I’m going to be frank and upfront with you. Level 5 and Studio Ghibli’s new JRPG, Ni No Kuni brings almost nothing new to the table; there’s no revolutionary battle system, there’s a fairly straight forward narrative, there are anime style visuals and there are logic puzzles. OK maybe most JRPGs don’t have those, but you can’t spend several years making some of the best puzzle games of all time without them leaking into your other works. The message of the entire production, like every other JRPG ever made, is about the power of the human heart, in this case literally.
However, everything it does, it does with such confidence and incredible finesse that it is one of the finest examples of the genre I’ve ever played.
Level 5 have cherry picked all the best parts of the genre from the past twenty five years, cut out most of the fat, made improvements and, using some modern wizardry, transformed them into one cohesive experience that feels both incredibly familiar but at the same time fresh and exciting.
But for me, the most exciting aspect of the game has to be the fact that it’s the first ever collaboration with world renowned animation studio – Studio Ghibli. For those in the west you’ll probably be familiar with one or two of their films such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke or Howl’s Moving Castle. If you aren’t I’d suggest watching them as soon as possible.
In Japan though, this is the equivalent of being the first game company to work with Disney back in its heyday.
I don’t think Ghibli could have found a better partner to make their first, and hopefully not last, game with. Level 5 have done a wonderful job of taking everything that makes Ghibli’s films so special and translating it into a video game. In many ways it is just as much an ode to studio Ghibli as it is to classic JRPGs. The characters and setting, the narrative, the eye achingly beautiful visuals, the impeccable score by Joe Hisaishi, and the spellbinding, traditionally animated cut scenes all scream Ghibli, and if that isn’t enough there are also plenty of subtle, and not so subtle references to Ghibli’s previous work that fans are bound to get a kick out of.
In Ni No Kuni you play as Oliver; a kind hearted boy living in the sleepy suburban town of Motorville. After the tragic death of his mother, Oliver is left heartbroken and crying in his room for days. His tears fall upon his favourite cuddly toy, Mr Drippy, who springs to life with the news that there may be a way to bring Oliver’s mother back to life. They can travel to a parallel world and save his mother’s counterpart there; the Great Sage Alisia, who has been imprisoned by Shadar; a dark and incredibly powerful sorcerer who means to destroy the parallel world and rebuild it as he sees fit.
After arriving in the parallel world it quickly becomes apparent that Oliver has a special gift. He can use his new found magical powers to heal the broken hearts of others. That’s right folks, in true traditional JRPG fashion, his greatest weapon is the power of the human heart. Within the game however this translates to literally transferring positive emotions between different characters.
For example, you might find someone who’s lacking any kind of enthusiasm to complete a task. All you need to do is find someone with an abundance of it, ask them kindly if you can borrow some, perform the ‘Take Heart’ spell and transfer it over to the guy who’s down in the dumps using the ‘Give Heart’ spell and voila, their troubles are over.
As well as forming part of the main quest there are also numerous side missions that focus solely on the use of this mechanic, as well as the usual fetch quests and bounty hunts for more dangerous creatures. You’d think that this might get repetitive and you’d be right, if it weren’t for a clever hook that makes completing side quests feel rewarding and somewhat addictive.
The information for all of the game’s side quests, which are split into 85 errands and 45 bounty hunts, are presided over by an agency called Swift Solutions. You can find them in every town and, as you would expect, they provide information on side quests as well as give you a place to turn in bounties once they’ve been completed. However, what makes Ni No Kuni unique is that every last side mission you complete rewards you with stamps for your merit card. Every ten stamps fills a card, turn in a set number of cards and you’ll be gifted with various useful perks, such as experience boosts and reductions to the cost of items in shops or additional loot drops at the end of battles.
Also of note are a series of side quests that don’t appear on the boards that involve talking to the ghost of a young wizard called Horace in each town who gives you riddles to solve by studying various sections of the ‘Wizard’s Companion’. These brain teasers are a welcome change of pace and I’d recommend tracking the little bugger down behind the grave in Ding Dong Dell as he’s easily missed. (By the castle entrance, on the right, up the steps, by where you find the fish)
The ‘Wizard’s Companion’ is one of the best additions to the game for an old school RPG fan like me who remembers a time when a manual included more interesting information than merely what button stabs things. Everything you need to know about the parallel world is contained in this huge, albeit virtual, tome. Want to see what your familiar evolves into next? Look in the ‘Wizard’s Companion’! Fancy doing some alchemy? There’s an entire chapter on it. Stuck looking for a certain monster or item? It’s in the book. Fancy reading some incredibly well written fables? Just check out the ’12 Tales of Wonder’ because, as previously mentioned, there will be a test.
Despite the wealth of knowledge contained within, there are still pages missing from the book, namely spells. These are gained throughout the main quest and a few extras via the side quests. These cover the usual fireballs and showers of ice used in combat but there are also practical spells for solving problems within in the game world itself. This was a great twist as it made the magic in the game feel more palpable and, well, magic, as opposed to just another stick to smack creatures on the head with.
Speaking of creatures, there are hundreds to catch and train. In the world of Ni No Kuni these come in two varieties, ones born of human hearts and those born of things found in nature such as animals, plants and certain objects. These creatures are, as you’d expect, ‘Wild’.
Within the game this translates to each character in your party starting off with their own familiar and then there being a wide variety of other creatures littering the landscape which can be tamed and used. Put simply, if you can fight it, the odds are that you will have a chance at some point to catch and tame it.
Catching a familiar is all but guaranteed once the conditions to do so are met, however being in a position to do so is completely random. After whaling on a creature during a battle occasionally love hearts will appear above its head, indicating that it’s fallen in love with you. (I know what you’re thinking; not a great message for the kids, but we’ll worry about the generation of Ghibli loving wife beaters later.) At this time Esther can play her harp to tame the beast and trap it. But, as I said, whether you see the love hearts is down entirely to luck. It’s a shame really because it undermines this side of the game and makes certain side missions either really easy or drag on for ages.
Like Pokémon, your Familiars can evolve into another, more powerful form once they reach a certain level. However you choose when this happens. Also doing so will return it back to level one. Luckily it isn’t too much of a grind to bring it back up to strength and it also unlocks more powerful moves and eventually better stats.
This does add a slight risk vs. reward element as evolving creatures will weaken your party for a short while they catch back up with the other creatures.
The other difference in the evolutionary stakes is that each monster has two final forms. For example Oliver’s first familiar, Mite, will eventually turn into either a Dynomite, or Mermite. One is fire based and the other Water. This adds a nice level of strategy and customisation as well as enabling some familiars to be more diverse in their move set.
Combat itself is rather hectic, incredibly fun and is best described as a cross between ‘Pokémon’ and Namco’s ‘Tales of” games. Each member of your party has three familiars and can call on one at a time to fight for them. How long they are out on the field depends on their stamina gauge which starts to run down as soon as they hit the field, familiars also don’t have their own health and are linked the HP of the party member controlling them. They do, however, have their own stats, so if you use a recently evolved familiar in a battle chances are it’s going to hurt.
Although you only have direct control over one character at a time, you can command the other members of the part to either focus on attacking or defending. Thankfully, the friendly AI is pretty intelligent and does what you ask it to do 99% of the time.
Mastering the ebb and flow of fights and knowing when to push forward or hold back is crucial during the games lengthy boss fights, where one missed block can easily mean a character down at best and instant game over at worst.
Successfully deflecting a big attack will reward you with orbs containing a bonus, HP or MP, This is incredibly useful when provisions are low, but the real game changer is when a golden orb drops. These refill your health meter and enable characters and familiars to perform their overcharge move, an impressive looking elemental attack or healing move. These got me out of scrapes on numerous occasions. Just as long as another party member doesn’t get to it first as they have a horrible habit of gobbling up every orb in sight and using overcharge moves you don’t want to. It’s annoying but not the end of the world though.
The action on screen is accompanied by possibly one of the best scores I’ve ever heard in a game, Joe Hisashi’s evocating and lilting soundtrack never misses a beat from the epic trumpeting while crossing the world map to the discordant polka of the fairy grounds. Every track serves to draw you into the world further and helps to build a stronger emotional connection with the characters and setting and makes you care for their plight even more.
Also worthy of praise is the games brilliant vocal work. Purists will be happy to hear that there is the option to have the vocals in Japanese. For the rest of us however, the English dub is unique for one reason, and as a Brit, hell, as someone who’s lived in Wales, I couldn’t help but smile when I first heard Mr. Drippy speak. That’s right, the ‘High Lord of the Fairies’ is Welsh. In fact, all of the malformed lunatics that live on the island that Drippy comes from speak in dialect and say ‘be there’ and use the word ‘tidy’ to mean good.
Yes, it’s somewhat stereotypical and maybe even a little derogatory if you think about it too long, but at the same time the fairies are the most likeable characters in the entire game and I applaud the localisation for giving us more than the usual incomprehensible Scottish, Irish or ‘pip pip’ English accents, although admittedly most of the English speaking characters are incredibly well spoken. But, hey, why change the habit of a life time?
So far I’m 45 hours into the game, I’ve completed a large portion of the easier side quests and all the bounty hunts so far and I think I’m near the end of the main quest. So a conservative estimate to completing the main quest if you don’t bother with side quests is probably 30ish hours. But if you’re anything like me, the game would have got it’s hooks well and truly into you after the first hour or two and any excuse to stay in the world is worth the extra effort.
I’ve still got plenty to do and if you decide to try and catch every familiar it would be easy to double the games run time. It’s massive.
So should you get Ni No Kuni? In a word, yes. If you own a PS3, you’d be crazy not to. It’s not just one of the best JRPGs on the system; it’s one of the best games on the PS3 full stop. But even that doesn’t do it justice, if you don’t own a PS3 and you love JRPGs it’s worth the investment in the console itself.
Ghibli and Level 5 have created a masterpiece. An emotionally charged, heart warming coming of age tale that successfully evokes memories from the legacy of RPGs but also creates a solid foundation for their future. I have no doubts that it will be hitting many game of the year lists come the end of 2013 and can comfortably place itself amongst not only the best games of this generation of consoles, but of all time.