JRPGs Were Never Dead
Despite claims to the contrary, JRPGs have been alive and well throughout the past generation of hardware. From Lost Odyssey to Tales of Vesperia to The World Ends With You to Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story to Radiant Historia to Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story, and the many in between, there’s been plenty of well loved JRPGs year-in, year-out. Simply put, they’re not dead. They may not be as popular (relatively speaking) as they were in those halcyon days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but JRPGs are still very much here. And I still like to play the good ones when I find time for them, as I always have.
Enter Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, 2013’s first premier JRPG. I played through the game recently, and really enjoyed it overall. My favorite aspect of the game is by far its gorgeous visuals (insert Studio Ghibli nod here). I can’t overstate how beautiful and colorful the game’s art is, and it’s wonderfully varied from start to finish. A few animations here and there can be a little stiff, but the game otherwise looks absolutely incredible. It sounds almost as good too, between its fantastic orchestrated musical score (that world map theme is going to be stuck in my head for weeks) and enthusiastic voicework. Some of the voice acting was a bit monotone and strained to me; mainly the villains and, ironically, Oliver himself. But most of the heavy speaking roles are great, the clear standout being Drippy. The little dude nails it. I also really like the world itself. There’s a liveliness to it that’s infectious, making it a place that’s just fun to be. That is, unless you’re allergic to puns. Ni no Kuni is rife with them, and while they can occasionally be clever, they’re mostly just dumb. One king is a cat, and everyone addresses him as “Your Meowjesty.” Enough said.
Ni no Kuni does have its problems though, and the main ones for me are the story and combat. I found the actual plot to be standard and predictable for the most part. Not much happens for the vast majority of the game, and while there are a few genuinely good moments sprinkled in here and there, a lot of it doesn’t feel earned to me. Ultimately this is a very rote “Chosen boy goes on a quest to save the world” tale. Additionally, I think the characters are extremely bland. Most of them start out as lazy stereotypes, and they don’t really go through any kind of growth or development either. The game plays it unflinchingly straight in both its story and characters, so whether you enjoy that depends on how much you’re down with established cliches. The combat is my other big sticking point, as while I like a lot of the ideas it’s going for, I just don’t think it’s executed that well. The Pokemon-esque aspect of catching familiars has a similar charm, but I don’t think the familiars themselves are functionally that diverse. That makes the actual strategies I felt like I could pull off in combat pretty limited, and I spent my entire 50 hours with this game repeating the same combat routines. The worst part about the combat by far, however, is your party member’s AI. They are just plain dumb, and given that you can only control one character at a time, this makes it impossible to pull off any meaningfully intricate strategies. It’s a shame too, as I feel like there’s plenty of potential with the combat, but actually playing it is more annoying than I’d like.
The rest of the gameplay is very basic JRPG stuff, which involves a lot of fetch quests and dungeon crawling. I felt that the dungeons were fine; they did their job without either overstaying their welcome or doing anything that interesting. The fetch questy stuff really got to me at times though. I’m talking about stuff like having to walk to one end of a town, talk to person A, walk to the other end of the town, talk to person B, then back to person A, then back to person B. It’s maddening, especially since the story that’s unfolding through such sequences is rarely interesting in the slightest. It makes dull tasks take artificially longer than they should. Otherwise Ni no Kuni has a decent selection of side activities that give reasonable rewards, including optional mini-boss fights, an alchemy system and a colosseum, so there’s a lot to do for those who want it, which is pretty nice. Anyway, I enjoyed Ni no Kuni overall, but I do feel like there’s a lot to improve. I’m certainly glad I played it though, and I think on the whole anyone who likes dabbling in JRPGs would likely feel the same.
I also got around to playing ZombiU recently (after finally buying a Wii U via the ZombiU bundle, which I’m still not entirely convinced was a good move, but there you have it), and I think that game is fantastic. It takes a lot of ideas and design philosophies that I really appreciate, especially those from the Souls games, and implements them in smart ways in a first person shooter/survival horror. Neither of those are my favorite genres on their own, so it speaks highly of ZombiU that I came away liking it as much as I did.
The main thing ZombiU does that I like is to make each and every encounter feel meaningful. We get so used to normal enemies being such a non-issue in most games that it’s refreshing to play one where even your regular zombie poses a threat, and requires you to pay attention. It adds extra weight to each of your actions, and lends the game a decidedly methodical pace compared to a lot of games, which I like. This is the main thing ZombiU has in common with the Souls games, and it issues a similar manner of punishment for not taking things slow and minding your surroundings. The level design and enemy variety do a great job at backing this up too, constantly keeping you on your toes; there are some surprisingly gripping and memorable moments throughout. ZombiU also has a “corpse run” style thing going on, akin to the Souls’ death mechanic. When you die, all your gear remains on your corpse, and you spawn as a new, different character. You’re able to make your way back to your previous character (who has risen as a zombie) and retrieve your gear if you kill them. If not, you’re left with nothing but the pistol you always spawn with, and whatever else you’ve put in your permanent stash. It’s a great risk vs reward setup that makes every encounter a bit more tense, since you stand to lose more than a few minutes of your time (which is how most games punish deaths, via checkpoints).
Despite what this may sound like, ZombiU is not a hard game at all (especially when compared to the Souls games). In fact, I only died once during the game, and even that death was due to my own carelessness. That’s actually one of my bigger complaints with the game; not so much the difficulty itself, but the reason the game is easy is because I feel like there’s too much ammo and health lying around. I was well overstocked for the vast majority of the game (even my stash filled up early on) to the point where I never felt like I was up against it, and in many cases I felt overpowered. That robs the game of some of the tension it otherwise goes out of its way to create, and made all the time I spent scrounging for resources seem a little wasteful. The game gives such a strong survival horror vibe, and the atmosphere is surprisingly effective in a lot of ways, that I would have preferred it if I felt like I had to make better use of the supplies I did find. In fact, one of my favorite moments of the game was a late sequence where they temporarily strip your gear from you. It forced me to be more effective with the limited tools I had at my disposal, and it would have been great if the game had been able to create that level of tension more often.
The only other gripes I would level against ZombiU are technical ones. The game doesn’t look that great from a technical standpoint, though the tone and art style are still able to create a strong sense of atmosphere in spite of this fact. The game also controls a little sluggishly, which doesn’t hurt as much as you would think given its more methodical pacing, but it could still be better. Also, load times can be quite long, but that’s probably more a fault of the console itself than the game. Otherwise, I think ZombiU is awesome. It’s a pretty unique game, and I really appreciate what it’s going for. It’s well worth checking out... if you’re one of the few Wii U owners out there that is.