It has been a long time since the 360 or PS3 has had a truly great JRPG. Fans of the genre over the past 5 years have had to look to the PlayStation 2 and portable systems to get their JRPGs with rare, but not unheard of, exception. Now in 2013, we have Ni no Kuni, a collaboration between Studio Ghibli, the artists behind anime movies like Spirited Away; and Level 5, the team behind the Professor Layton games and White Knight Chronicles. Now can this pair make an epic JRPG that brings the genre back to relevance and to modern consoles? Read more to find out!
If there is one thing that JRPGs have been known for, it is having great presentation, and Ni No Kuni takes that to the next level. It has these gorgeous anime cutscenes that have an insane amount of detail. This is also the case with the actual in-game engine. Walking through towns, you see shops that all have names and signs outside, even ones that serve no purpose. Going into any building is different with all of its own little details. In the more open areas, the game is just massive and it is one thing for a game to be huge. Ni no Kuni feels huge. Monster designs are all interesting and the bigger bosses are just epic. Finally there are the open world outdoor areas, like the forest, that are just stunningly beautiful. There were moments in the forest and desert where I just panned the camera around starring at the amazing art. Not only are the environments fantastic to look at, but there are a lot of them from desert, to forest, to volcano, to castle towns. The entire game feels like it took the superb 2D anime cutscenes and converted them into 3D. Ni no Kuni is one of the best looking games you can find.
The music is equally enjoyable and fits the tone of what is happening on screen. When exploring the open world, it feels like you are on a grand adventure. The more somber story parts have a slow depressing theme and when things pick up the theme becomes joyous. The soundtrack is just superb. The voice acting is just as good if not better than the music. My personal favorites are Drippy with his Welsh accent, and Shadar who just sounds pure evil. The only real problem with the voice acting is the characters of Oliver’s world (Oliver included) speak like they are in the 1950s, though from the looks of the town and characters, it implies that this is just the style of his world or that his world is in the 1950s. For most people, this won’t be a problem. Finally sound design is spot on, voice acting is set perfectly to mouth movement. Sound effects during battle feel rough; when Oliver uses his fireball special attack, the sound alone just make you feel the heat coming off of it. When you walk through a major city with a lot of people, you can hear the hustle and bustle. All of it comes together to make Ni no Kuni a joy to listen to.
On to the story, which if there is any part of this game that feels like it is straight from Studio Ghibli, it is the story. Oliver is a thirteen-year-old boy living in Motorville making a car with his best friend. When they finally decide that it is ready for a test drive, Oliver goes first and crashes it into the river, his mother hears his cry then goes to save him and succeeds. This moment of happiness is short lived, because Oliver’s mother shortly after collapses and dies. Oliver spends the next three days crying and mourning the death of his mother when one of his tears lands on his stuffed doll his mother got him. It then springs to life introducing himself as Mr. Drippy, High Lord of the Fairies. He tells Oliver that he is the pure hearted one and he needs to help him save his world from Shadar by becoming a Wizard. Oliver initially refuses but agrees once Drippy tells him there may be a way to bring Oliver’s mother back to life. So they set off on a grand adventure to grow Oliver’s wizard skills, save the world, and bring back Oliver’s mother. Oliver along the way will grow as a person, gain allies, and learn new skills. The allies you meet along the way are all incredibly charming and the villains all have this mysterious and malevolent vibe to them. Oliver and the rest of the cast are incredibly hard not to like and the story has a ton of great moments that will stick in your mind long after it is finished. When the journey was over, I was sad that I had to leave the world and these characters behind.
Now all this fantastic storytelling and presentation would be all for nothing if the game didn’t play well. Good news is the gameplay is great, but not without flaws. You walk around exploring, trying to solve problems involving citizens of the world who have had pieces of their heart corresponding to and emotion stolen by Shadar. So you need to find someone with an excess of the stolen emotion in the world. Sometimes someone’s heart is locked. You have to go back to Oliver’s world to find the person who is linked with the person in the fantasy world then fix whatever their emotional problem is to unlock the linked person’s heart in the fantasy world. Now a really well done feature is that you can turn off the objective marker on or off for these kinds of quests, so fans of older JRPGs where you had to just explore and remember where certain things were can play the game that way. Gamers who prefer RPGs with way points can just get straight to the objective.
The combat in Ni No Kuni is different. It’s not turned-based and it’s not quite real time. You can still move the character you are controlling and dodge, but you have to pick what you do from an on screen menu of spells, attack, defend, etc. All these attacks are on a timing bar similar to the old Final Fantasy ATB system. Another part of the combat and game as a whole is familiars; these are little creatures that fight for you and they have different abilities, strengths and weaknesses similar to Pokemon. Most of these battles start when you are walking through the over world and you see them and attack, or they attack Oliver and company. My problems with the gameplay are that it takes a while to introduce all the mechanics. For new players this isn’t really an issue. For people who have played this style of game before, being introduced to a second party member and giving them orders around the five hour mark seems a little ridiculous. Also the game is very grind heavy at times with you really needed to hit a certain level to pass certain parts. Lastly, certain puzzles you need to solve require spells that use magic, but if you are out of magic points you are either going to have to fight and get lucky to get excess magic, or go back to town for items. This can really mess up the flow of the game, especially if you are at the end of a dungeon when it happens. None of these things are going to turn off hardcore JRPG fans and the grinding happens so late in the game I think that newcomers won’t have too much trouble adjusting, but that magic thing could really irritate some people making them stop playing and I can’t really blame them.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is as good as JRPGs get. The presentation is immaculate with beautiful art, amazing music, and a well-told movie-like story. The gameplay is fun, and a lot of thought was put into making old school JRPG fans happy along with easing newer gamers, even if some issues linger. Ni no Kuni is 2013’s first amazing experience.
Final Score: 9.0/10