Every once in a while, there comes a game that brings back my faith in a given genre of video games where all else makes that genre look tired, clichéd, and overtroped. If you’re not aware by now, Ni No Kuni is the first non-Pokémon JRPG to top the UK game charts in ten years. I’m going to tell you why. And why—even if you don’t generally enjoy RPGs—you should play this game.
Ni No Kuni (which translates quite roughly into “Another World”, although the literal translation is “Second Country”) tells the story of a young boy called Oliver who gets up to some minor mischief that he really shouldn’t have. This mischief lands him in a spot of life-threatening trouble, and his mom comes to save him. The effort of saving him kills his mother, and suddenly Oliver is left an orphan. Oliver’s tears awaken Mr Drippy, a fairy trapped within a doll his mother made for him. Mr Drippy tells Oliver that there’s a way to save his mother if he can also save Mr Drippy’s world. And thus begins Oliver’s adventures.
The best way to actually describe Ni No Kuni is probably as Dragon Quest 8 crossed with Pokémon crossed with Totoro (or perhaps Nausicaa). If you’ve not heard of the last two, you can be forgiven: they’re not video games, but animated films by Studio Ghibli, a famous Japanese movie studio, best known in the West for two of their films, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. It should come as no surprise, of course, that the animation was actually done by Studio Ghibli, so naturally, the game looks and feels utterly breathtakingly gorgeous. The screenshots here do the game no justice whatsoever. Perhaps you should just watch this YouTube video instead.
Yes, what you saw there was gameplay. It really does look that beautiful all the way through.
It’s no use if a game looks good but isn’t highly playable and easy to learn too. Luckily, Ni No Kuni is both. The game tends to hold your hand in a gentle way to lead you through the various mechanics. The handholding is good initially, but becomes a bit tedious later on when you know what you need to do, but still need to follow the prompts before you can initiate things. For example, one of the powers Oliver obtains early in the game is the ability to bestow certain emotions upon people who lack those emotions. By the second or third time you do this, you get the idea, but you still have to initiate the whole blasted process every. Single. Time. You can’t just cast the single spell and get it over with. This isn’t the only case where the handholding goes a little too far, either. This is good for newbie players, but JRPG veterans will likely start to get a little annoyed with the whole procedure after a while.
When I say the game is shades of Pokémon, I’m not joking. One of the game’s mechanics is the ability to tame and collect the various monsters that run around the world. When you do this, they become your familiars and will gladly fight for you. You can only hold three of them per character at any time, but you can store the excess ones in the Familiar Resort (up to a total of 400 of them). The familiars will level up with battle experience, and you can even equip them with goods from the shops. In fact, you’ll spend very little time using your actual characters to fight, because their battle stats are terrible, to say the least.
Speaking of battles, Ni No Kuni follows in the steps of many recent JPRGs and ditches the idea of random fights. You can clearly see the monsters running around the screen, and you can happily (try to) avoid them if you wish. What’s great about the battles is that you can clearly feel your characters getting more powerful after three or four levels, and if your party becomes nicely powered, the weaker (and less stupid) monsters in the game will turn tail and vanish over the horizon. It’s a great feeling running through an area that gave you trouble earlier, and watching the monsters scarper for dear life. Battles themselves are fast, and higher level fights will require some quick work on your behalf. You can call familiars into the arena to fight for you, but each familiar has a stamina bar showing how long it will stay in the fight for before needing to be called back for a short recharge. Since you can collect up to three familiars per character, this isn’t a problem unless you have a ridiculous power difference between them. Calling up an underpowered familiar in the heat of battle will kill you. What I found slightly frustrating is that, while you can tell your characters to defend against planet-crushing attacks, there’s so little time between the attack being announced and you being able to get your entire party to defend (at least initially), that you inevitably end up losing a party member or two after a barrage of these attacks.
You may have noticed the wonderful music in the video clip above, and once again, that music—written by famed Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra—is present throughout the entire game. So not only is the game eye candy, it’s also ear candy. It’s nice to hear cinematic-level orchestral music in a video game, because it’s so much easier on the ears than some of the music you get these days. The voice-work is more than exemplary, too. The English voice actors aren’t highly well-known, but they deliver a great performance. What’s great is that you have the choice of both English and Japanese voices. It’s very much a case of personal preference here, but I suggest you try both and see which one you like best. Unless you understand some Japanese, though, I doubt you’d get the full effect of what’s being said.
One thing I have to mention is that the game is a heaven for incorrigible punsters. It’s as if someone with a spare garbage truck stuffed to overflowing with puns upended the entire dratted thing and left you wading hip-deep in the stuff. Just about everything is a pun, from the names of the monsters (Thumbelemur, Hog-goblin, a stingray called Hip-Hooray, and a spider called Incy, to name a few), the names of towns (Ding Dong Dell, run by a cat called King Tom, or Hamelin where everyone wears pig masks), to just about everything else (the shops are run by owl-like women called Hootenannies, who say goodbye with “Owl be seeing you again”). If you hate puns, you’re not going to enjoy this game one bit. I love it. Does my punning heart good to see so many terrible puns, it does.
I feel that the game missed a few opportunities for some true wonder. For instance, there are a few spells that you can only use in ridiculously specific cases. Sometimes, you’ll only ever get a single use from a spell in the game. In places where a given spell would have been wonderfully useful, you’re not allowed to use it, or at least test it to see how useless it could be. For example, the spell “Bridge” creates bridges where none previously existed. Except you can;t just go casting it willy-nilly as you wish. You have to wait for those above-mentioned specific cases to cast it. It does take a bit away from the feeling of wonder you get from the game, and breaks that suspension of disbelief that is so important for a good story.
On the whole, however, Ni No Kuni is an amazing game. The story is a beautiful one, and it brings a good feeling to your soul to be finally doing the world a favour instead of trying to kill everything in it. You’re even told that you’re not so much killing monsters as temporarily sending them somewhere where they can’t bother you for a short bit. Watching Oliver grow in his role as saviour is heartening, as are his reasons for undergoing the quest in the first place. What can be more noble than saving one’s parent? Even if you don’t enjoy JRPGs, I have a feeling that you will enjoy this one. The battles aren’t intolerable, the stats mostly manage themselves, and will you look at that stunning animation?? Just look at it! How can you say no to a game this beautiful?
Final Score: 9.5 JRPG prawns out of 10
Developer: Level 5
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Age Rating: 12