After many months of waiting and even more hoping for a localization announcement, Ni no Kuni is finally in the hands of JRPG fans in the West. A collaborative effort between Level 5 and Studio Ghibli seemed too good to be true, and in some ways it was. But where the storyline may have been less impactful than one may have hoped after seeing the first tearful scenes in previews, the gameplay is surprisingly interesting thanks to a White Knight Chronicles-esque real-time battle system. But does Ni no Kuni live up to months and months of hype?
Ni no Kuni is the story of Oliver, a boy who has recently lost his mother to a tragic accident. Crying in the midst of an inconsolable depression, the boy’s tears happen to fall on a doll his mother had given him many years ago and out pops Drippy, the self-proclaimed King of the Fairies. He snaps Oliver from his doldrums and tells him of a magical world inhabited by the soulmates of his own world’s inhabitants, and that helping his mother’s soulmate in that world could allow him to bring her back in his own. So Oliver and company set out on an adventure between two worlds to try and save both the other world and his mother.
A sucker for a sad story, I expected that, with a beginning saturated in tragedy like this, the rest of the story would be sure to scratch an itch of mine, but I was sorely mistaken. There are a handful of emotional moments but for the most part the story is pretty standard fare. Much of it revolves around Oliver’s budding abilities as a wizard and particularly his ability to take pieces of hearts from healthy individuals and give them to someone suffering from a deficiency in a particular emotion. So if you find a character with no drive to do anything anymore you can search for someone else with a glut of enthusiasm, borrow a little bit, and transfer it over. This is handled well in the main storyline, but makes for some tiresome and overly obvious sidequesting. It could, for example, have been made more interesting by forcing you to try and figure out what each distraught person is missing, but alas Drippy assumes you're incompetent and blurts it out every time.
The storyline is enjoyable, though it may not meet your initial expectations. Oliver’s transformation from a wishy washy little kid into a real hero with his own ideals is enjoyable and much of the voice acting and dialogue is pitch perfect. Drippy’s accent is a delight to try and muddle through interpreting and some of the game’s puns are perfect homages to Studio Ghibli fans (like fighting a pig tank called "Porco Grosso"), though I did get a bit tired of the animal based puns; hanging out with a cat king constantly addressed as “your meowjesty” and a cow queen as “your moojesty” is a bit much.
Some superb animated cutscenes from Studio Ghibli may be expected, but I don’t think anyone could have expected Level 5 to match the feel of those cutscenes so perfectly with the actual gameplay. Little touches like how Oliver’s gait changes as he traverses stairs shows that a lot of love went into this game. There is a small amount of disconnect between the animated characters and the still backgrounds they inhabit but I think it’s an acceptable misstep in an otherwise impressive visual performance. Audio design fares well, too, with an epic and memorable soundtrack, and although much of the voice acting is excellent (especially from Drippy), minor characters occasionally sound off and the game certainly could have benefited from more voice acted scenes in general.
Ni no Kuni’s strength actually lies in its setting, which is tied together by The Wizard’s Companion, a magical textbook of sorts given to Oliver when he begins his walk into the wonderful world of wizardry. Sadly, not every copy of Ni no Kuni comes with a physical copy of this book, but even in digital form it’s a joy, conjuring up nostalgia for the good old fashioned game manuals of previous generations. Full bestiary, spell, equipment, and alchemy lists are just the practical side of what the tome offers. Riddles that require careful perusing of the pages to solve, legends which give backstory to events you didn’t even know were important beforehand, and maps that act as more than just a general guide bring the book to life. It's just a shame there weren't more physical copies of it to go around.
Gameplay previews for Ni no Kuni had raised some concerns for me; the battle system seemed disturbingly like the dull, plodding fights found in White Knight Chronicles, which made that game such a chore to play through. Luckily this turns out not to be the case. While the general set-up may feel similar, the tempo has been sped up considerably, and fast reactions are often the difference between victory and defeat. Quickly switching from attacking to defending changes a devastating attack into a manageable affair, although this only applies to player controlled characters.
While you do acquire the ability to instruct your party members to attack or defend, your party members are almost never fast enough at following these orders for them to make a difference. I would often use Oliver’s Familiar as an evasion tank while doing my best to time his defensive skills for any large damage attacks during boss fights, but it seemed like no matter how much warning time I gave the other party members they could never replicate this tactic. Getting them to actually follow instructions in the first place takes a bit of work. For example, they would often ignore my “keep us healed” tactical command and spam spells until they ran out of MP, which forced me to withhold abilities from them in order to ensure they followed my commands. It's also irritating how Familiars run towards their targets without concern for avoiding obstacles like other enemies, so sometimes they’ll get stuck running into one enemy and will do no damage while at the same time getting walloped. You can cancel the attack and readjust their position, but you’re punished with a wait time until the Familiar can be set to attack again. None of these things kills the fun of the game, but they definitely added unnecessary frustration.
I mentioned Familiars before, and this is a term you’ll become well acquainted with before Ni no Kuni concludes. They’re a lot like pokemon; monsters that fight on behalf of your characters that can be captured and trained accordingly. But while pokemon have their own healthbars, Familiars share the healthbar of their 'owner', so in battle they act more like different forms of the human character than autonomous helpers. Each creature has two possible evolutions, and a choice between two different forms with the second change. They also come with adorable names, like my pirating feline tank called “Puss in Boats”. It isn’t as involved or strategic as Pokemon - I fought through quite a few boss battles with precisely the wrong elemental affiliations - but it’s a fun system nonetheless.
The star of the show for most long-time JRPG fans will be the return of a large world map with many nooks and crannies to explore and even progressively better methods of transportation around said map. Even after beating the final boss (by which point I had played for a total of 42 hours) there were still parts of the map I had yet to see, and plenty of caves left unexplored. It’s not the most value packed JRPG on the market, but I can definitely see myself coming back to Ni no Kuni for the simple joy of completing a few more mindless sidequests in this fascinating world.
Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind is probably my favorite movie of all time, and while it wasn’t made by Studio Ghibli as it exists today I’ve maintained a consistent love of Studio Ghibli’s work throughout my life. Movies like Spirited Away and Porco Rosso don’t have the most thought provoking narratives in cinema but there’s something about the animation style, wondrous settings, and attention to detail that makes even a “by the numbers” storyline like Arriety a great experience. Studio Ghilbli may have only collaborated with Level 5 on the development of Ni no Kuni, but I found myself feeling the same way playing Ni no Kuni as I do while watching a Studio Ghibli movie. Beautiful visuals and surprisingly enjoyable gameplay make up for a storyline that is, truth be told, rarely enthralling; if you’re a JRPG and anime fan (I find that the two are usually correlated) then you owe it to yourself to at least give this game a shot. You won’t be contemplating moral conundrums for months, but you’ll enjoy every minute.
This review is based on a review copy of Ni no Kuni, provided by the publisher.