With announcements of a Sony conference, Pokémon X/Y, Metal Gear Rising and my compulsive need to replay Final Fantasy VII, I did not know a single detail about Ni No Kuni when I was originally given this assignment. There are probably many, even after the game’s release, who know very little about this game. If this is the case, they are missing out on something the entire RPG genre has been lacking for some time in my opinion: a solid JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game).

 

GRAPHICS: 9/10

Whether you are a fan of Japanese anime or not, there is no denying the beauty of Ni No Kuni’s artistic style. The characters are vibrant with color; wide eyes, big smiles and humorous designs in both the human and nonhuman characters are wonderfully animated. Even the backgrounds come alive. Every palace, mountain, lake and stretch of desert makes you feel more immersed in the world. And, as if the in-game graphics were not gorgeous enough, full animated clips are added to further drive home the feeling of controlling an animated movie, as opposed to just playing a game. Whether roaming through town completing side quests or traveling from town to town on the world map, this game is beautiful.

 

STORY: 7/10

Now, I am not a gamer who requires violence to keep my interest in a story. Quite the contrary, I enjoy a good psychological story far more. The tale of Ni No Kuni, however, is neither really. As soon as the game pops onto the screen, players can accurately assume this is essentially a children’s tale. You take the role of Oliver, the Pure Hearted wizard, who is tasked with saving a parallel world from the evil White Witch. By your side is the Lord High Lord of Fairies, Mr. Drippy, who will guide you through this new world.

Oliver must go from town to town using your magic to heal the people throughout the world whose essence has been taken by the White Witch. These heartbroken people will be lacking in some particular trait be it enthusiasm, courage, etc. You will have to find someone with an abundance of a certain trait, and then kindly ask them to part with a bit of it to heal the heart of the person you want to help. There’s friendly of you, Ollie-boy.

 

GAMEPLAY: 8/10

This is truly where Ni No Kuni shines. The battle system and the sheer amount of gameplay elements are astounding. As a wizard, you must not only wield magic, but also control familiars and have a thorough knowledge of alchemy. Throughout the game, you will fill your Wizard’s Companion, a book of knowledge ranging from spells to alchemy to a bestiary, with even more spells, formulas and monster knowledge than anyone will probably ever read.

Ni No Kuni does a great job at using elements from other games to make its own creation. First and foremost, let us all rejoice at the fact that there are no random battles! Enemies can be seen on screen before a battle ensues. You can sneak up on enemies for a preemptive strike, avoid them or, if your level is high enough, they will try to avoid you (much like the Persona series). Once in battle, you are treated to a combination of Star Ocean and Pokémon; let me explain. The battle area is a limited circle where you have free reign to roam around using the left analog (like in Star Ocean). You have your normal battle prerequisites: attack, defend, spells, provisions (items), run away and, later in the game, tactics, which you can cycle through using the D-pad. If a creature is too powerful for you, summon your familiar (enter the Pokémon element). Familiars, creatures born from the hearts of living things, will have the same menu as Oliver except after attack and defend; those slots will be replaced with any equipped spells or special attacks. You can switch freely between Oliver and your familiars by pressing L1 to bring up the menu, highlighting your choice with the D-pad and then pressing X. During the course of pummeling your opponent(s), you may knock out little green or blue orbs. These orbs, called glims, restore small portions of your HP/MP respectively. Well timed counter attacks or defending against major attacks will cause these glims to pop up more often. On rare occasions, you may even see a golden glim. These super charge whoever grabs it, fully restoring both HP and MP and granting a use of a super attack, which drains no MP. You are definitely going to want to keep an eye out for those golden glims; they are serious game changers.

New spells are usually obtained by completing quests in the storyline, which unfortunately, means no amount of grinding will get you the more powerful spells before the game dictates when you are ready for them. The spells range from elemental attacks, such as “Fireball” and “Frostbite,” to restorative spells, like “Healing Touch” and “Draw Poison.” Some magic, however, is better suited to everyday travel. Spells like “Bridge” (create a bridge between relatively close pieces of land) and “Puppet String” (move blocks or other items when solving puzzles) are brought up in a menu outside of battle by pressing the square button. The ability to share essence from person to person, as mentioned in the story section, is also done through Oliver’s magic. The spell “Take Heart” allows you to store excess enthusiasm, courage, etc. in a locket and “Give Heart” shares the necessary trait with the person in need.

Like spells, familiars come in different elements and, more specifically, fall under one of eight different signs, which dictate proficiency with spell types and resistance to adverse effects. Different treats, like ice cream or chocolate, can be used to increase the stats of these little fighters. Giving them their favorite treat will increase their stats faster. Familiars can even be outfitted with weapons, armor and accessories depending on genus. Grinding with familiars is quite helpful as higher levels grant not only new attacks and spells, but also the ability to metamorphose or evolve. By using an item matching your creature’s sign (i.e. Stardrop for a familiar with the star sign), once it is at a high enough level, your familiar will evolve to a more powerful form. This metamorphosis will set your fighter back to level one, but will be notably stronger than it was before and will be able to learn new attacks and spells it could not in its previous form. The familiar aspect of this game is very reminiscent of both Pokémon and Jade Cocoon. If the creators were lazy, they could have just made a Pokémon knock off with this system and it would have still been gold.

Though you do not have access to this for some time into the game, alchemy is a welcomed and solid feature, which allows you to create items through item fusion. Use the formulas you find or randomly mix and match different items, weapons, armor, etc. to get new and improved items. Fear not, if you try a combo that does not actually exist in the game, your items will not be wasted; so experiment until your heart’s content. I will say this though, if you think the game is going to just give you such a wondrous ability without a fight, you are in for quite a surprise.

As great as all these features are, I could not give the gameplay a perfect score for a few reasons. First, for as open as the world may look, it is more of an illusion. In what I assume was an attempt to make the game more accessible to newcomers or kids, the story is fairly linear. The game holds your hand from task to task eliminating any concept of exploration. Side quests and bounty hunting creatures does break up this unfortunate trend, but it dampens the story a bit. Also, and this may just be me nit picking, but in-battle menus are controlled by the D-pad. I know this does not seem like a big deal, but in the heat of battle, when you are used to using the analog for everything in every other game and you need to make a quick switch from attacking to defending, trying to remember you have to use the D-pad will cost you. Finally, the difficulty in battle seems a bit broken to me. As an RPG veteran, I never start a game without grinding. After I feel I have a sufficient level for the area, I move on and repeat in the next area. You will probably notice, fairly quickly, standard battles are pretty easy once you get used to the game and level up your familiars a bit. Do not fall for this trap. The boss battles put all your skill and knowledge to the test. You will be forced to switch familiars on the fly, set tactics, and expend MP at a rate no other battle will make you. Now, I am not stupid, I know this is what boss battles are for (Final Fantasy XIII), but this felt more like a parent letting go of the bike before their child is ready to ride alone, then grabbing the bike again after the kid learns to ride on alone. Not so much challenging as it is “we do not want you to win.” If the tactics system was a bit more in depth, the difficulty might not be so bad. Unfortunately, with what is given and the general pacing of the game, I do not think everyone will really be prepared for some of the tougher battles down the road.

All and all, the game handles well. I am sure the existing hiccups are due to trying to balance the game for both veterans and newcomers alike. None of this would truly deter me from continuing my adventure.

 

SOUND: 9/10

The sound does exactly what it needs to do in this game: keeps the vibe of a wondrous child-like storybook come to life. The voice acting is superb, the music never tires the ear (even at this moment, I have had the game on pause for the better part of this review and I have been humming along) and the sound effects of spells, attacks, etc. are all crisp. The only reason I could not give sound a 10/10 is because not every part is voice acted. Now, this would normally not be a problem as I expect to do a fair amount of reading in any JRPG, but the way they break it up can be quite annoying. In the middle of reading, there will be two lines spoken and then back to reading or vice versa. A minor annoyance, but an annoyance all the same.

 

FINAL WORD: 8.25/10

Ni No Kuni is a solid entry in the JRPG lineage. It is a beautiful, light hearted journey through a world we have never seen before. In a gaming world with sequels and reboots abound, original IPs such as Ni No Kuni are definitely a welcome alternative to seeing the same old thing again and again. If you enjoy RPGs, get this. If you enjoy anime and have some patience, get this. If you enjoy violence, I have nothing for you here, but I suggest watching it for a bit over a friend’s shoulder. That is all then, en’it? Tidy!!

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