Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the JRPG
The genius of Ni no Kuni is that it combines two things gamers should remember fondly: hand drawn animation and classic Japanese roleplaying games. In doing this, Ni no Kuni developer Level-5 has provided something instantly appealing and attractive for an audience that has been yearning for something like this to come along for years. By simply looking as gorgeous as it does, it has more mass appeal than any JRPG in recent memory. Everything about this game radiates nostalgia and charm, and makes you not only want to play it, but want to love it.
Supporting this power couple of classic gaming and classic animation is a game that does its best not to ruin things. The world is fairly by-the-numbers in terms of environments and progression, though it is executed with so much beauty, and injected with just enough charm to feel fresh, or at least refreshing, considering the dreary state of environments Ni no Kuni‘s modern peers take place in. The story may be one you’ve heard before: a quest to save the world motivated by a quest to save a loved one, but there is a unique quality to it this time around, afforded once again by the game’s modern take on a classic presentation. It is hard to take a game seriously when realistically rendered adults are put in such an unrealistic situation, speaking with the coherence of a ten year old, but when I watch the main character Oliver run around in his other worldly wizard garb in his home town, I see a child running around and playing wizard in an world spawned by his imagination. The world of Ni no Kuni is that of a fairy tale crossed with a little boy’s fantasy.
In order to keep players’ hands busy while being seduced by its style, Ni no Kuni provides fairly robust character customization and combat systems to play around with. Combat takes place by controlling a set of creatures called familiars, each of which levels and learns abilities individually. There are over 400 familiars in all, gained by taming creatures found in the wild and metamorphosing the ones you use. While all this may sound familiar, the combat system thankfully attempts something new. Battles take place in real time, with the player controlling one of up to three party members at a time, and that party member’s team of up to three familiars. Each familiar has a handful of abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, and part of the strategy behind battles is managing these qualities, along with taking control from the fairly lacking computer controlled teammates when needed. The combat system shows a lot promise and depth in concept, but in execution, the control is clumsy enough that most of the game’s difficulty lies in navigating the menus when under pressure and limiting the damage done by your incompetent AI controlled party members. There are short periods of time after using any ability that you cannot do anything that feel like an absolute eternity when you see a devastating attack incoming and need to defend.
The familiar system is sure to win over those among us who can’t get enough cute monster collecting, but as a character progression and customization system in a roleplaying game, it leaves a lot to be desired. It is hard to tell how effective a familiar will be in combat without investing a good amount of experience into it, at which point abandoning it and trying out another feels like a fairly major setback. Even with stronger familiars, there is an element of excitement that is missing when you gain a level, ability, or change forms. Changing forms isn’t an immediate boost in power. In fact, it’s usually an immediate drop in power, and by the time a familiar works its way back up to fighting shape, you merely feel like you were able to get back to where you started, not power up in any significant way. It doesn’t help that even when changing forms, familiars don’t change much in appearance. Something as simple as increasing their size along with their appearance could have gone a long way in making the familiar system feel more satisfying.
Otherwise, Ni no Kuni largely plays things safely. You guide Oliver from from town to town, across continents, and through dungeons on his journey to gather the resources to defeat an evil presence that threatens the world. Large portions of Ni no Kuni are woefully formulaic, a feeling that persists throughout the second half of the game, after its initial charm has worn off a bit.
This is where I feel Ni no Kuni makes its greatest misstep. It makes such a strong initial impression with its art style and charm that the rest of the game doesn’t quite live up to. Its gameplay is good enough, but it doesn’t convey a sense of progression or escalation that the best in the genre excel at, and as a fan of RPGs, I crave. Battles fought at the beginning feel almost exactly the same as battles fought at the very end, aside from one or two spells that Oliver gains access to in the final battles as part of the story. The towns each have their own character and flavor, but the tasks you complete in each are almost exactly the same through the end. How much one enjoys Ni no Kuni by the end of the game is completely dependent on how much he or she enjoys it at the beginning, as the game itself does very little to maintain a player’s interest in it as it progresses.
Despite its shortcomings, it’s hard to see Ni no Kuni as anything but a return to form for the Japanese roleplaying game genre, and the game pulls it off in a way few others have tried. It is refreshingly old school, comfortably playable, has a style that makes people want to play it, and a heart that makes people want to love it.