The Midgame Rapport: Ni No Kuni

So, 30 hours in, major plot twists revealed, the end game in sight but still another 20-30 hours to go on this tale of self exploration. Ni No Kuni has been pretty damned whimsical, though it has teetered on the edge of becoming somewhat boring. Let's run it down, shall we?

The story has been nice, and I feel that's the best I can really say about it. It considers itself to be clever while being perhaps too easy to understand, undermining the cleverness dramatically. It's very clean, in that it seems to attempt to emulate a Hollywood script meant for children. It never attempts to challenge the player's conception of what's actually happening. More than a few times, I would watch as a scene of shadowy figures discussed plots against the world-at-large without any justification behind it, the lot of them being very cartoonish, mustache twisting caricatures of famous nursery rhyme staples; and I would wave my hand across the screen and declare "That guy is X, and that means X is Y," with near flawless results. At this stage in the game, my predictions have only been wrong once, carrying a slight amount of disappointment in that I think said prediction would have lead to a more interesting conclusion in the long run. Is that bad? Certainly not, it’s merely safe. Safe and tidy, which can prove to be a struggle to hold someone's attention for 60 hours. I'm hoping, as I move into the second half of the game, that things become a bit vaguer and a real sense of urgency is presented to the player. Probably the biggest disappointment I have is that I'm not feeling the emotional connection with the cast that I thought I would. Oliver and Esther are pristine characters; you know that from the moment you meet them to the moment the game ends, they will do no wrong. Swaine is slightly more grey area, but even then, once you solve his “issue”, the most challenging thing you’ll get from him is a little crassness ever so often. You can sort of look past it as Esther and Swaine have a bit of a rapport that works well when the narrative calls for it, but Oliver, being the pure hearted one, has to stay the Jesus figure; he will always fight for what is right and be sheepishly adorable on top of whatever emotion is called for. It’s a pretty dry engagement considering you’re out to save the world as a secondary mission.

That being said, the thing that has kept me engrossed and wanting to push on though has been the combat system. I've always liked the idea of a free roaming combat hub where your actions have more importance on things like whiffing or blocking or evading. The RPG trope of characters lining up on their arranged sides and taking turns whacking at one another was fine in a time where developers didn't quite have things worked out, but that we have games like Grandia, Star Ocean and the Tales series, which feel almost like action games every time you enter a combat scenario, I feel more games need to break away from tradition. It's nice to see that Ni No Kuni does this, but man, oh man, is the AI stupid or what? I spent 3 or 4 hours taking on the mid story swell boss rush last night, the end result usually being Esther and Swaine dead on the floor for the majority of the fight, and me, Oliver and my Puss'n'boots single handedly taking down whatever the game could possibly throw at us with little to no effort. Without going too far into spoiler territory, the story bosses are pretty shoddily put together compared to the monster hunting you can spend a lot of time doing on the side. Good strategy and AI Chaos takes a backseat to simple patterns which have more to do with running from one side of the room to another while trying to rush the enemy down. It's these boss fights that show how shallow the combat can be, and it's really a shame because the framework of it all is pretty amazing.

But still, even with that said, bumping around the world to see what lies within and beneath is still fun. I have my air ship equivalent, I can explore where I want, and the game does a good job providing you with systems that allow you to travel from place to place very quickly; which makes the TONS AND TONS AND TONS AND TONS AND TONS of fetch quests a simple matter rather than a time consuming chore. I actually quite enjoy monster hunting as these side missions can provide quite an interesting challenge at times; though, as already stated, if things get too hard for the AI to handle, they boil down mostly to my other two party members dead on the floor, and me and my Puss'n'boots taking on the world. Money never seems like much of an issue since the amount you get from regular battles feels like it increases expediently with the game’s length, and the pot collected from doing quests eventually gets pretty massive. There were points where simply wandering through towns netted me 10-15 thousand gold with almost no effort.

The music is good, the presentation is good, there’s nothing I overtly hate about the game thus far, I’m just not in love with it how I thought I’d be. There’s still a lot of ground to cover, I just hope that there’s something still in the wings that will really be the impressive amazing thing that makes me say, “Okay, NOW it’s on”. Trouble is, even if that happens, the game will have suffered from FF13-itis, where things don’t pick up until 20 hours of the game are complete, which is a real problem. Ni No Kuni is a slow burn, in and of itself. As it stands, it takes about 8 hours for the game to stop leading you by the hand as it injects narrative into tutorials. I can’t say that between those 8 hours and the 30 I’m at now, it’s been nothing much learning the systems, but at the same time, we haven’t had that 3 act climax. Being this late into the game, it makes me wonder if it’s ever going to come.

But I’m not giving up on the game, much the opposite in fact. I want to see where it’s all headed and really hope there’s a fitting payout in the end. There’s seemingly a lot left to see, entire continents that have things there but no good way to access them. Here’s hoping there’s some real twists and story beats that keep me on the edge of my seat rather than force me to be a successful profit.