Never before have expectations for a game been so high. Studio Ghibli in collaboration with Level 5? What wasn’t there to look forward to? Better still the DS version of the game was being completely overhauled with a graphic engine suitable for a PS3 release and fully voiced dialogue by a top notch professional animation cast. It might have taken forever to appear, but when it did most gamers leapt on Ni No Kuni as our next big hope for JRPGs.
As it turned out we got exactly what we asked for, but not what we were hoping for. You see the JRPG has been evolving for a while and whilst many of us have fond memories of grinding characters to max levels and gathering items by kicking barrels over in towns to score free loot our tastes have evolved along with them. Ni No Kuni is as old-school as a JRPG can get and aside from a different take on semi-turn based combat it was a series of Dragon Quest styled fetch quests and town-to-town narratives that we hadn’t expected. Many decided it simply wasn’t a good game, which is nonsense; you simply have to appreciate it for what it is rather than what it isn’t.
Graphically this game is a powerhouse, not for realistic 3D graphics and models but for a dynamic look that really brings the design of Studio Ghibli’s specific style to life. Pause the game at any moment and it could be a still from an anime, in fact the towns are so rich in details that I don’t think a single asset was reused between them. Characters are colourful and interesting to look at, with Mister Drippy being a typically barmy concept that works wonderfully in practice. He’s essentially a Gnome with a lantern hanging from his oversized nose and a Welsh accent to back it all up. Monster designs for combat are a little less inspired, with many seeming sub to the Dragon Quest series in terms of cute and functional, but each has a lot of personality on display and all of them can be recruited or bred by the player using the in-game system. Cutscenes are movie quality Studio Ghibli works and are flawless, there’s not another word that can be said on the subject.
Sound is bombastic, eschewing the usual pensive or epic fare in favour of a fully orchestrated fanfare that erupts from the speakers and rolls around the room. Listening to the score for Ni No Kuni against other title themes shows quite clearly that they wanted to make a statement when people saw the game for the first time and it shows. Audio is recorded with fantastic actors who do their best with some dialogue that could have fallen flat, especially Oliver as the lead who has some heavy material to get through. Sound is charming but ultimately forgettable between the voices and musical work on display.
The story is oddly pitched at first. Oliver is a resident of the real world, living in a town called Motorville when his mother dies suddenly and tragically. You see this happen and have to watch the following results and it humanises him immediately. Then when things are at their darkest his stuffed toy comes to life and helps him to craft a wand to bring him across to a fantasy world where everyone has a twin persona and perhaps by saving his mothers’ he can save her in his world too. Right from the word go this infuses Oliver with a sense of direction most coming of age stories lack, though the haunting reminder that this could all be Oliver building a fantasy delusion around himself to avoid facing the truth is played up all too frequently, especially when people from Motorville can’t see Mr Drippy or other denizens of this other world who cross over. In the other world a villain called Shadar is working for the Witch and her council of Zodiac inspired knights, and she’s non-too-pleased to see a potential rival appearing in the form of this young boy. It’s solid stuff, done well but on the childish side when dialogue starts to run too long, Oliver is an innocent who needs things spelled out for him and the player is an adult screaming at him to see the next plot twist coming because they’ve been televising it for the last hour in-game.
Gameplay revolves around a battle system that uses a real-time counter and free movement to commit to turn based attacks against monsters, which requires some getting used to at first. You can attack with the player characters at any time, and some of them learn powerful magical spells, but what you will be doing mostly is sending out puppets (captured monsters) to be a shield against damage and deal out more offensive power. Catching these monsters is hard at first, you wail on a monster until it either dies of starts letting off hearts to show that it likes you, and then before another party member kills it you switch out to one of the player characters who can serenade it and get it on team. This can be made easier by acquiring skills that raise the monster’s rate of giving in to your charms but I found that it was always troublesome. It’s a shame too because you can grab almost 400 of the little blighters and feeding them treats helps structure their levelling and eventual evolutions (normally one evolved form as standard then a choice between two final forms). Monsters don’t have many skills to go around but you can alter their load-outs to play to their strengths. The other major gameplay factor is matching people who are missing a piece of their being to those who have too much. For example you can take enthusiasm from an NPC who has too much energy and he calms down, then you carry it around in a specially made bottle around your neck before donating it to somebody suffering from lethargy. It’s a cool little system the first dozen times, but there are literally hundreds of these cases and experienced players will soon catch on to the fetch quest nature of it all. Luckily Oliver learns a teleportation spell early on that makes navigating the map a breeze for those who don’t want to ride the awesome dragon. Bounties to kill hidden bosses are also available and every good deed gives a reward and puts a stamp on your card that can be traded in for special abilities. These cards are beautifully designed collectors’ items and each of them is illustrated and structured differently.
Extra special mention goes out to the wizard’s companion book that Oliver is given and that you fill out with pages as you travel through the game. It’s accessible through the menu and it’s a work of art in itself playing out as a mixture of background information, short stories, spells to cast in combat and monster compendium. The whole game world is broken down into small chunks and lavishly illustrated for you to digitally browse and it really adds a lot to the game. Some quests involve referring to the book and answering a riddle, which for the first time in a game didn’t annoy me when a character decided to test my knowledge.
Ni No Kuni suffers from two endings overall however, the story of Oliver finishes on a high with dramatic revelations and a powerful boss encounter before you restart an epilogue chapter about the White Witch that extends play by another couple of hours. It’s not bad content by any means but it feels like the emotional weight has been stolen from the story by that point and that it should have been running concurrently with the finale. I personally think it was planned DLC that they incorporated into the game for free after delays, in the same manner that two special puppets were made available for free download on release. It’s a good game that doesn’t do anything wrong but can’t live up to the hype of what it could have been. Level 5 produced Dragon Quest IX for the DS before this title and Studio Ghibli are masters of their craft, and what we got was a little of both when people expected to see something that broke the mould. It’s certainly not a 5 star game, but it’s brilliant for what it is and I hope that it finds its place among the classic RPGs people reference as hidden gems on consoles of days now passed.