It’s an interesting day and age we live in as far as video games go. Our favorite pastime has come so far in the last 30 or so years, yet we now reside in a world where the top selling and most played game every year involves not much more than jumping into a matchmaking lobby and shooting things over and over (for the record, I love Call of Duty as much as the next guy).
But weren’t video games supposed to represent something bigger? Somewhere down the road, weren’t video games supposed to stand on par with television and movies? Weren’t we supposed to be playing games that were….”more?” To be fair, there have been plenty of games that have moved forward with the interactive experience; Journey and the Mass Effect series come to mind.
The traditional RPG is one genre that has slowly faded into obscurity in the past decade or so. As shooters and competitive online multiplayer become the “norm” in gaming, it appears that people have less and less time to invest fully into an emotional, story heavy experience. Even those games that are mainstays of the JRPG formula are moving towards a more action RPG route.
So why in the world is Ni No Kuni coming out right now? Is there really a place for a game like Ni No Kuni? Or could it be that Ni No Kuni is (to paraphrase The Dark Knight) “not the game we deserve, but the game we need right now?” I may be reaching here, but I think that NNK is coming out at the perfect time to bring JRPGs back into prominence. Think about it; MMORPGs are a huge commodity, and the recent success of Persona 4 Golden proves that there is still an audience out there for the traditional JRPG. NNK is here to show that a new IP can move a long stagnant genre forward.
[quote_right]I must keep the plot vague, because the true beauty of NNK, other than the jaw-dropping gorgeous artwork, lies within the story. It must be experienced firsthand.[/quote_right]Despite any memorable battle system of JRPGs past, the meat and bones of the genre lies within its ability to tell a story and present a cast of memorable characters. Luckily, NNK is packed to the brim with wonderfully written characters and deep, albeit surprisingly dark, storyline. While NNK does not present anything groundbreaking as far as the JRPG genre goes, it delivers its story very well, and brings forth a touch of innocence that made feel “happy” while playing it (despite the somber opening sequence).
In Ni No Kuni, you take on the role of Oliver, a young boy who, after a tragic event early in the game, discovers the parallel world of Ni No Kuni. Along with his sidekick Mr. Drippy, a host of familiars (kind of like Pokemon that you collect along the way), and of course, a party of side characters, Oliver must defeat the evil that has befallen Ni No Kuni and save those that he loves the most. I must keep the plot vague, because the true beauty of NNK, other than the jaw-dropping gorgeous artwork, lies within the story. It must be experienced firsthand.
The gameplay isn’t anything different than the turn-based fighting we’ve all seen time and time again, but NNK adds an extra layer on top of the base combat mechanic that can make for some pretty frenetic battles and forces some quick decision making. While you can control Oliver during combat and access his repertoire of attacks, spells, defends, etc. you can also switch to a familiar at anytime. Familiars are basically little companions that fight alongside you. By holding down L1 during combat, you can select which character you want to control. Familiars may have more powerful attacks or different spells that you need to utilize in order to defeat a certain enemy.
However, there are a few things you need to remember when deciding between using Oliver or a familiar: 1) Familiars and Oliver share the same HP and MP, and 2) familiars have a stamina gauge that, when depleted, renders the familiar un-useable until it can recover. As it stands, the majority of the combat system is finding the balance and the right time to use Oliver or your familiars. It’s a lot of fun, and shakes up the traditional turn-based mechanic we all know so well ever so slightly, while maintaining a large degree of familiar gameplay.
The remainder of your time with the game will be spent on various side missions, exploration, buying weapons and armor, feeding your familiars treats to make them more powerful, etc. There’s a lot to do in NNK, and while it’s hard to get completely lost in side missions, there are still enough things to occupy your time should you grow tired of the main quest. But, you probably won’t.
As you all probably know by now, Ni No Kuni is a collaboration between RPG masters Level-5 and animation masters Studio Ghibli. The result is a walking, talking, living, interactive Studio Ghibli film. The artwork is absolutely stunning, and within the first few minutes, it’s clear that you are witnessing the work of the legendary Studio Ghibli. While the cutscenes and in-game art is stunning, the true beauty of NNK is evident when you see the overworld for the first time. Simply put, it is gorgeous.
It seems silly to fawn over the overworld, but it’s just so bright and vibrant, almost like a living oil painting. There are a lot of little touches that you’ll notice, like the large shadow of a cloud passing overhead, or the way the sun plays off of the water. It’s beautiful and almost relaxing to witness; that is, of course, until you run into an enemy.
On the audio front, things are about as top notch as you might expect from a Level-5 and Studio Ghibli production. While most purists may balk at the thought of playing a JRPG with the English audio track, here it’s actually pretty good. In fact, it’s really, really good. The English vocal track is one of the best I’ve ever heard. Add to that an epic soundtrack by legendary composer Joe Hisaishi, and you have a complete and utterly beautiful audio experience.
It’s clear that a lot of love and care went into the making of Ni No Kuni. Whether or not Level-5 and Studio Ghibli intended to make a JRPG that announces the triumphant return of the genre remains to be seen, but it seems that’s the effect of this game. It’s beautiful, fun, and well produced from beginning to end.
If you’re not someone who likes turn-based RPGs, this game will still offer you plenty to marvel at in terms of the art design and story, but it may end up being a bit taxing. NNK was not made to cater to the casual RPG fan. yet it also isn’t as complex and in-depth as something like Disgaea. There’s a fair bit of dungeon crawling, grinding that may end up getting repetitive, and a ton of text to read, so if that’s not your cup of tea, then keep that in mind.
If you are a fan of the genre, however, then Ni No Kuni is pretty much the best traditional JRPG to come out in years (at least as far as original IPs are concerned). There are very few flaws with the game, and if you choose to give it a play, then be prepared to lose hours of your life. It’s brilliant, and an instant masterpiece.