Wow. This game.
If you are a Studio Ghibli fan, you really need to play this game. It’s imperative.
I know a lot of people with a close and personal relationship with Studio Ghibli. If you experienced these movies as a child, they really leave an impression. My mom got me a battered VHS copy of My Neighbor Totoro from a garage sale when I was a kid, and I absolutely loved that shit.
Studio Ghibli is everything I want in my animated movies. Plucky, independent heroines who don’t generally need men to help them, adorable creatures, a deep appreciation for nature, adorable creatures, stirring music, yet more adorable creatures, and a consistent and moving message of peace and empathy overcoming war and greed. Ghibli movies are those rare films that are completely appropriate to show small children but are also incredibly enjoyable to adults and teenagers, as well. Bottom line: if you haven’t watched every Miyazaki movie ever made, get on that. Torrent that shit if you have to. Your life will be better for it.
So when I heard that Studio Ghibli was teaming up with Level-5 of all studios, Level-5? Those wonderful people who brought us Jeanne d’Arc and Rogue Galaxy? I was stoked! I was super stoked! I was full of sqeally excitement!
Of course, I was also super broke, so I didn’t manage to acquire the game until this past Christmas, even though it was released back in January of 2013. I’ve played what I think is a little over half of the game, about 40 hours, and while it isn’t a perfect game, it is an absolutely excellent game full of joy and beauty and a real sense of exploration.
The first thing you need to know about Ni No Kuni is that it is breathtakingly gorgeous.
Studio Ghibli films are known for being beautiful, particularly when it comes to their achingly lovely depictions of the natural world. Ni No Kuni is no exception. Every environment is rendered with great love and detail, not only the forests and meadows and desert sands, but each of the cities and towns you visit feature distinctive and exciting areas to explore, whether its the idyllic, fish-obsessed community of Ding Dong Dell or the steam-driven industrial complex of Hamlin.
I spent my first few hours of the game literally running in circles around Ding Dong Dell, just looking at everything. Every environment is full of little details, like the cat ears on the castle towers in Ding Dong Dell or the wacky faces on the trees in the Fairyground. I felt like I was being allowed to run around inside of a Studio Ghibli movie! The cell-shaded graphics are wonderful, and the transition between animated cutscene and in-game engine is very close to seamless. The whole world is just wonderfully immersive.
The excellent sound design really contributes to that sense of immersion. When you walk through the cities and towns, you can hear the background noises of the community, vendors crying their wares, NPCs having conversations, animals making noises. It’s really cool. Also, the soundtrack is outstanding, one of the best video game soundtracks that I have ever heard. The composer, Joe Hisaishi, has done a lot of stellar work for Ghibli’s movies, notably Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, and I think Ni No Kuni’s soundtrack may in fact be his best work. I mean, listen to the overworld theme:
I must have heard that damn song literally one thousand times, because you spend quite a lot of time in this game running around on the world map, and I never get tired of it. The stirring fanfare that opens the song, the build up to a crescendo, it gives me goosebumps whenever I hear it! Part of this excellence comes from Hisaishi’s massive talent, but that orchestra playing the music in the actual soundtrack of the game? That is the goddamn Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Seriously, what game developer gets their country’s premiere philharmonic orchestra to play their soundtrack? Level-5 and Studio Ghibli, that’s who.
Then there is the voice acting. Voice acting is such a double-edged sword in gaming, especially in plot-heavy RPGs. If you have good voice acting, like in Persona 3, for instance, your game will be demonstrably more awesome. Players will feel the emotional resonance of the story much more strongly. If your voice acting sucks, though, like in Star Ocean: The Last Hope for example, players will be constantly torn out of the immersion that the game has worked so hard to create, and instead of watching a cutscene, they will begin throwing things at their TV screens and yelling at the characters (a thing I did on more than one occasion while playing The Last Hope, god what terrible voice acting). Ni No Kuni does what I wish all JRPGs did – the game offers the option to turn on either the English or the Japanese voice acting. Japanese voice acting tends to be of a higher quality because voice actors are treated like celebrities in Japan, not as minimum-wage slaves who can’t get a “real” acting job. So as a general rule, if a JRPG gives me the option, I turn on the Japanese voices.
I did not do this with Ni No Kuni. Studio Ghibli does amazing work with the English dubs of their movies, and Ni No Kuni evidently received the same treatment. When I watch a Studio Ghibli movie, I always watch them both ways, once with the original Japanese voices and once with the English dub, because both voice casts are generally so excellent. That was less of an option here. JRPGs usually last 100+ hours, and I definitely do not have the time to play this game more than once. I played a little bit with both versions, and I ended up going with the dub. Solely because of this guy:
Just listen to that amazing Welsh accent! It makes me grin every time Drippy opens his mouth to talk. He’s voiced by Welsh actor Stephan Rhodri, who really hasn’t done much else except for a bit part in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, but man, does he nail this part! Every other actor in the English dub is incredibly competent (and British, for a reason that eludes me, as the “real-world” portions of the game are set in what looks like a 50s version of North America, but whatever), but Rhodri just knocks that shit out of the park. I could listen to him talk all day. Which is good, because Drippy talks a lot. The Japanese version, though, is just as good, and certainly it is more authentic, if that kind of thing matters to you. They changed a lot of the names in the English dub, for instance. So while the language choice is a choice that must be made carefully, I think it mostly comes down to personal preference in this particular case. Which I find refreshing and wonderful! Usually, the choice is made for you, either because there is no option or because the English dub is so bad that you really need to pick the Japanese option if you don’t want your ears to bleed for 20+ hours of cutscenes and dialogue. So I was pretty excited to finally experience a game where all the voice acting options were actually good ones.
The voice acting is particularly important to such a plot-heavy piece as Ni No Kuni. Literally the first thing that happens to the main character, a thirteen year-old boy name Oliver, is that his mom dies. Ouch. That’s some heavy shit for what is ostensibly a children’s game, but that’s Studio Ghibli for you. The rest of the game consists of Oliver’s adventures in “The Other World,” which is basically what the words Ni No Kuni translate to. Oliver starts out in the sleepy and idyllic town of Motorville, but after his mother dies unexpectedly, his stuffed toy, Drippy, comes to life, explains that Oliver is secretly a wizard who is the only one who can defeat the evil Shadar, the Dark Djinn who has been making life miserable for the inhabitants of Ni No Kuni. Under Drippy’s guidance, Oliver travels to The Other World to learn the magic he needs to eventually defeat Shadar and save both worlds. Along the way, he meets a lovable cast of character tropes found in Ghibli movies – a plucky and intelligent heroine, a good-for-nothing thief with a heart of gold, a spoiled prince with a tragic past – you know, the usual. The plot is 100% pure, organic Ghibli, but while that kind of honest, innocent exuberance and authentic portrayal of loss is an old hat for a Ghibli movie, it seems novel and fresh in a video game.
So Ni No Kuni looks great and sounds great and plots great, but how does it play? It plays pretty damn well, actually. Remember, Level-5 was involved here, too, and Level-5 does great things with RPGs. Level-5 brought us Jeanne d’Arc and Rogue Galaxy, two of the best and most unique RPGs from the PS2/PSP generation. They brought us the much beloved PS2 iteration of Dragon Quest, as well as the wildly addictive Nintendo DS entry into the Dragon Quest franchise. To be fair, they also brought us the greatly hyped and greatly disappointing White Knight Chronicles, but even that was successful enough to see a sequel, so someone must have liked it. Ni No Kuni comes with an impressive pedigree, and it shows.
The gameplay basically comes down to two related tasks: using Oliver’s developing wizard magic to help the inhabitants of Ni No Kuni and capturing, training, and evolving familiars for battle, Pokemon-style. Early on in the game, Drippy gives Oliver a book called the Wizard’s Companion, and since it is missing many of its pages, one of your tasks is to collect the missing parts. The book itself can be accessed from the game menu, and it is an actual book, with digital pages to turn and zoom in on and everything. It’s pretty cool…until you realize that this in-menu version of the book is a pale imitation of the original hardcopy that was available to Japanese gamers.
Look at that beautiful book!
Don’t you want to own that? I know I want to own that. Sadly, this book is the main reason that the Nintendo DS version of this game never saw localization. Namco Bandai cited printing and translation costs as prohibitive, and even though they used a larger DS cart for the game, there was already so much crammed into the cart that they couldn’t fit a digital copy of the Wizard’s Companion on there. Even though that was less of an issue with the much more spacious PS3 discs, Japanese gamers still had the option to buy a hardcopy of the Companion. American gamers were kind of given that option by way of a fantastic-looking preoder collector’s edition of the game, only to have it rudely snatched away by an error in Namco’s ordering system. Very few gamers actually ended up getting their preorders filled, and the upshot is that hardcopy translations of the Wizard’s Companion now routinely sell for over a hundred bucks on eBay. The full collector’s edition is currently listed at $370 on Amazon, with only two copies left in stock. Ouch. What’s a broke gamer to do?
Well, a broke gamer uses the in-game digital Wizard’s Companion, and it’s kind of a pain in the ass. Now don’t get me wrong, I love that it’s there. It’s much more immersive and interesting to be able to actually read Oliver’s actual spell book. I’m even down with the idea of collecting the missing pages throughout the game. I especially love the “Tales of Wonder,” weird little fairy tales set in the world of Ni No Kuni that explain key bits of lore. My favorite one so far is called “The Cowardly Prince and the Lion,” and it’s about a lion who eats a prince and then rules the kingdom for many years with the prince giving orders from its stomach. This makes sense in context, I promise. Every time I unlock a Tale, I immediately open up my menu and read it in a silly voice to my husband. I love that shit.
The problem is that the digital book is cool to read, but a pain to navigate when you need to use if for quick reference. 20 hours or so in, you acquire the ability to perform alchemy, which is basic item fusion in this game. You are given a few formulas, but most of the recipes that you have access to for most of the game are written in the Wizard’s Companion. Every time you want to make one of these recipes, you have to navigate through the menu to the proper section of the Wizard’s Companion, then turn the pages and zoom in until you find the recipe you want to make. Then you have to either memorize that shit or write it down so you don’t forget it by the time you back out of the Wizard’s Companion and navigate over the the alchemy menu. The most irritating thing is that unlike most item fusion systems in most RPGs that I have played, in this game, making a recipe once does not mean that you learn the formula. So every time you want to make some Creamy Flan you better remember that it takes one Flan, two Dumpty Eggs, and one Bumbler Honey, or you’ll be flipping back and forth between the menus constantly. Really, the only way to do alchemy with any kind of efficiency is to have a walkthrough with all the recipes open on your laptop while you play. Even that is pretty irritating, though, because unless you have found the alchemy formula in-game, you have no ability to make more than one item at once. So even though the Creamy Flan recipe is IN Oliver’s Wizard’s Companion, the formula is NOT in the alchemy menu, so if I want to make five Creamy Flans, I have to make them one at a time. It’s so much of a pain that I very rarely use the alchemy system at all, except to make single items, like weapons or armor.
So the alchemy system is terribly inefficient, but the rest of the magic that Oliver uses is pretty straightforward and fun. As you progress through the game, you earn more spells. Some of these spells are used in battle, like Fireball, but most are used in the field to solve simple environmental puzzles in order to progress the game. Impassable river getting in your way? Cast Bridge, and you can cross over that bitch. Need to get some information from a crab? Cast Nature’s Tongue, and, lo, the crab shall speak. Some spells are a little more out there, and are only used in weirdly specific situations. I’ve only used the spell Broom Broom once, for example, to magically sweep a fairy’s shop during a sidequest. It’s never come up again, though. You even end up getting spells that you can’t actually use! After visiting the Fairyground, you unlock nine really cool-sounding spells, including Werecat and Werefish. I was pretty excited to turn Oliver into a cat or a fish, but as it turns out, these are apparently “fairy spells,” and humans can’t use them. This isn’t indicated in-game, however. I spent about twenty minutes hunting through menus, trying to figure out how to cast these spells so I could see what Fish-Oliver looked like, only to finally look it up online and discover that I don’t actually get to turn Oliver into a fish, damn it. Most of the spells are pretty cool, though, and even though the puzzles that you solve with them are pretty basic (and made easier by Drippy’s constant, hilariously obvious hints), it is nonetheless intrinsically satisfying to use your magic to change Oliver’s world to his advantage.
One of the most commonly used utility spells in the game is probably Gateway, a spell that lets Oliver and his friends travel back and forth between his hometown Motorville in the “real world” and Ni No Kuni, the other world. He needs to do this periodically as the story progresses, because the worlds are connected, and each character has a “soul mate” in the opposite world. Sometimes, in order to help a character in one world, it is necessary to hop over to the other world to help the soul mate first. It’s sometimes fun to see the dopplegangers – a king in the other world might be a fat, lazy cat in Motorville, for instance. Usually the help you need to provide comes in the form of fixing a broken heart. In fact, Oliver spends a good chunk of the game helping the brokenhearted. Which doesn’t mean he gives dating advice, even though that is definitely what it sounds like. As it turns out, Shadar, the aforementioned Dark Djinn, apparently likes nothing better than sneaking about and making off with essential pieces of people’s souls, like their courage or their restraint. Oliver has the magical ability to take these qualities from other NPCs who have excess, store it in an enchanted container called a locket, and then transfer the energy to brokenhearted people. So, one of the first encounters Oliver has in the other world is with a brokenhearted city guard outside of Ding Dong Dell. He can’t let Oliver into the city because he has lost all enthusiasm for his work. Luckily, the guard standing right next to him is so overly enthusiastic about his job that he is practically doing jumping jacks. Using the spell Take Heart, Oliver can fill his locket with enthusiasm, then cast Give Heart on the brokenhearted guard to restore his heart to its proper levels of enthusiasm. Usually this form of what is essentially magical therapy isn’t quite so easy; you’ll have to travel far and wide to find all the courage, restraint, enthusiasm, and what have you to fix all the brokenhearted people, sometimes as a side quest, sometimes to advance the main plot. Now don’t get me wrong, these are essentially fetch quests, but for some reason, when you’re fetching emotions instead of bug livers, it seems more meaningful.
Side quests are pretty meaningful in Ni No Kuni, anyway, even the ones that are absolutely fetch quests. Each side quest you complete not only earns you money and loot but also Merit Stamps.
Each Merit Stamp Card you fill can be turned in for tangible in-game benefits, like moving faster over the world map or a boost in experience points. It’s a really cool incentive, and has made me really obsessive about completing EVERY side quest. Don’t get me wrong, I like loot as much as the next RPG nerd, but this kind of extra incentive system really takes things to the next level.
I’ve rambled on now for more than 3,000 words without even mentioning the battle system, that’s how much stuff I had to say about this game. But let’s talk about battles now.
Battles occur in real-time, and for what is ostensibly a game aimed at kids, they are really pretty complicated affairs. Oliver CAN fight with his own strength and magic spells, but most of the fighting grunt work gets done by his familiars. Each member of your party can have up to three familiars at one time. You can switch between party members and their familiars on the fly, but each party member shares his or her hit points and magic points with all of their familiars. You can control all members of your party, but only one at a time, so when you’re not controlling the others, they run on a mediocre AI.
My average battle generally plays out like this: I’m running around on the world map, when I encounter an enemy! I start battle as Oliver, but can immediately switch to controlling one of my three equipped familiars. Each familiar can actively fight for only a short period of time, so I have to switch between them periodically. There’s a lot of strategic advantage to this, though, as skills that affect one familiar affect them all. So, for instance, my Mighty Mite has an ability that ups attack. After he casts it, I can switch him out for my Purrloiner, who attacks much faster and can inflict poison, and still have the attack up effect stay active. After my Purrloiner takes damage, I switch back to Oliver to heal. Since Oliver shares his hit points with all three of his familiars, this heals all three. Then I switch in my last familiar, my Draggle, to breathe fire at my enemies until they are burned crispy. If I recently slept at an inn and my companions have MP, they help me murder my enemies. If not, I generally just let them die. Seriously, they’re pretty useless. You have the ability to change their tactics to some degree, but what it pretty much comes down to is, “Do I want the AI to blow all their MP on needlessly powerful attack spells in this random encounter, or do I want them to use no skills at all?” Because those are your options. You can switch over to controlling your companions directly, but then Oliver’s MP is getting wasted by the AI, and he’s got all the good spells anyway, so why bother? Your companions are honestly most useful as cannon fodder to distract the enemies from targeting Oliver while he and his familiars rain death upon them. I only switch over to Esther if I need to use her ability to capture new familiars or to Swaine if I need to steal something. Otherwise, I pretty much let my companions die. They get experience anyway, so there’s very little incentive to keep them alive. Oliver can handle himself pretty well without them.
Even with all of the problems I just outlined, battle is surprisingly fun. Switching between familiars is fast and easy, and stacking their abilities in useful combos is rewarding. The enemies you face are varied, well-designed, and almost always cute. Enemies announce their next attack a few seconds before they launch it, giving you just enough to time to select the Defend command if you need to. Defending successfully against enemy attacks or landing a critical hit upon them makes enemies drop glims, green or blue balls that restore health or magic points, respectively. If you’re very lucky, an enemy will drop a golden glim. Grabbing that will instantly heal you completely and allow you to use an ultimate attack, and each character and familiar has a different ultimate attack that is triggered.
The familiars are essentially Ghibli-flavored Pokemon. They level up, evolve, learn abilities, and have different types that make them strong and weak against each other in much the same way as Pokemon function. Each of your party members starts out with a familiar, and you’re given a few in the course of the game, but most of your familiars must be captured in battle. After defeating an enemy, there is a small chance that little hearts will appear above their heads. The moment they do, you’d better switch over to Esther quick-like and use her charm ability, and then the familiar is yours to keep! Now, mind you, when I say “a small chance,” I mean a really small chance. You could fight fifty of one kind of enemy and never get those hearts to appear. I understand that there is a Merit Stamp Card reward later in the game that ups the capture rate, but I’m not there yet. You can hold up to 400 familiars in the Familiar Retreat (this game’s version of the PC Boxes in Pokemon), but I can’t even imagine the hours you’d have to sink in to capture that many.
The familiars level up, learn new abilities, and eventually evolve into new forms. However, unlike Pokemon, when a familiar evolves, it’s reset to level 1. It’s kind of annoying to have to drag around a first level party member if you’re level 35, but familiars in your party gain experience points whether or not they fight in the battle, so they level up fast. Just don’t accidentally switch a level 1 into battle during a boss fight like I did. Instant murder!
I spent a lot of time nitpicking the elements of this game in this post, but don’t get me wrong: I love this game. There’s a lot wrong with it, though, which has made me seriously consider my reasons for loving it. I think it comes down to the very real sense of wonder that Ni No Kuni manages to instill in the player, which is an element that a lot of more technically perfect games lack. Let me give you a (slightly spoiler-y) example.
About halfway through the game, I was told to visit the air pirates to see if I could get from them a map pointing the way to some magic crystals. I had been sailing around the world on my commandeered sailing ship for some time, so it was pretty clear that I was about to get my obligatory JRPG airship upgrade. I arrived at the air pirates’ base and marveled at their really cool airship, certain that it would be mine after running a few errands for their captain. The pirate capatin’s pet dragon was sick, so I hopped over to the real world to find the dragon’s soul mate so that I could fix him up. Once I did so, I was certain that airship would be mine.
Upon returning to the pirate captain, he told me that his airship was much too large to land on the island I needed to go to. Ok, I thought, so do I need to go on another quest to find a smaller airship? Or maybe a grappling hook of some kind so that you can lower me down onto the island? Or maybe…
Oh, or you could JUST GIVE ME YOUR FUCKING DRAGON AND I GET TO RIDE IT??? OMFG!!!!
So that’s Ni No Kuni for you. You think you’re getting an airship, but instead you get an adorable purple dragon and then you spend literally two hours just flying around the world map on a dragon because it’s so beautiful and the overworld music changes when you’re riding him and becomes the most epic music imaginable and you don’t even remember where you’re supposed to go to get those magic crystals and who cares anyway because YOU ARE RIDING A GODDAMN DRAGON.
And that’s why you should go play Ni No Kuni.