Review by ArcadianGenesis
"An Instant Classic"
It had been a long time since the gaming world had seen a really great RPG. In particular, fans of the Japanese-style RPG genre were left unsatisfied for the past (approximately) eight years. I say eight years because that was when the legendary Dragon Quest VIII (DQ8) was released, developed by Level-5. To this day, that remains my favorite RPG of all time because it combines the best elements of old-school RPGs with a new-school, refreshing presentation.
Based on the previous paragraph, you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that Level-5 was releasing a new RPG - not just any RPG, but one in the spirit of old-school RPGs, sort of like DQ8. YES. But I didn't allow myself to get too hyped about it, because that could only lead to disappointment right?
Wrong. As I will flesh out in the sections below, Ni no Kuni (NnK) turned out to be an instant classic. It is the best RPG since DQ8 and by far the best RPG of the current (PS3-360-Wii) generation. But I'm not satisfied with that statement, because I think it undersells the game. This past generation has been terribly weak in the way of RPGs, so merely comparing it to others of its generation doesn't do justice to its greatness. I believe NnK is better than most RPGs from any generation. It has joined the pantheon of all time classics. While it is not without flaws, they can be easily overlooked in view of its triumphs.
NnK is a beautiful game. Frankly, I don't consider graphics to be all that important in judging the overall quality of a game - but beautiful graphics can put the icing on an already delicious cake. In a generation that focuses on ultra-realism in graphics, the hand-drawn art style of NnK is refreshing. This isn't surprising because the game was animated by Studio Ghibli, the studio responsible for classic films such as Spirited Away. Studio Ghibli did not disappoint with this game. Their artistic craftsmanship infuses the game with the visual eye candy it needs to achieve all-around perfection.
The auditory experience is nearly as good as the visual experience. The musical score in particular, composed by Joe Hisaishi, is magnificent. Several of the tunes in this game struck me so powerfully that I felt like I was 13 years old again, playing Xenogears in my bedroom at my parents' house. This game really takes me back to those glorious days, and the music is a big reason why.
The voice acting is solid, but it's not used often enough. I don't know the real statistics on this, but it seems like only 5% of the dialogue is voiced, while the rest simply appears as text. But you know what? I don't really mind, because again it reminds me of classic RPGs. I have fond memories of slowly reading through pages of text and clicking the X button repeatedly in between. Reading is good! I can't penalize the game because it promotes reading.
NnK features a simple and charming story with equally simple and charming characters. Based on that description alone, you should be able to roughly classify this game in its rightful place among RPGs. There are two types of RPG stories: 1) complex ones with convoluted structure and deeply troubled characters, and 2) simple ones with predictable structure but a nice sense of charm. I like both styles, but it's obvious that NnK is in the latter category. That's okay. Some of the best RPGs have simple stories. As long as it feels engaging and makes me care about the characters to some extent, I'm fine with that. It gets the job done.
None of this would matter, though, if the game weren't fun to play. So now I turn my focus to the actual gameplay.
The overall game design is exactly what I hoped it would be. Like DQ8, NnK features a beautiful open world that you are free to explore to your heart's content. Obviously there are limitations on exploration depending on your progress, but as you go deeper into the game, the world gradually opens up more and more. This is the type of RPG that is primarily story-driven, but you are still free to go off the intended path to whatever extent is possible at the time. The balance is just perfect. When you first stumble onto the world map, you are told to go to a town. But if you want, you can just freely run around a huge field fighting monsters, searching for hidden treasures or hidden areas, and taking in the beauty of the world. You will encounter a broken gap in a path that you cannot cross, but later in the game you will gain the ability to magically bridge that gap. You will not be able to cross the surrounding mountains just yet, but later you will. In due time, everything becomes available and that's an awesome feeling, just knowing that.
I can't emphasize enough how awesome it is that this game has hidden treasures and hidden areas on the world map. And I mean truly hidden in the old-school sense of the word. There is absolutely no indication where these secrets are located until you randomly stumble upon them. The only way to find hidden treasures (at least early in the game before you get a certain spell) is to walk over every square inch of the world and repeatedly press X in hopes of stumbling upon one. If you do, Oliver (the lead character) will stop to pick something up. Hidden areas can be found just by walking into them, but they are very well hidden and contain more treasures within.
The battle system is actually the biggest flaw with the gameplay, but it is by no means bad. It is often described as a hybrid of traditional turn-based and modern real-time battle systems. I would have preferred a straight-up turn-based system personally, but I understand the urge to try new things, and I don't blame the developers for doing so. First of all, battles are not randomly encountered! You can see enemies on the map, and you can usually avoid them if you want to. You can also sneak up behind them for an advantage, and vice versa. When battle begins, the screen shifts into a battle arena, in the traditional style. You can move your characters through the arena, which allows you to dodge physical attacks. Characters and monsters have varying movement speed and attack speed, which can be modified by equipment. You choose your commands through a menu, but the battle (sometimes) continues in real time when you do so. I say sometimes because there are ways to freeze time - for example, when you enter a list of Spells, time freezes. This is a good thing because it allows you to pause and think about strategy if you want to. The problem is that combat usually consists of pressing X repeatedly to attack. There is an advantage to timing your button presses - if you do it at the right time, you will get a counterattack or even cancel your foe's attack completely. But there is no penalty for just mashing the X button in hopes of getting a cancel, so this can be easily exploited. Later in the game, when you start to learn more powerful spells and buffs, combat becomes a lot more interesting.
As you may have heard, there is a monster training aspect to the game. Monsters are called familiars for some reason. They can be tamed by defeating them in battle. Each familiar has a pre-determined probability of being tamed when you defeat it. If it is impressed with you, you can capture it during battle. At the end of the battle, you have the option to keep it or let it go - if you keep it, you can also name it. The interesting part is evolution. Monster evolution in NnK is a lot like weapon evolution in Dark Cloud (another excellent game by Level-5). As you use your familiars, they gain experience just like your human characters. When a familiar reaches a certain level, you have the ability to evolve it into a new species. At that point it goes back to level 1, but its potential is much greater. Then when it reaches an even higher level, you can evolve it again - but this time, you have two choices for how to evolve it. This adds an extra degree of depth to the game because every monster can ultimately become two other monsters. You can also feed your familiars candy to increase their stats.
Outside the main events of the story, there are errands and hunts. Errands are basically fetch quests or involve monster training. Hunts require you to find a particular enemy and kill it. The rewards for doing so are twofold: you get a set of items and money, and you also get stamps for your stamp collection. As you accumulate stamps, you can redeem them for special abilities which are very useful. For example, you can gain the ability to jump, run faster, gain experience at a faster rate, reduce the MP cost of spells, etc.
It took me about 80 hours to beat the story. That's long even for RPG standards. Granted, I did all the side quests and a lot of level grinding, but that's still a long game. And when you beat the game, there is a post-game with more things to do! That's just awesome. Every great RPG should have post-game content, and NnK is among them. You can almost never run out of things to do because there are always more monsters to tame or improve. I can't even imagine how long it would take to collect every monster and maximize their levels, stats, and familiarity. I'm sure some hardcore people will do it but they will be few. On top of that, there is also an alchemy system, a casino, and a Solisseum minigame, all of which are similar to their DQ8 counterparts.
Fun Factor: 10/10
NnK was a blast to play throughout. I'm still working on getting the platinum trophy. Even when I do, I imagine I will still want to keep playing to perfect my file. It's just that fun.
I also want to comment on the meticulous attention to detail the developers committed to this game. I've hit all the main points in my review, but there are tons of little things that make it even better than what I've described. For example, the game keeps track of your completion of each dungeon. It tells you exactly what percentage of the dungeon you have explored and how many treasure chests you have found. When you fully clear the dungeon 100%, it makes that explicit. That is just so cool; it's something that every game should have. As another example, you have a digital version of The Wizard's Companion in the game itself. This is a comprehensive guide for the game in its own right - and it is partially written in a unique language that you have to use a key to decipher. That just bleeds creativity and attention to detail. My respect for Level-5 has increased with this effort. And those are but a few examples among many.
Despite the quality of this game, there is still room for improvement in a few key areas. When Ni no Kuni 2 is inevitably made, I expect it to be even better. If it can retain the basic design of the original while making those improvements, there is no limit to how good that game could be. I await word of a sequel; until then, I'm going to keep playing NnK. I suggest you do the same.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 02/28/13
Game Release: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (US, 01/22/13)
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