Developer – Level-5, Studio Ghibli
Publisher – Namco Bandai
Platforms – PS3
[Note: This review only covers the first 12 or so hours of the game, as I chose to stop playing at that point.]
Ni no Kuni made waves upon its release simply due to the fact that Studio Ghibli (the Disney of Japan, for lack of a better explanation) played a major part in its design and animation. It received some pretty positive reviews, as well as a number of awards. For my first few hours of play I was swept up by the childlike wonder so many other gamers had loved and was sure that I was going to be treated to a fantastically unique experience. A couple of hours after that I wondered whether anything was going to develop on that initial content. Another few hours after that and…well, here we are. Let’s just say that the number of hits when googling “does Ni no Kuni get any better?” was alarming.
Oliver has been swept up in an adventure he’s not quite sure what to make of. After the sudden death of his mother, his despondency is interrupted by the mysterious transformation of one of his soft toys into a living, breathing being calling himself Mr. Drippy, Lord High Lord of the fairies. Oliver, he asserts, is the Pure-Hearted one recorded in legend, the only person able to save the alternate world he hails from. A place of majesty and wonder held under the dark grip of the Dark Djinn, Shadar. Oliver must learn to be a great sage, a practitioner of magic and controller of familiars, in order to liberate the other World and perhaps even have a chance of bringing his mother back. Shadar operates by stealing portions of the hearts of people unlucky enough to anger him, and along the way Oliver will need to put right his devilish deeds.
My ability to appraise Ni no Kuni’s story is severely limited by the amount of it I experienced. I can’t talk about any late-game plot twists or major upheavals, though I doubt that any such ploys would have made up for sitting through the rest of the tale. While it wasn’t necessarily bad and, in fact, would probably be great fun for a younger audience, its lack of complexity and innocent predictability fail to distinguish it from any other generic “boy saves the world” plotline. While Studio Ghibli’s world-building efforts mitigate the drabness of the story as a whole, it can only do so much and it isn’t long before you have to wonder whether anything is going to break the tedium of the events you’re following. After the time I had spent with the game, I couldn’t convince myself that would be the case.
Gameplay consists of real-time, menu-based combat in which you control one of a number of creatures that can learn new techniques and evolve into new forms much like another popular Japanese franchise. There’s a distinction between magic-based and physical familiars, with each having a stamina timer that limits how long you can use them for in each fight. My issues with the combat were, firstly, that most fights were over far too quickly to take advantage of the switch-out mechanic and, secondly, that even when that mechanic was forced into play my first familiar was so strong that the best course of action was to simply run around until I could use him again. I may have implied just now that Studio Ghibli Pokemon’s Ni no Kuni’s battle system only had two problems. That would be something of a falsehood. The other complaints I have start with the game’s inconsistent difficulty, where all the fights except bosses are simply press-attack-to-win affairs that are over in seconds and bosses themselves are simply slightly harder press-attack-to-win-and-defend-every-now-and-again affairs that will probably kill you if you don’t defend in time. You could literally finish the game with only those two commands, or at least you could if your AI allies were smart enough to defend and you didn’t have to stop to heal them after every major attack. Yes, I suppose there are abilities and magic to use, but their mana costs are so high as to be prohibitive since you’re going to need that mana to heal your teammates.
In addition to the combat and main story, there are side quests to complete which generally consist of taking one person’s positive virtues and delivering them two steps to the left, to a person lacking that virtue because it has been stolen from them by Shadar. The concept itself was one that had interested me to begin with; I envisioned having to work out which virtue people were missing by their actions and speech, and then hunting down someone able to compensate for that lack, perhaps even having to persuade them to part with what I was seeking. As the game immediately tells you what’s wrong, points out each person with excess virtue on your mini-map and quite conveniently has them ready to help you, however, the entire task devolves into something rather inane. In fact, pretty much every errand is a glorified kill or fetch quest, with incredibly average rewards, to boot.
While not absolutely superb visually, Ni no Kuni has a huge amount of character. The environments themselves, in addition to some excellent background music, were probably what kept me playing for as long as I did. More so than any of the story or characters, it was the art that invoked the childlike wonder I talked about earlier. The Studio-Ghibli animation is also pretty nice, though you don’t get to see it very often at all, whereas the character models are fairly average. This was also one of the weakest voice-acting efforts I’ve seen from a game in a while on both dub and sub sides of the coin (it’s nice that you get to choose, I suppose). While the English voice track fitted the setting better, to my ear, it had some issues with inflection and some actors that simply weren’t very good, and the Japanese voice felt out of place to me.
Summary – I’ve bagged on Ni no Kuni a lot during this review but the truth is just that it was average and didn’t look like it was going to get any better. Neither the story nor the characters managed to grip me despite the best efforts of Studio Ghibli and its influence, and the gameplay mechanics weren’t intuitive or fun. For a younger audience, perhaps one new to JRPGs, Ni no Kuni might be an enchanting and memorable experience. For me? I’ve got too much of a backlog to spend time on it.
Score: 6/10 – Average