The Huge, Beautiful World of Ni no Kuni

ni no kuni logo

The Huge, Beautiful World of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a gift to gamers. It is a joy to play, watch, and hear, and it is bound — even if its overseas sales don’t live up to expectations — to amass an army of ardent admirers. It is a collaboration between two Japanese heavyweights: Level-5 — the talented team behind Dragon Quest VIII & IX and the Professor Layton series — and Studio Ghibli — the uber-talented team behind such anime classics as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, and Grave of the Fireflies, amongst roughly 4000 others.

In theory, Ni no Kuni is a gumbo of tried-and-true gaming conventions: the creature collection of Pokemon; the real-time, free-moving battle system of the Tales games; the cute, animated visuals of Level-5’s previous work; the world map exploration of older Final Fantasy entries (not to mention many other RPGs); and — because that obviously isn’t enough — the sweeping orchestral music of Ghibli-go-to Joe Hisaishi.

I’m thinking some kind of Faustian bargain was made, because Ni no Kuni somehow manages to bring all these elements together in a way that feels fresh and coherent.

ni no kuni gameplay

The premise is old hat. Oliver is the prophesied hero of a bizarre alternate reality known as Ni no Kuni. It is a world populated by Pokemon-esque creatures just dying to rip Oliver and company a new one, as well as the “soulmates” of Oliver’s world, Motorville, an idyllic American suburb. It is, predictably, threatened by a dark power and, you guessed it, Oliver is the only one who can stop it.

These generic elements are offset by some more effective ones obviously inspired by the Ghibli collaboration. Indeed, if Ni no Kuni does not reach the great heights of Ghibli’s best work, that’s probably because Akihiro Kino, Level-5’s mastermind and Ni no Kuni’s scribe, isn’t quite as good a writer as, say, Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. But only just. There are moments where the simple story soars: a late night joyride with Oliver’s best friend and its tragic consequences; a quest involving a comedy club, a mountain that gives birth to fairies, and some well-implemented sidescrolling action; and a time-hopping, prince-saving adventure through the world of the undead are just a few standout moments. Ni no Kuni truly aims for the Ghibli pedigree and isn’t 100% successful, but it comes damn close.

ni no kuni fight

The gameplay is an interesting blend of well-worn mechanics. Oliver and co. traverse a giant world map reminiscent of a host of classic RPGs (not the least of which is Dragon Quest VIII). You do real-time battles with hostile creatures. After defeating certain enemies, you’ll get the chance to “serenade” them and take them with you as familiars. The biggest and most obvious influence here is Pokemon. The “catch ‘em all” premise is largely the same. But Ni no Kuni avoids seeming like a ripoff largely because the battle system is wildly different. The majority of your battles involve three characters, each controlling a familiar of their choosing. These battles are far more fast paced and action-focused than anything in the Poke-franchise. Additionally, you can swap out your familiar in place of the actual character. The humans are not quite as effective in battle as the familiars, but each one has a special skill; Oliver, for example, is a wizard, so he’s got an arsenal of spells you can bet you’ll be using. It can also get really tough. Yeah, the game looks kidsy, but put the controller in the hands of an 7-year-old and prepare for some tears.

Unfortunately, the battle system is probably the game’s weakest moment. It is, overall, quite good, but there are a number of major frustrations that seem to crop up consistently. Switching between characters and familiars can take quite a long time, often enough to get you killed. From time to time, the teammate A.I. verges on ridiculously braindead. Your friends will happily spend their magic — a resource that, oh yes, you will be sorely lacking, and often — pointlessly, sometimes wasting their full MP in the first half of one battle. (If you leave Oliver to his own devices to, say, switch to Esther in order to serenade a creature, he will take literally any opportunity to cast his expensive Ward to protect his teammates — even if you’re down to the last quarter of the final enemy’s health bar.) This A.I. stupidity really stands out because the gameplay is otherwise extremely well-polished. It’s a frustrating blemish on an otherwise standout system.

ni no kuni screenshot

Technical Presentation

AUDIO – The sound design is brilliant. The voice acting is top notch in Japanese and English, especially Steffan Rhodri as Mr. Drippy. This isn’t a fast-and-nasty localization. They put in a ton of effort — probably one of the reasons an American version took so long — and it shows. The score is a stunner. It grows naturally from the world and background of every new place you discover. There’s a real emotional resonance to it. Hisaishi did not rest on his laurels because he was working on just a video game. It’s easily worthy of a Myazaki film. Like a perfectly chosen adjective, it masterfully improves its setting.

VISUAL – The major reason to get on the Ni no Kuni ride — as you can probably tell just by looking at screenshots — is the visuals. The world is unbelievably well-crafted, on par with the best Ghibli worlds. The visuals are a little childish, yes, but trust me, once you start exploring the world of Ni no Kuni is incredible. There’s little-to-no repetition. Every area feels fresh. Each is gorgeous to look at and has its own creative theme. It’s the kind of world that makes one instinctively want to explore. And there’s so much of it. I could easily see myself playing this game into the 70-80 hour area. Characters are similarly beautiful and distinctive: from caped Oliver, to a giant cow queen, to a frog prince, to the Lovecraftian Shadar, this is AAA character design.

Pros:

+ Unbelievably beautiful world you’ll happily get lost in

+ Terrific voice acting with great English localization

+ Huge and long, with a ridiculous amount of familiars to catch

+ Mr. Drippy

+ Witty, creative, hilarious writing

Cons:

- Unoriginal overall story

- Battle system frustrations

Final Thoughts

Don’t. Miss. Ni no Kuni. If you have a PS3, go buy it now. Yes, the gameplay has its flaws and the story isn’t terribly original, but the sheer amount of creativity, heart, and energy overflowing from Ni no Kuni easily overcomes those issues. Its visuals are unreal; its voice acting and score are amazing; its beautiful world is jam packed with enough ideas to make your head spin. It’s a sumptuous creation from two of the most skilled entertainment companies in Japan. Ni no Kuni is a game experience I’ll remember for a long, long time.

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Posted on February 11, 2013, in Game Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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