Traditional Japanese role-playing games are becoming harder and harder to find. They have become increasingly more westernised, lacking all the beauty and frustration that many fans have grown to love. There’s a new PS3 exclusive that’s come back fighting though, and it’s a real beauty.
Ni No Kuni follows the story of a young boy named Oliver, who lives in the quiet town of Motorville. All seems rosy in Oliver’s life, until one day his mother passes away and his whole world appears to fall down around him, and he ends up blaming himself. Seeking comfort, he turns to Drippy, the small cuddly toy his mother made him years before, and as his tears roll onto Drippy, he magically springs to life.
Oliver and Drippy soon embark on an epic journey into a magical land in an attempt to save his mother, and the lives of many others in the mysterious land that Drippy comes from.
One of the best things about Ni No Kuni is arguably its core goal; save the people of the magical world from being brokenhearted by the evil Shadar. It’s a bizarre concept, but it certainly keeps the player engaged. See, people in this world are having parts of their hearts stolen. Some have lost their positive outlook on life, and others have lost their generosity, among other things. How can you help them? Simple; go find someone with an abundance of what that person needs, scoop a little off the top, and give it back to them. It’s extremely basic, but clever in its execution, and can have some rather touching consequences as you get further invested in the plot.
When it comes down to mending the broken hearts of major characters, you must first find their soul mates in the human world. This normally involves looking for someone in Oliver’s hometown with similar facial features, or similar personality traits. The game tends to hold your hand throughout these parts, telling you exactly who you need to find most of the time, but this doesn’t really take away any of the challenge it has to offer in other areas.
It’s not all about digging out bits of people’s hearts however. Ni No Kuni has a lot of very traditional gameplay mechanics that you would expect from a JRPG. First of all, it follows a real-time battle system, but instead of using Oliver and his other human comrades to fight (although you can), you instead use monsters that you capture along the way. These monsters are called familiars and fight in your place, levelling up the same way you do and acquiring new skills and magic spells as time goes by. They are limited to their time on the battle field by their stamina gauge, but swiftly recover so you’re not stuck running around without protection for too long. You can also take three of these little critters into battle with you, so you’re free to balance your party with a healer, a magic user and a physical attacker.
This method of capturing and training monsters for your own gain is similar to concept to Pokemon and even Dragon Warrior Monsters. The problem is with the familiars, you tend to get your starter ones, and not really bother with any others. It takes a very long time to level up towards the end of the game, and it sometimes feels like a bit of a chore to get your newly captured familiars up to the same level as your original ones. Even grinding in the locations where you’re guaranteed to get some serious experience, it can still take a very long time, and it sometimes feels a little bit too much like hard work.
If you’re sick and tired of grinding through your levels though, there are some handy little side quests to distract you every once in a while. One of the best things about Ni No Kuni are all the different errands and bounty hunts you can accept. If it wasn’t for these extra quests, then Ni No Kuni may be a much shorter game than it is. The bounty hunts sometimes require you to do a little bit of level grinding depending on where you’re at in the game, and the errands will occasionally see you flitting between locations on a mission to collect many different items. Naturally, some of these errands seem like much more of a chore than others, but the rewards are always worth it. Ni Ni Kuni adopts an interesting system using a stamp card. For every errand you complete, as well as bounties, you receive stamps in your card. With each card you fill with stamps, you can purchase new abilities. These range from anything between the ability to jump on the world map, to gaining more money at the end of each battle. It’s an excellent incentive to do as many errands as possible.
There is no doubting that No No Kuni is an absolutely stunning game, and that is all down to the skill of the animation studio. It’s not just a brand new Level 5 JRPG, it’s a Studio Ghibli JRPG, and any fans of this Japanese animation studio will know exactly how beautiful they like to make their characters and environments. Level 5 have always had beautiful graphics in their games, but Studio Ghibli have really upped the ante, bringing their own unique art style into this world to really give it a boost of life.
The soundtrack to Ni No Kuni could easily allow it to be mistaken for a Dragon Quest game. The background tracks are absolutely beautiful, and feel very similar to a Koichi Sugiyama soundtrack. There are no loud, abrasive tracks to be heard here, just calming and soothing songs to guide you through the game, only picking up the pace when it comes down to battles. The voice acting is also top-notch, even the English dub isn’t too bad. The game allows the player to choose between a Japanese voice track or an English one, so for the dub haters out there don’t fear, you’re more than catered for.
Ni No Kuni is a beautiful game, albeit a little bit too childlike at times, but the ending is simply too abrupt. For a game that lasts nearly 50 hours, such an abrupt ending is almost inexcusable. There may be more things to do once the game has ended, but it simply isn’t enough. Ni No Kuni has all the regular trappings of a traditional JRPG, but it really needs some DLC to satisfy the more hardcore fans of the genre.