Review by EgHeadFool
A Journey that's Out of this World
It is easy to look at Ni no Kuni and come to the conclusion that it's a game intended for children. After all, it has a cartoony cel-shaded visual style and is animated by Studio Ghibli, the animation studio sometimes dubbed "the Japanese Disney" that is behind animated films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. The protagonist is a young boy traveling through a fantasy land of magic. However, there is much more to Ni no Kuni than meets the eye, and hopefully by the end of the review you'll be convinced not only that the game is far from a kid's movie in game form, but also that it is a deep, rewarding, fantastic experience that holds its own against any modern RPG title.
Whether or not Ghibli's films are meant solely for kids is its own debate, but there is no denying that the art and animation in Ni no Kuni is stellar. The cel shading makes all environments come to life in a world that is rich and colorful. Everything is vivid and characters are expressive. One of the most impressive achievements is that despite being inside this gorgeous animated world, there is a strong sense of realism. The camera is fully dynamic and rotatable and never does it feel like the areas you are exploring are flat or two-dimensional.
The cut-scenes in the game are always a treat. A good number of scenes are fully animated, while many more are rendered by the game engine. The fully animated ones are on a level of their own, but given the nature of the game's visual style, in-game rendered scenes can look perfectly natural and fluid as well. If you were to freeze-frame during one of these scenes, or even during normal gameplay, it could sometimes be hard to distinguish it from a paused video. I find this to be both immersive and very pleasant to look at. For fans of Studio Ghibli it can be far more than that, because it can easily give you the feeling that you are playing in the middle of one of their movies. Some areas are definitely reminiscent of movie locations, which put a smile on my face more than once.
The overall premise of the game is that the protagonist, a 13-year-old boy named Oliver, loses his mother and ends up traveling to another world called Ni no Kuni - a world of magic and monsters - to try to bring her back. On the face it's about a boy trying to do the impossible, and vanquish evil along the way for a perfect fairytale finish. However, the game is about much more than that, for those willing to look. In large part it is about coping with loss - of family, of hope, of direction - and about how different people approach life in the face of their problems and expectations. There is plenty of feel-good mush and optimistic messages along the way, but what a child takes away from the story and what an adult takes away from the story will be vastly different. There is a very ingenious construct in which aspects of Oliver's "real" world mirror those of Ni no Kuni, and through comparison of the two, all kinds of analysis can be had about what's really going on and what various things represent.
Characters are also well-developed throughout the game's progression, and while at times the immediate story becomes predictable or simple, it never grows boring, or worse, nonsensical. There is a fair amount of humor sprinkled about, as well as plenty of creativity and unexpected events. All in all, the fundamental story is not a narrative masterpiece, but it is nonetheless strong.
The game has a fantastic score composed by Joe Hisaishi, who by no coincidence is also one of the main composers of Ghibli films. The score is fully orchestrated and expressive. It successfully conveys the feel of each area, as well as that adventurous anticipation while exploring the world map. One of the hardest things to balance with game music is when to create more subtle atmospheric sound and when to really bring the melody to the foreground. I think the score to Ni no Kuni never fails to find that balance.
The reason I did not give a 10 in this category is that for the most part, there is only one overworld theme, despite the world containing vast and varying areas. It would be nice to have some variety even when just exploring the world map. It would also be nice if more of the cut-scenes featured voiced dialog. At times it even cuts from being voiced to text rather abruptly from one scene to the next.
Ni no Kuni's gameplay is extremely enjoyable and surprisingly deep. Outside of battle, there is a lot of exploration of the world map, towns, hidden areas, and the game's dungeons. The game makes heavy use of non-combat magic spells that allow you to affect the environment in various way in order to progress. Many of these instances are straightforward, though often still neat to experience, while others are incorporated into short puzzles. None of them are ever very difficult, but they are varied and make you decipher riddles, manipulate objects, or think outside the box in some way.
The battle system is without a doubt one of the major positive elements of the game. When you go into battle, your character brings along companion creatures called Imajinns to fight with you. You can switch between playable characters at any time (you have three in battle), and each character can hold up to three Imajinns for a total of twelve allies. Battles are conducted in real time and you can swap between your character and any of his Imajinns at any time, so long as the Imajinn you want to use is not tired (after being on the battlefield for enough time, Imajinns will get tired and you must bench them). What is unique is that your character's HP and MP (magic points) are shared across all of his or her Imajinns. So if your Imajinn takes damage, your character takes damage. They do not have individual life bars or magic bars. Therefore swapping out to a new Imajinn when your HP gets low will not help.
Each Imajinn has a default attack move as well as a variety of additional skills that can be used, as long as you have enough magic points to use them. These skills have a cool-down period during which you cannot repeat the same skill again, so they have to be executed somewhat strategically. Skills are learned as the Imajinns level up from battle experience, but a limited amount of them can be learned, and even fewer can be equipped simultaneously during combat. People sometimes draw parallels to Pokemon, and in some respects it's not a bad analogy. However, attacks are not turn-based in Ni no Kuni.
In addition to this, Imajinns all vary in their specialties and their elemental strengths or weaknesses. Each Imajinn has three equipment slots, which may vary greatly. Some will have only defensive slots, while others have a weapon slot. The types of equipment are varied such that most weapons and gear are not interchangeable freely between all of your creatures. Purely offensive creatures also usually lack the ability to block, having instead a "charge-up" move. Others have a "defend" action while still others have an "evade" action. For these reasons you must strategically equip your Imajinns individually and decide which ones are best suited for the present combat, and in what combination.
The complexity continues, however, with the ability to feed the Imajinns treats outside of battle. There are many different types of treats which will level up different stats. For example, chocolates upgrade strength. There is a maximum amount of upgrading that you can do in this fashion, though the limit can be raised if you feed the Imajinn enough of his favorite kind of treat, but the limit means you have to decide which stats you want to focus on. Additionally, most Imajinns can be evolved after reaching a certain level. The evolved form will go back to level 1 but generally will level up to be much stronger and learn new moves. A second evolution can take place again after the new form has leveled up, and you have to make a choice between two completely different third-stage creatures.
All of these factors play into how you will fare in battle. And of course, your main characters can fight as well! They usually possess special skills as well as the ability to attack and defend. In Oliver's case, he can cast a wide variety of magic spells. You can also have your character set the AI-controlled allies' strategy in combat, use items, or attempt to run from battle. And battles are not easy! Many bosses pose a good challenge, especially if you think you can get by without paying attention to strategy and equipment. Normal enemy groups later in the game are dangerous in it of themselves as well.
Ni no Kuni also features a significant number of sidequests if you're not inclined to progress the story at any given time. These can range from defeating monsters to collecting the right items to more elaborate quests involving exploration and information gathering. They are completely optional but they definitely enrich the experience, and many have unique and charming or inventive premises. Some quests require you to synthesize items. Synthesis is something you can do after a certain point in the story and can be very beneficial, as you can make more powerful weapons, better treats, or better consumable items. You can either collect recipes or manually combine ingredients and see what happens. If your experiment fails, no items are consumed or lost.
One of the things that really bridges the story and gameplay and makes everything feel real is the ability to read Oliver's magic book at any time. Pages fill in as you learn spells and information. You can look at maps, lore, fables, item lists, Imajinn lists, descriptions of how to cast spells (how to wave the magic wand even), and loads of other non-essential but colorful facts. There is an optional series of quests in which you must specifically investigate the book and find the right information, which is a very neat added element. The amount of detail given to this book and its content is another example of what sets the game apart from many others.
Unfortunately the gameplay suffers from one notable problem, which is that the battle strategy options for your AI partners are just not robust enough. You can tell them to go all-out, do whatever they want, focus on support, focus on healing, or refrain from using magic. Sadly the AI tends to waste all magic pretty quickly on any setting other than "refrain from using magic." And you usually do want magic used, but only where it counts. Also, your partners will not block unless you send them into defense mode (it has a button shortcut, as does an attack mode). The problem is the AI can be slow to respond, not to mention the fact that they remain in defense mode for far too long. If you try to cancel defense mode by calling for attack mode, they will ignore healing and use magic to attack -- even if their strategy setting is not to use magic! This can be very frustrating. And as the strategy menu can only be accessed when you are controlling your main character in battle, it's cumbersome to try to change it mid-battle.
If you take the time to explore and flesh out the story with sidequests, the main game is of decent length. It took me somewhere in the 40-hour range my first time, and I completed most of the optional quests. However, there is quite a bit of post-game content. You can load your save after completing the game and do many new quests that appear, including some very tough bosses and an extra quest that reveals facts which I don't think the game can truly be considered finished without doing. There is a lot to be had, and with hundreds of collectable Imajinns there's always something to be on the lookout for. Completing all the trophies is quite a task and brought my total play time to over 90 hours. Sadly there's no New Game + feature, but I think the game includes enough content to hold its own.
All in all, when you take in everything that Ni no Kuni has to offer, the experience is hard to describe as anything other than immensely enjoyable. Whether or not you're a fan of Ghibli or Japanese animation, this game is an extremely solid RPG that should be given a chance by any fan of the genre.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Ninokuni: Shiroki Seihai no Joou (All-in-One Edition) (JP, 07/19/12)
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