RPG/Movie studio crossovers are few and far between there have been but a handful of titles that have had massive names attached to them. One early effort from Square Enix and Akira Toryiama produced one of my all time favourite games Chrono Trigger a brilliant RPG with gorgeous artwork and character design from the father of Dragon Ball. Toriyama teamed up with Level 5 latterly for the brilliant Dragon Quest 8 : Journey of the cursed King. Not to be out done Disney have also had a go with the hit and miss Kingdom Hearts series featuring a lot of Square enix’ favourite characters from the Final Fantasy series not to mention an .amazing cast made up of some real big hitters (Haley Joel Osment, David Boreanz, Mandy Moore and the legend that is Christopher Lee) I loved Kingdom Hearts and the sequel but I think that ship has sailed now.
Enter Japanese animation house Studio Gibli, collaborators on Magic Pengel with Garakuda studios back in the PS2 era, this time they have teamed up with Level 5 to create something truly spectacular in Ni No Kuni.
Our hero is a young boy named Oliver he lives in the peaceful town of MotorVille but an unfortunate event sees him driven from his world and into another (Ni No Kuni literally translates as “the another world”) with just a book of spells and trusty sidekick Drippy “Lord High Lord of the Faeries” Oliver must find a way to right the wrongs in this new world and return harmony to his own.
The Gibli influence is evident from the outset and you will find yourself becoming completely absorbed in this universe very quickly, I originally feared that the switch from the gorgeous Gibli hand drawn cut scenes to the 3d CGI of the game proper would be garish and difficult to transition between but those fears were unfounded because the two mesh together wonderfully, the attention to detail is spectacular and the designers have done a truly magnificent job with every inch of the environments.
Playing like a cross between a traditional jRPG and a “gotta catch em all” Pokemon title a lot of effort has gone in to creating a cast of colourful characters and unique “pets” (known here as familiars) that populate a world much more rife with danger and intrigue than its “cutesy” appearance would suggest.
So its stunning to look at but from early looks at the game we already knew that so how does it play? Well bloody brilliantly actually. A lot of JRPG’s can feel somewhat inaccessible to newcomers but I don’t think anyone could be too overwhelmed by the gameplay. In the early stages the game introduces new elements slowly and explains everything to you at length, that’s not to say that this game is a “hand-holder” and before long there is plenty for even the most seasoned adventurer to sink their teeth into. The menu system is a little dumbed down for the most part but in the “Wizards companion” Ni No Kuni boasts a truly unique aspect, given the spell book at the beginning of the game Oliver must learn new spells and discover new items in order to fill the pages of this fully readable guide to the flora, fauna and inhabitants of this magical other world. I can’t help but feel though that this aspect could have been enhanced further and perhaps integrated as an entire menu system which really would have been an exceptional feature rather than an optional extra.
One of the most important aspects of any RPG is the battle system, due in no small part to the amount of time you spend grinding for levels and items, Level 5 have handled said system pretty well here and battles are rarely short of excitement and satisfaction. Moving away from the traditional static turn based battles we usually see in this type of game Ni No Kuni favours a free moving battlefield where avoiding and defending attacks is as integral to fights as dishing out the damage. Training up your characters and their familiars is pretty simple really but for those who want to get a little more out of the game there are ways for you to enhance their abilities in a manner befitting your play style.
You’re gonna love this little guy
Its hard to pinpoint just what it is that makes this title one of the greatest of its type in this console generation, the stunning graphics, the original story, the well rounded characters and the amazing score (performed by the Tokyo philharmonic orchestra) are all key features but probably the most important thing is that little bit of Gibli magic that really pulls the whole thing together in my opinion. I highly recommend playing the game with the Japanese audio and English subtitles, it may just be me but i find the English dub voices to be extremely irritating despite being incredibly well performed even then you will be treated to some truly awful puns and somewhat sketchy translated dialogue.
In the later stages of the game the formulaic nature of the side quests proves to be somewhat of a hindrance to the game and seasoned RPG fans may find that there is not enough exploration to be done, the whole world map is opened up to the player quite early on in the game but there just aren’t that many secrets to discover, yes there are hidden items and extras but it doesn’t really feel like you have to work hard to discover these little tidbits. This might be an advantage for the younger or more casual gamer because you wont feel as if you are missing out on anything spectacular by skipping the side quests or leaving some items behind but for those of us who were hoping for a longer lasting or re-playable experience you might find that there is just something missing here. This should not be seen as a massive flaw however as it does make for a tighter more streamlined RPG experience.
All in all this game is well worth picking up if you are a fan of Gibli or a fan or jRPGs and you want an experience akin to the early Final Fantasies or Dragon quest games.