Developed by LEVEL-5, with cutscenes by Studio Ghibli, Ni no Kuni is basically heaven if you’re a Studio Ghibli fan. Following the tale of Oliver, it’s a game of epic quests, evil enchanters and trying to save the world. It’s a Japanese RPG with a tonne of traditional elements, the usual suspects – levelling up, finding items, shops and side quests are all there, but the battle system is unusual, so firstly let’s take a look at that.
The battle system is in real time, you can move around freely – but you do have a little thinking room at the start of the battle, as it pauses while you select characters and also when you’re selecting whether to use provisions, launch physical attacks, cast spells and so on.
It kind of lures you into a false sense of security at the start, and admittedly the first couple of hours’ worth of battles are pretty easy, but that soon changes as you progress, with more features and more challenging opponents added at a steady pace throughout the game. Death in battle costs if you decide to hit continue: if you die in battle you can continue, but it’ll cost you 10% of the money (guilders) you have. While a godsend if you haven’t saved recently or can’t be arsed going back to the title screen, but it is a proper ball ache if you have been grinding for an hour to level up and have a bunch of cash and, of course, haven’t saved recently.
Ni no Kuni also has an easy mode – there’s hardly any battles and it’s not really a challenge, ideal for those who just want to play for the story and children – who may not be used to JRPG battle systems – to play through with ease.
Questing and monsters
There are many, many, maaaany really sweet features in the game that you can upgrade by doing ‘tasks’, these side quests that earn you money, items and stamps that you can exchange for various upgrades. I don’t want to give too much away, but you can also have hours of fun with the ‘alchemy’ feature, discovering new items that can be made with the items and ingredients you collect.
But that’s nothing in comparison to one of the game’s headline features…Ni no Kuni has a Pokemon-esque ability that allows you to catch creatures that you fight throughout the game, making them your ‘Familiars’. Once you have caught them, they fight for you in battle and you can teach them abilities by levelling up, or feeding them ‘treats’. This gives the game endless possibilities, as you can tailor it to your own preferences with the familiars you choose.
The story itself is rather linear, if not a bit too easy in places, with your little fairy accomplice (he’s a funny little Welsh guy) constantly giving you tips and guiding you through the various puzzles that pop up everywhere. I’m not going to sugar coat it – you may be disappointed if you’re a seasoned RPG buff, it’s kind of obvious what you have to do, almost impossible to get stuck, but it more than makes up for it with the challenging battles and side quests.
The mark of Ghibli
The game has absolutely stunning in-game graphics (not to mention amazing cutscenes) and the kind of quality musical score you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, people have drawn similarities between the better offerings of the Final Fantasy series and rightly so, but if ‘aint broke, don’t fix it. I’m looking at you Square-Enix.
Worth a mention are the voice overs, they have got real voice actors in, with endearing accents that fit the characters to a tee, a rare thing in Japanese RPGs that have been regionalised for the western market.
To sum up Ni no Kuni – it’s really, really good, it could be harder, but it’s so vast and has so much to do that’s not in the story that I personally think it makes up for it ten-fold. There are lots of things in there that you’ve seen before, in terms of combat and puzzles, but they are well executed and challenging. You need to play this game!
Ni no Kuni: Legend of the White Witch was originally released on PlayStation 3 in the EU in 2013, but is still available on disc and for download. Our reviewer bought their own copy.