When was the last time you bought a console exclusive game for the graphics alone? Perhaps there was an impressive PS3 or 360 launch title that caught your eyes all those years back, but for the last few years many of us have been eyeing the PC-savvy with increasing jealousy, scrimping our pennies together and reading up on video cards. But now, there’s Ni No Kuni.
On a technical level, Ni No Kuni may not be the most advanced game, but it’s one that is much easier to recommend because of its incredibly strong art. The involvement of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio behind some of the most beautiful anime films ever created (if you’ve never seen My Neighbour Totoro it’s possible that you don’t fully understand what ‘joy’ is), has helped developers, Level 5, craft a world flush with beauty. At any given moment in a major area, you can arch the camera, sit back and stare at the screen, and feel like you’re staring at an incredible illustration.
The character and world designs are just beautiful. Drippy, your constant companion throughout this JRPG adventure, is adorable. He prances through the game alongside you, smiling his dopey grin, jumping around and falling over, and messing around in the background during cut-scenes (during one reunion between a father and daughter, Drippy can be seen trying on hats in the background, in what must surely be a nod to Homer’s notes to Mel Gibson for his remake of Mr Smith Goes To Washington). The soundtrack is also consistently wonderful, sweeping across the game’s landscape and embedding your journey with a greater sense of purpose.
To say that presentation is the major selling point of a game is usually a backhanded compliment, but this really is a strong contender for the PS3’s most beautiful game to-date. It’s not as visually complex as Ghibili’s recent films, with some locales lacking intricacy and a colour palette that, while beautiful, occasionally feels a bit limited in certain areas. But being able to interact with a Ghibli world, and to witness motion occurring organically within it, is wonderful.
Ni No Kuni puts you in control of Oliver, a young boy who, during a bunch of beautifully animated opening cut-scenes, loses his mother to heart failure. Later, his tears bring to life a weird little stuffed toy his mum gave him some time ago, and he finds himself prophesised as the chosen one and given magical wizard powers so that he can get caught up in the conflict of another, fantastical world. It’s pretty standard JRPG fare that could have elevated itself by playing up the grief angle a bit more, but then the game can also be read as a metaphor for dealing with loss – the explicit parallels between the world in which Oliver enacts his power fantasies and the real world make for some moderately interesting pondering. The characters are reasonably charming, although if you’re a purist like me and decide to play the game in Japanese, be wary that the subtitles are quite clearly intended for the English version (amongst numerous other small changes, Drippy has an Osaka accent in the Japanese version, while English Drippy is Welsh). This is the sort of thing that will only bother a tiny percentage of players, as the English voice-acting is fine too, but it’s still a shame.
Ni No Kuni is a pretty traditional JRPG in every aspect outside of the battle system (more on that in a bit). The original Japanese release started out as a DS exclusive, and in many ways it shows – the SNES-styled overworld that you walk through to reach new destinations, the few puzzles that require you to awkwardly type words out, the way dialog awkwardly cuts and changes between being spoken and being purely written, and the way the spell symbols were obviously originally intended to be drawn onto a touch screen. Ni No Kuni has been updated for the PS3 admirably though – it feels a touch ‘old-school’, but that’s not always a bad thing.
You spend the game travelling back and forth between towns, working at side-quests while chipping away at the bigger central quest, as has been the case with every JRPG ever. I’d have ignored the side-quests had they not offer prizes and potential stat boosts though, because the vast majority of them are super boring. The ones that require you to go out and fight, or to hunt down something hidden around town, or to find specific items in the overworld, are bad enough. But one of Oliver’s primary wizarding abilities – his power to fix broken hearts – is the worst. You find a flashing blue icon on the map, you talk to the person, Drippy prescribes a part of their heart that’s missing. You find a green icon on the map, talk to the person there, and they may have an overabundance of what the other person is missing (resilience, courage, enthusiasm, etc.). You collect the excess, take it back to the other person, and get rewarded. Repeat until your eyes roll back in your head and you wonder why you’re wasting your time on such banal busywork.
Thankfully, the central quest is more interesting, and you’ll pick up some decent abilities along the way to completing it. First and foremost among these is your ability to take on ‘familiars’, which opens up once you collect your second party member a few hours in. Familiars are similar to Pokémon, in that you can send them out into combat in your place, and they level up and even evolve in similar ways. If a monster ‘falls in love’ with you when you defeat it (which happens seemingly at random), you have a moment to switch control over to Esther, your second party member, and ‘serenade’ it. Once you catch a familiar and put it on your team it’ll level up alongside the rest of your familiars (is this a JRPG or a bestiality sim? – Ed.)
The battle system that precedes these captures, and indeed makes up a huge portion of the gameplay experience, can sometimes feel a little fiddly. Fights actually occur in real-time, with no option to pause and cycle through your commands, which can get awkward. In the heat of battle, the second or two you might spend cancelling your current action and cycling through to ‘defend’ or into ‘provisions’ to eat a healing item can be enough to cost you your life. A good battle can still be a lot of fun, but you’ll have to deal with plenty of moments like this.
You can get away with adopting a handful of strategies and using them over and over (I found that many boss fights were better fought using Oliver rather than switching to his familiars, although this will differ depending on your team deployment). Midway through the game, you unlock an ‘all attack/defend’ ability that really should have been granted to you the second you picked up a second person in your party; it certainly helps to mitigate the AI that occasionally just goes and gets itself killed in battle by making a bunch of dumb decisions that are out of your control (although you can swap between characters during battle, you can’t reasonably expect to keep all party members under your control at once). Factor in the occasional big difficulty spike and you’ve got a game that often frustrates, although not one, thankfully, that requires too much excessive grinding to complete.
If you’ve grown sick of JRPGs, as many people have, Ni No Kuni isn’t going to change your mind. It’s traditional, steadfast in its adherence to certain genre rules, and only stays away from a few of the genre’s bad habits. But it’s also a beautiful game, solidly built and full of whimsy, with some fun features and the sort of breadth you don’t often find in game adventures these days. It’s definitely one of the better JRPGs of recent years (especially if you never owned a Wii or a DS), and far more refined than many of its rivals. If you’ve been craving a safe, predictable JRPG game, it’s easy to give this one the nod – just know that not everything in here is as beautiful as the graphics.