Ni no Kuni’s central mechanic – that of a young boy venturing into a world parallel to his own – is hardly the sort of thing that really strives to stands out amongst RPGs. It feels familiar, right from the start, and the gradual, slow feed of information and exposition brings to mind almost every other such adventure I can think of.
Oliver, the main character, is naive, playful and happy enough to battle beasts on the say-so of his travelling companion, a Welsh-speaking doll known as Drippy.
If that were everything, Level 5′s latest romp would have been a romp like we’ve all seen before. Thankfully, by virtue of a hugely appealing collaboration with Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle) it’s dressed up in some stunning animation and a visual style (cel shaded, if you will) that at least attempts to match the pre-rendered video sections. Just to watch and gaze upon the game is a joy, but when control is handed to the player it’s a thrill.
Indeed, the first time you venture into The Another World, huge vistas ahead and a wonderful painted style all around you, it’s actually something of a shock to find it’s real time. Spinning the camera around reveals a consistently impressive, coherent aesthetic that simply feels dream-like and full of awe. The graphics aren’t always so impressive close-up and some of the animation (away from the movie sections) feels a little stunted and bitty, but this is a gorgeous game.
It’s a curious one too in terms of gameplay. The battle scenes play out with a smart mix of player-controlled options and free-roaming movement, although it adheres strictly to prescribed moves and direction; and yet exploring the world is almost entirely at your disposal. It is, essentially, a finely honed mix of linear story progression and non-linear subsections, meaning the plot moves nicely, taking you along for the ride, without ever feeling like you’re not in full control of the pacing.
Once Level 5 bring in magic and Familiars (creatures that you can summon to fight for you against others) there’s a subtle complexity that manages to weld together each and every battle, no matter how trivial. The interface plays a big part in this – it’s largely perfect and never unwieldy – and the way that fights can be approached in different ways is refreshing and helps dilute any sense of repetition. Hardcore RPG fans might find the mechanics somewhat simplified, but the majority of gamers will relish the choice.
Once you have a full roster of characters you can start to bring in their abilities and magic, and start to position them in your line-up accordingly. A defensive spell can be used to cover creatures behind the one casting the magic, for example.
It’s a surprisingly deep and yet approachable system – for someone not used to investing hours just learning the menu systems Ni no Kuni is an ideal game and offers a considerably weighty experience for those looking to invest. I’m a big fan of keeping things simple and the developers have clearly tried to ensure that the game is suitable for everyone. Indeed, there’s even a difficulty toggle that mutes the abilities of your enemies for those just wanting to soak up the story.
Backed with a stunning soundtrack from Joe Hisaishi and some great (if a little stunted) voice acting, the production and presentation here is top notch. I’m a huge fan of the way Drippy was translated to our shores, the decision to go with a quick firing Welsh dialect is close to genius and your main companion is someone you’re more than likely to instantly grow very fond of. He’s a guide and a walking signpost, sure, but he’s crucial to the plot and he’s much better than some of the similar roles found elsewhere of late.
I’m a big fan of Ni no Kuni. It’s a massive game, and whilst the storyline isn’t going to cause many shocks the way it’s all brought together is beautifully done and it’s great to see such production dedicated to a console like the PlayStation 3. For anyone looking for something meaty this Winter, Level 5 have got you covered.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is out February 1st in the UK. Full review soon.