Genre: Role Playing Developer: Level-5 Inc. Publisher: Namco Bandai Classification: PG Release Date: 1st Feb 2013 Platforms:
Average of 4 Ratings
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Level-5ís intention is clear. It wants Ni no Kuni to be Wind Waker and Final Fantasy all rolled up into one. Throw in Alice in Wonderland and some easy mix JRPG ingredients and voilŗ! In theory that sounds pretty amazing and to begin with there seems to be something right about the recipe; an extra sprinkling of Studio Ghibli aesthetic along with a generous splash of composer Joe Hisaishi. As the amazing orchestral score swirls about Oliverís adventures - from his beginning in everyday Motorville to the awakening of his fairy lord doll and the endowment of magical powers to travel between worlds - your heart gets locked in.
This initial charm holds steady as you discover more spells and roll through the opening few hours of this sprawling title, coming to terms with its slightly frustrating battle system and smiling at Drippyís heavy Welsh mannerisms and every characterís insistence on word puns - ďYour MeowjestyĒ to address a feline king, for example. While we played Ni no Kuni in English, and found the experience to be very good, there is the option for Japanese as well, which Ghibli purists will be sure to choose.
The story is simple. Thirteen year old Oliver and his newly come-to-life, Lord High Lord of the Fairies toy, Drippy, go on a bunch of adventures to bring about emotional balance to both worlds. A dark lord is menacing the populace of Ni no Kuni, sucking the courage and enthusiasm out of people like a spiritual vacuum cleaner. Oliverís motivation is the hope that he can somehow save his mother - who dies saving him from drowning early on - by helping her doppelganger in the connected fantasy world. People and animals are linked between both worlds, with problems or emotional issues triggering effects in their opposite selves.
Although there are undertones of menace and characters do die, Ni no Kuni is a heartfelt game. Individual problems invariably boil down to a character not having enough of a particular virtue, such as courage or enthusiasm. Oliver, being a newfound wizard, naturally has the ability to balance out these constitutional elements, taking ďheartĒ from one person and instilling it in another. Thereís no chainsawing aliens in half or head stomping. Instead, youíll help a girl overcome her fear of going outside, stop a queen from eating too much cheese and find a lost cat. It can be a little eye-rolling, but generally Ni no Kuni succeeds in maintaining its charm.
The world of Ni no Kuni is traversed similarly to early Final Fantasy titles, with a pulled back perspective of the overworld. Individual enemies patrol the land and seek you out incessantly for battles until you level up enough so that they are eventually fearful of you and run the other way. Each new area introduces another hour or two of half-random battles and main cities to explore.
The cities are gorgeous and make you feel like you are running through a cartoon. Ding Dong Dell, the first that you come across, features narrow alleyways and cobblestone pathways surrounded by cottage shops and is populated by just enough carefree citizens to make it feel like a lively rural town. Most, if not all, of the gameís appeal comes from the interplay between the art and soundtrack in such environments. Beyond that, you have an extremely middle-of-the-road JRPG.
There are several systems at play that make Ni no Kuni feel far more complicated than it really is. Oliver is a nice guy and attacks his role with gusto, even if he does come across as light-witted. Youíll spend hours running around fulfilling side quests and hunting down creature bounties. These quests are usually fetch types or require you to balance someoneís heart. Oliverís Take Heart spell allows him to take an element from a person with their permission, so that he can then endow it upon the broken-hearted. In terms of gameplay, this requires you to keep an eye on the mini-map for green dots, which represent citizens with an abundance of some emotion. You then grab it off them and run back to the other person to cast Give Heart. Itís often easy to anticipate these moments as you enter a new area and quickly search around for anyone with emotional bounty.
Initially, side quests fulfill little purpose beyond relying on your inbuilt altruism. However, Level-5 has cleverly included incentive beyond feeling good and gaining some money. Completing quests and bounties gives you merit stamps. The amount of stamps earned relates to how difficult each quest is. Once you fill a merit card, you gain reward points, which can be spent on game-wide skills and bonuses. Early rewards include running faster over the world map or increasing the chance of finding better items. Later ones bring out the determined quest-doer, offering perks such as regenerating health while you walk and lowering the cost of items in stores. The only downside to the reward system is the need to unlock an entire row before the next unlocks. This reduces the ability to customise your play experience. A strange constraint in a role playing game.
Although itís possible to avoid some encounters on the map, each new area requires many hours of fighting to level up enough so that aggressive creatures will leave you alone. Most fights only last ten seconds or so, meaning youíll be hearing the victory music a lot. The battle system is Ö okay. Itís boring to start with but gets more interesting (but also more frustrating) as you gain new party members and unlock more familiars - creatures that fight in your stead and level up along with you.
Battle options include the usual choices of attacks, spells, items and what have you, but there is also room to physically move around the fighting space to avoid some physical attacks and collect glims (orbs of health and mana) as they appear. You can cancel an order if you are mid-way through something, but thereís often a slight delay, meaning that the battle system never feels entirely active.
Swapping familiars in and out of battle plays to a decent rhythm, with each creature given a stamina bar of sorts, turning longer battles into tactical affairs. As other human companions who each have their own familiars come into the story, options open up to allow you to dictate how they aid you. Generally, though, you let them do their own thing, frowning in annoyance as they steal your glims or keel over unconscious because you were too busy to notice that they needed healing. Sometimes itís actually easier to just let them get knocked out so you can concentrate on killing the boss, rather than playing nanny the whole time.
Frustrations arise when you know that you should be defending, yet require lighting reflexes and muscle knowledge of the exact directional input needed to quickly get to that option. This is eased when, fifteen hours into the game, you unlock the option to switch between all-out attack or defence modes with the press of a button. Itís incredible that this wasnít made an option straight up, seeing as the controls arenít exactly complicated. This extended handing out of mechanics works against Ni no Kuni quite a bit. A lot of players will start to feel quite bored before they get to the more interesting content.
At around the ten hour mark, you are given the ability to charm and capture creatures that you fight. These are converted to familiars that you can level and transform through various metamorphoses, usually resulting in a creature with better attacks and higher stats, although they start at Level 1 again after changing. This is where you really start to feel empowered, choosing your familiars, feeding them treats to make them stronger, deciding which skills and spells they have and guiding them through to more stronger versions. Itís like Pokťmon without the stigma of being childish.
Be aware, however, that the cuteness factor never lets up. If your heart is full of cynicism then the initially amazing art design and soundscape will only charm for the opening few hours. Itís essential that the prospect of cute quests is endearing, otherwise you will find Ni no Kuniís overall theme hard to stomach. It does border on saccharine, especially with all the talk about broken hearts, but there is always the obvious sense that everything is part of Oliverís coping mechanism for dealing with his motherís death.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch offers little to push the genre forward. It embraces nostalgia like a security blanket. Thereís airiness to the light legend of this fantasy land, like the filtered thoughts of a boyís frantic efforts to make sense of tragedy. It boils down to Oliver and Drippy being really nice. They are nice guys trying to do nice things. The Ghibli-inspired design melds with the studio-created story scenes seamlessly and makes this a comforting world to want to spend time in. As mentioned, the soundtrack is glorious, evoking far more emotions than the writing, which is often awkward and, after the initial charm, full of bad puns.
Itís unfortunate that the story is so incredibly mundane, with a bad case of structural repetition for each main area. Oliverís grief is a valid emotion to ride, but it takes a back seat to so many hours of grinding. Ni no Kuni is a beautiful tugboat ride through a traditional JRPG. The art and music are front and centre the whole time, in an obvious effort to hide the imbalance between comfort and boredom.
Thereís no real imagination on display, certainly not to Studio Ghibliís usual standard. Creature designs are interesting enough but show no characterisation beyond their levelling paths. Even so, there are moments of pure niceness that almost make those hours listening to a Welsh fairy worthwhile. Plodding through Ni no Kuniís story is satisfying in a work-like way and itís certainly a harmless pursuit to enjoy if the rows of ubiquitous violent shooters have you frowning in distaste.