select 'Defend' and you'll guard against attacks for a similar length of time. There are small cooldown periods for each action, but when fighting larger creatures and bosses, the key to winning will come from knowing when to cancel attacks and prepare to defend. Thankfully most of the big hitting moves in the game are telegraphed in advance, but occasionally, the Defend window can close a little early, laving you open to a powerful attack.
Most of the time it'll be Familiars doing the fighting for you, and each human character can carry up to three of them, with over 300 variants to be snapped up, all with different strengths, weakness, and elemental alignments. In battle, Familiars will draw from their owners' vitals. If Oliver's Familiar uses a spell, it'll come out of his mana reserve. Similarly, if his Familiar is hit, it'll get knocked off of Oliver's HP. All Familiars have a stamina gauge, meaning they can only be used for half a minute or so before they need recharging, so it is that for prolonged battles, you'll need to swap Familiars in and out of battle. Generally, you'll find yourself constantly tweaking the Familiar teams, with different Familiar types better suited to certain characters. As you're joined by fellow adventurers, you'll be able to issue tactical instructions that govern their AI, from "provide backup" to "keep us healthy" or "give it all you've got", a little bit like the Gambit system from FFXII. Similarly, you can also hop about, and change the character you're controlling directly.
Again, the game never really tosses you in at the deep end, instead taking its time over showing you the intricacies of the battle system. When bosses arrive, they never feel cheap, and there are only one or two points in the game where we felt a bit of a difficulty spike break the fabric of immersion for a few minutes. The pacing extends to the elephant that so often makes its way into the room when it comes to JRPGs: grinding. Battles in a new area are frequently tough, so it's very important to keep your supplies well stocked (more on that in a bit), but by the time they become easy, you're whisked away by the narrative to a new destination, virtually removing the need for grinding.
You see, as much as we enjoyed the battles, capturing new Familiars is something of an exercise in frustration. Instead of spamming barely breathing creatures with Poke Balls, it's entirely down to luck whether or not a creature you defeat makes itself available for capture. You'll know when they do, because little hearts will float above their heads, allowing you to lull them with harpsong, but those hearts appear seemingly at random, and there's nothing you can do about it. If you have your heart set on capturing a certain creature, the only way to ensure that you do is to keep going, keep grinding, until those hearts appear.
It's a real shame, because the Familiar progression system is great. Each Familiar belongs to one of four alignments, and once they hit a certain level (usually between 10-20) they'll become eligible for evolution. Feed them a stone that matches their alignment, and they'll grow into their second, stronger form. Although their level will be reset to , it doesn't take long to get them fighting fit once more, and they'll be noticeably stronger, and able to learn more abilities. Each Familiar can then evolve again, into one of two final form creatures, usually with an elemental power bonus. Moreover, each Familiar can be equipped with stat boosting weaponry and items, and fed little treats to permanently boost core skills. Just don't let them get fat.
It's a testament to the fantastic work that Level-5 and Studio Ghibli have done that at times it's difficult to tell where cutscenes end and the in-game engine takes over (in the end, it's the frame rate that gives it away). The animations are perfectly rendered, thick black lines giving things a little solidity. It's a beautiful game to behold, from the lush landscapes surrounding Ding Dong Dell, to deep forests, subterranean caverns, vast deserts, snowy mountaintops, and the expanse of the open seas. Dripping with colour, Ni No Kuni proves a feast for the eyes, with each frame of gameplay lovingly replicating Studio Ghibli's instantly recognisable style.
Alongside that, Joe Hisaishi knocks the score out of the park with one of the best scores he's done in years. Stirringly epic at just the right moments, the score is incorporated superbly into proceedings, rising in grandiose fashion during boss encounters and moments of drama, before softening into all-too-hummable movements of whimsical delight, never afraid to incorporate the sparse and simple to help convey some of the more emotional notes in the story.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about the game, something we're truly thankful for alongside its mere presence here in the West, is the outstanding job done by the localisation team. The translation work is phenomenal, even more so when you consider the astounding number of puns that litter the dialogue (like calling the weapons shop run by a bird the "Cawtermaster", or addressing the feline king of Ding Dong Dell as "your Meowjesty"). It might have been nice to use the Ghibli name to attract a couple of better voice actors for the English-language version - there are one or two suspect performances in places - but the script is rather excellent, and the rural tones of Drippy's thick Welsh accent are, as he might say, "proper tidy, mun!"
There are side quests to engage in, and these are rather recommended as the stamps for each completed mission can be used to unlock game-changing perks. It's just a shame, though, that most of the supplemental missions take the form of rather banal fetch and deliver quests, with bounty hunting tasks instructing you to defeat a certain number of creatures, or a certain evolved type. After going through some wizarding trials about eight hours into the game, where the game throws a few puzzles Oliver's way, one might have hoped to see a fair few more inventive interludes that shake up the gameplay, but alas most of the troubles you'll encounter outside of combat are solved by pressing Square and selecting a relevant spell rather than actually engaging with the world. It's a little disappointing to see the potential for forward-thinking variety squandered, particularly when the studio involved has such pedigree in that department. Professor Layton, anyone?
That being said, I don't care, not really. You see, Ni No Kuni is more than the sum of its parts, more than Level-5 doing an impression of Studio Ghibli. The story might not quite be in the same league as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, but there's something that resonates all the same. There were moments that brought tears to the eye, others that brought the biggest smile to my face, and innumerable little vignettes that made me audibly chuckle, and all this amplified by visuals that dazzle and delight, a score that floods your ears with magnificence, and Familiar-based combat that proves rich and deep and engrossing. A triumph in roleplaying escapism.
- Absolutely stunning aesthetics from the gorgeous art style to the majestic soundtrack
- Fantastic, engaging combat
- Deeply engrossing, emotional story
- Possibly the best localisation work ever
- So. Many. Puns!
- Characters are fairly one-dimensional
- Variable quality of voice acting
- Familiar collection based on luck rather than skill
The Short Version: One of the best JRPGs of the last decade, Ni No Kuni is in many ways a love letter to a genre slowly fading away into obscurity. Brimming with imaginative aesthetics, and packing a hefty emotional punch or two in spite of its rather clichéd story, Level-5 and Studio Ghibli have worked wonders to whisk us away to another world. An utter triumph in roleplaying escapism in a game that manages to stand on the shoulders of the genre's best to deliver a modern classic.