The animation market in Japan has no name better regarded than Studio Ghibli. The studio is responsible for such titles as the Academy Award winning Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. That film is so popular that even two decades after release its merchandise remains among the most popular products in toy stores.
Ghibli’s involvement in the development of a game was sure to get attention, and Ni No Kuni’s announcement was a big deal among fans.
The basic story treads relatively familiar ground for fans of Ghibli. It’s a story that has surfaced before, in 2010’s Ni No Kuni: The Jet-Black Mage on the Nintendo DS, contrasting with the PlayStation 3 Wrath of the White Witch. But as that game was only released in Japan it will be new to Western audiences.
The protagonist is thirteen year old Oliver, a resident of the 50s town of Motorville. After a minor accident involving youthful hijinx Oliver’s mother dies. Oliver’s doll comes to life after being splashed with his tears, and invites the weeping lad on a magical adventure that could save a world and possibly Oliver’s mother. Either that or it’s the story of the decent into madness of a child traumatised by grief and guilt.
Oliver’s now alive doll is called Mr Drippy, and is in fact the Lord High Lord of All The Fairies turned into a doll by the Dark Djinn, an evil wizard named Shadar. Shadar is damaging Drippy’s world of Ni No Kuni, an alternative reality whose name literally translates to “Second Country”.
Ni No Kuni is a magical and colourful world, and the way it’s brought to life here is unquestionably superb. If it isn’t the best looking title on the PlayStation 3 it is at the very least in the top three. Bright, vivid and detailed, the game oozes the whimsy and charm of Ghibli, as well as the polish that developer Level 5 has become known for, especially in recent titles such as the Professor Layton series.
Charisma and attention to detail are everywhere in this beautifully constructed game. Graphically it is obviously superb, but the other aspects of presentation are up to the same standard. The writing is in general excellent, if a little wordy, and the voice acting is exceptional. In particular, Mr Drippy’s voice is incongruently Welsh and likeable, and Oliver’s “jeepers”ing just adds to his characterization as the “Pure-Hearted One”. Another standout element is the music. Though the more cynical may find it a bit repetitive, it fills the background with the right tone and has some objectively lovely melodies.
All of this helps to create the impression of a world, a playable Ghibli world that is a fantasy alternative to our reality. But in that reality, the villainous Shadar is attacking citizens, and making them “heartbroken”. This is a very literal thing, breaking their hearts and taking a piece.
Shadar, the sneaky fellow, manages to do this to diverse characters throughout the story, all without being seen. People in power it makes sense, but his targeting of citizens seems to be odd. He even repeatedly re-targets the same trivial individuals for seemingly no benefit.
Naturally the only possible solution in this world full of powerful mages and heroes is for the role of savior to be taken up by children, in a manner that seems to be standard for a JRPG.
The main role of Oliver in the story is to fix people who are heartbroken, leading to them neglecting their roles. That involves finding people who have an abundance of the missing element, such as “enthusiasm” and borrowing theirs. The story makes very clear that these people are actually helped by having their excess taken, so it’s not as sinister as it initially sounds.
A lot of gameplay time is spent in combat, which is initially trivially easy, and becomes slowly more complex and advanced. Oliver’s initial combat is literally “hit with stick”, but becomes more intricate quickly. Magic is added to the mix, with Oliver soon gaining a fireball and a frostbite spell. Another combat element explained by Mr Drippy in the first true boss fight is the Defend command. Defend causes Oliver to block attacks for a while, reducing their damage by around 75 percent. Defend is on a timer, which counts down so that it needs to be timed carefully with incoming major attacks.
Initially Oliver fights alone, but that changes when party members Esther and later Swain join him. Having multiple characters increases damage output significantly, and also adds complexity to controlling and managing their actions. Non-player controlled characters can be given general standing orders in the “Tactics” menu, letting them know what is needed. For example, they can be set to “Keep us healed”, designating them a healing role, or to “Give it everything”, where they focus on damage dealing. Most usefully they can be set to “Don’t use abilities” which will prevent them from expending absurd amounts of magic points fighting against weak enemies that can be quickly bludgeoned to death.
Another major element in combat is the use of Familiars. Oliver casts a spell that creates a familiar, a spirit drawn from his own heart that can do his more physical fighting for him. While very useful due to high defense and offense, the creature’s actual design is a disappointment. It’s literally Ghibli’s Ponyo frozen mid transformation and given a sword and shield.
The first familiar is by no means the last familiar. The story gives Oliver two more almost immediately, offering slightly different techniques. Esther also is soon given the ability to capture familiars, occasionally letting her use a special ability on the battlefield to tame a wild monster.
This ability introduces a Pokemon-style “gotta catch ‘em all” to the game, as well as allowing side quests to capture specific types. In fact, the Familiars concept becomes a dominating subgame within itself. Familiars have to be managed carefully. They level up, and can even be evolved (“Metamorphosed”), they need to have their equipment managed, can be fed treats to improve their stats, and so on. A huge amount of time can be dedicated to this aspect of the title. Unfortunately, it also needs to be. Maintaining the equipment and stats of these companions is a demanding job, thanks in part to their sheer numbers. Players aren’t just equipping their three characters, but a total of twelve. Remembering the stats, preferences and equipment of all of the above is a time consuming process. Getting hold of the required treats is also time consuming, not least do to the need for extensive alchemy.
Alchemy is yet another aspect to Ni No Kuni that is added quite a long way in. It is a crafting system that provides the ability to create new items of various kinds, including health and mana items, weapons and armour, and upgraded treats for the familiars.
The alchemy system uses raw materials gathered from the world map, from enemy drops, or purchased in various stores to create new items, but the actually working recipes are a little harder to find. Some few recipes are learned immediately on gaining the ability. Recipes are an instant creation “make like this”. But items can also be created by simply knowing the ingredients and combining them. The Wizard Companion, Oliver’s book, contains a large number of these formulas. But creating items from recipes is far more efficient and convenient.
Unfortunately the game is poor at giving them to players. Creating an item manually does not give the automatic version of the recipe, it would need to be manually created each time. In fact, the vast majority of the automatic recipes are given from a single NPC in the town alchemy is learned. But as there’s nothing special about that NPC and nothing to suggest her dialogue has changed, relatively few players would actually stumble across these recipes, effectively hiding the most useful of baseline alchemy items.
Aside from the story there are side quests to keep players engaged. These side quests take two main forms, bounty hunts and errands. The errands vary significantly. In many cases they are simply heartbroken individuals who need a replacement of some aspect of their emotion. They may have turned mean to their friends because they lack kindness, or they may be unwilling to go outside because they’ve had their courage stolen.
The fact that you need to fix a heartbroken NPC becomes immediately obvious within the first page of dialogue. Yet players still need to trudge through a significant amount of tedious chit-chat before that inevitable conclusion. This then prompts several menus required to cast the spell to fix them. It quickly becomes tiresome.
In fact, there are many areas of Ni No Kuni that could have done with being streamlined. The best example of this is the Spells system. Oliver can open his spell book at any point and have access to many spells he’s gained over the course of the adventure. But not all of them are relevant. In fact, there are a number that don’t do anything and can never be used. Quake, for example, sounds like the sort of thing that would be useful, but never actually even appears in the spell book. Others have only a single usage. The spell Broom Broom brings brooms to life, and is used for a single side quest. Poison Apple is needed to get past a guard one time. Form Familiar is used to summon the first familiar and cannot ever be used again. These all just sit there cluttering the spell book. Spells also can’t be arranged in any way. There is no way to make a page of favourites for the most useful spells, for example.
There are other flaws too, few of which are critical and most of which are endemic to the genre. Ni No Kuni literally goes out of its way to waste players’ time. It becomes most obvious in the city of Hamelin, a long city of twisting pathways. This town has the palace, and source of most quests, at one end, and the source of most of the quest goals at the other end, in what seems to be a deliberate attempt to pad gameplay through tedious running around.
There is a strange inconsistency to cutscenes as well. They are presented in one of three ways. Routinely they are presented as in-game cutscenes, with text dialogue, but sometimes instead of text the audio is voiced. There seems to be no clear difference between which of those will be presented at any given moment, an arbitrary distinction that makes for a muddled presentation. Other scenes, especially pivotal moments, are occasionally played as full screen animations, created directly by Studio Ghibli, and these are rare but valued treats.
The timing of cutscenes is also often a little odd. Mr Drippy likes to leap into battle and explain obvious details, such as that it would be a good idea to use fire attacks on this ice boss, or that it appears to be staggered, and now would be a good time to hit it hard.
Combat has its share of issues. Though technically a real-time combat system the maze of menus and commands routinely interrupt the combat. Again, there is no ability to map spells to buttons, so repeatedly using fireballs on a boss, or repeatedly healing the party remains a slightly painful endeavour.
Unfortunately, Oliver’s AI companions are not the sharpest crayons in the pack. They frequently choose nonsensical familiars, or do strange things like put away the water familiar they’ve got out against the fire boss, and go up and hit it with their wand. As a result they tend to die a lot, and burn through MP distressingly quickly and inefficiently. Many times it’s easier to take a Darwinian approach and just let them die, making the fight slower, but more certain. Even if the AI characters could understand to defend on their own without specific orders, that would be something.
Defending can be done en masse, thankfully. After a particular point in the game, mashing square sets “All-Out Defense”, and if triggered as the boss starts a power hit can minimise damage, while pressing triangle for All-Out Attack will encourage the party to move in and deal damage. Alternating between these is the core of most boss fights. Unfortunately while these buttons work for the other members of your party, they do not work for the player character. This means blocking for the entire party requires two separate actions. Having “All-Out Defense” block for the player character as well would simplify the process of keeping everyone alive, and make the fights more about battling the enemy and less about battling the controls.
It would also mitigate the most critical flaw in combat. The defend command is timed. It only lasts around five seconds. What is inexplicable, though, is that this time continues ticking down even in the animation time of enemy attacks. While not significant for most attacks, some bosses it becomes a critical factor. This means that if the enemy attack has a three and a half second animation, there is literally a second and a half window in which to defend. If the animation takes four seconds, that’s down to a second. Defend too late and it won’t work. Defend too early and watch Oliver casually stand back up straight to eat the full brunt of the attack.
Though it seems trivial this single issue can make a frustration filled abomination of some boss fights. With the combination of the two different processes required to defend for the whole party, and the frustratingly small window for successfully defending, players can get stuck on a boss for long periods. Again, this is acceptable for a challenging battle, but frustrating when it’s just because of poor controls or questionable gameplay decisions.
Another slight frustration that is poorly explained is the elements. Each familiar has an element, which affects what item is needed to metamorphose it, for example. But it also affects its combat. The elements, Sun, Moon, Star and Planet, have a scissors-paper-stone relationship, and the use of the wrong familiar can therefore be damaging. However, the nature of these relationships, what is strong against star, weak against moon, etc, is at no point in the game ever explained or mentioned.
Despite the litany of complaints, Ni No Kuni is not held back from greatness. It is colourful and beautiful, with a well written and presented story that actually makes coherent narrative sense instead of the usual pseudo-intellectual existential nonsense that JRPGs often present. Characters are well crafted, and gameplay is polished and slick. There are moments that are genuinely either touching or humorous, and the whole thing is charged with that special Ghibli magic.