Review by Res5
"A Tidy Ol' Time"
Have you ever wondered what it would be like for anime companies and video companies to get along? What would happen if we had the amazing programming and gameplay of a video game developer combined with the music, story and characters of a solid anime animator? Ni No Kuni (literally "Second Country") gives you exactly that; Developed by Level-5 (Professor Layton, Dark Cloud) with the designs and music of the famous Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle) Ni No Kuni really delivers the feeling that anime and video games were meant to be together.
The game starts out throwing you into a little town that emulates a rural town in 1950's America. You immediately get a feel for what the town is like by all the old vehicles driving around and the manner in which people dress. Almost immediately you are introduced to the protagonist, Oliver, who is grocery shopping for his mother in one of those smalltown shops that you could barely fit ten people into at any given time. The characters also seem to act and speak with a dialect that closely resembles the "innocence" of America back in those days. Throughout the game Oliver will often break out with exclamations such as "NEATO!" which is something you were most likely to hear back in that time period. It's important to know that this world, Motorville, doesn't necessarily take place in the actual United States of America but rather a Ghibli reinterpretation made into a fantasy world.
They also have actual animated cutscenes thanks to Ghibli and these really add to the overall feel of the game. A lot of games have scenes in them where there'll be special CG or animations to represent something but very few actually animate their scenes. Mind you Ni No Kuni doesn't do it all the time and when it does there seems to be a bit of a lower framerate than Ghibli movies usually are but they still deliver that exact same feel. There's much attention to detail to the interactions between characters, physics and facial expressions. All of Ghibli's best traits! The gameplay even reflects some of these details as well such as Oliver actually walking up and down stairs with his eyes on the stairs so he doesn't slip and with an animation that suggests he's on stairs. It's normal these days to see an animation for walking on stairs but none of them compare to Oliver's stairs animation. There's also another detail that I really love: If you walk backward into Drippy you can sometimes knock him over and he'll get back up and say "Hey, mun, watch it!" Another great detail is that if you are at a cutscene that Drippy isn't directly involved in you can usually see him doing something in the background. The mark of a good game is that of which that shows the game pays attention to even the tiniest of details.
Another great example of how much thought they put into this game is the Wizard's Companion. I'm not just talking about the actual book you got with a preorder (I didn't get this one myself but oh do I wish I had) but the one in-game as well. You can view any pages you've unlocked and there is literally a full book in there with very detailed pages that tell you everything from spells and their elements and uses, creatures and what they drop and where to find them, stories that loosely resemble a lore system as well as general information on the locales you visit. All of this and very well-drawn illustrations scattered throughout and there's even a new alphabet for an ancient language! The alphabet is little more than replacing the alphabet you are reading with symbols but it makes you realize that they wanted to give you a FULL experience. Level-5 and Studio Ghibli really did their best to not half-ass anything, to make sure that the consumer was satisfied with every little thing in the game. They even went so far as to let you choose whether you wanted to use a waypoint or not! They went to great lengths to make the game enjoyable for everyone.
Now, after some heart crushing events Oliver makes the decision to venture into a parallel world to save his mother's life lead by Drippy who was previously a stuffed doll that Oliver used for comfort! Drippy is a perfect example of that "true Ghibli style". In every way he resembles small creatures in the movies. One thing Ghibli has always been good at is having very visually appealing characters and creatures without relying on typical anime tropes such as boxom women or fully-loaded men in trenchcoats. He's also got quite the interesting personality and in combination with his Welsh/Pakistani accent he'll have you smirking at one-liners or encouraging you with his assertive notions that all is possible when you put your mind to it. As cheesy as that sounds he actually makes it sound good, oddly enough.
This new world is where you'll start seeing Level-5's work as not only will you actually start playing the game but you'll also find many design choices that have Level-5 written all over it such as the world map, how it's structure and the rate of progression through it.
The pacing in Ni No Kuni is rather amazing actually. Depending on how often you do sidequests you're likely to spend a few hours in one town, getting to know the locals via the Errand Board (random quests and tasks from the citizens) as well as the Bounty Hunts (which will send you on a hunt for some creature for all sorts of reasons ranging from the creature causing trouble to downright near causing natural disasters!) as well as all the story and dungeons you'll run into. Every town is packed full of things to do and there's dungeons aplenty around them to keep you busy until the game is ready to let you move on. The environments are a little typical for an RPG: hilly plains, large deserts, vast oceans, industrialized nations, dark swamps and even a tundra, but each location has it's own unique citizenry and society.
They also take their time to introduce you to new features. It takes you all the way to the second city and a dungeon closeby to finally get the ability to actually CATCH familiars instead of just fighting them. This is several hours into the game but not so far in that you'll feel like you missed a lot. They also give you a spell that lets you fast travel just when traveling between each city starts to get tedious.
There is one area that really screams "This.....THIS is a Ghibli design" because of the music and characters you'll meet there. Drippy's hometown is a lively little place ruled over by the mother of all fairies. This area will send you on a bit of a quest to help two guys get their sense of humor back so they can do a stand up routine to help you advance. (Trust me, it DOES make sense when you are playing) Unlike most games that try to throw in a bit of humor with "funny characters" they really seemed to have put some work into the writing of these jokes. They are actually mildly funny and very well written. Just clever enough to get a smirk out of anyone but not so outrageously funny that you'd have tears in your eyes. The writing in Ni No Kuni is very well done and while they use many generic archetypes they are also very, VERY mindful of little details such as the Grimalkin king of the first town you visit always being called "Your Meowjesty".
Now, let me talk to you about the gameplay a bit. Ni No Kuni mixes a little of monster capture with a bit of an ATB (Active Time Battle) system. You eventually obtain the ability to catch the monsters that you fight and there are a lot of them but the game is made simpler by the fact that many of them are from the same family so if you've caught one, you're likely to get the others later in the game due to evolving the weaker ones from earlier. What's more is leveling up takes up less of your time since, even if they aren't in battle, as long as a familiar is in your party it gets experience! This definitely helps for those of us who don't want to spend a million years equally leveling a party of nine (three for each party member) or sticking to just three or four main types throughout the game. Certainly there are some deeper mechanics at work here but it's very friendly to those who haven't played a game like this before or don't want a hassle and just want to play the game.
The game implements a pretty decent reward system as well since when you do errands or bounty hunts you'll get lots of money but any items you get will be pretty standard except for a few that will give decent equipment. Now here's where things get interesting: They encourage you to do them not just for the small treats you get but also to collect Merit Stamps which fill up punch cards. When you fill up enough of these punch cards you get to trade them in for very special items that will enhance your experience. You'll get some fantastic items like ones that raise the drop rates of items from enemies or making Oliver move faster on the world map. One thing they really nailed is knowing how to make you WANT to do the side stuff. I can't imagine playing through the game without these nifty items!
But don't let the game fool you! There's also sidequests not listed in the Bounty Hunts or Errand Board such as a continuous quest throughout the game where a certain character will give you puzzles to solve and if you finish them he will give Oliver a new spell. Pretty neat, right? Well it seems this "sidequest" is also required at some parts as he gives you spells that you need to advance forward. What's more is that most of the sidequests only add to the immersion and give you insight into the daily lives of the citizens of each town. The way they live, the people they interact with, their amibitions and pasts, and much more!
There's also the alchemy pot, something Level-5 has used in many of the Dragon Quest games that they developed, that allows for the making of good equipment and better items if you are willing to hunt and forage for the items in battle and around the world map.
I hope you like minigames too cuz Ni No Kuni has it's own casino with four games in it. Four very fun games and prizes to be won! One of the games is just a redux of a puzzle earlier in the game named Double Cross, one of them is typical Blackjack, one is Slots with a twist and the final one is actually something totally new. It's a strategy card game called Platoon which can actually be played with a regular deck of poker cards. I won't go into details but you can tell they definitely put some thought into making the side stuff entertaining as well as rewarding.
I've rambled long enough. Needless to say Ni No Kuni really hits the spot if you are itching for a great RPG and anime elements that don't conform to typical tropes that get a little old over time.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 02/19/13
Game Release: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (US, 01/22/13)
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