Ni No Kuni finally comes to US shores and it was worth every minute of waiting.
The first thing you’ll notice about Level 5’s newest game is that it’s utterly gorgeous. Even those that don’t enjoy the art style of animation giant Studio Ghibli, have to see the beauty in the lush environments and vivid colors that fill every inch of the world. Not only that, but the world is simply packed with intricate details like individual plates and pots; or the various objects filling a home or a shop. In response the world feels lived in instead of created and it results in one of the most engaging, charming, and endearing worlds I’ve ever crossed within a game. There is even a book for wizards within your menu that has various stories, spells, alchemy creation formulas and information regarding familiars. It’s a great read with some engaging and funny stuff and just another example how Level 5 fleshes out the world.
You’ll be filling the shoes of Oliver, who is a refreshing departure from the angsty pretty boy warriors we’ve grown to expect. See Oliver is just a boy, a child who, after a tragedy, deeply mourns and yet is provided with the chance to right this wrong by a stuffed toy brought to life named Drippy. Drippy is from another land, a magical one, where people in both worlds have soul mates that can look or behave like one another and if something is done to one of the soul mates it affects the other. In this way Oliver has a chance to reverse fate and find an answer for his mourning.
The world into which Oliver, and by extension you, journeys is a fantastical one filled with colorful monsters, anthropomorphic animals, puns and jokes galore and stunning environments. After being introduced to each new area I promise you will find at least one location that simply makes your jaw drop with how well it’s developed and filled with life. The endearing world of Ni No Kuni is under attack by a being named Shadar and an evil queen who have outlawed magic. Oliver is talented in multiple areas of magic and sets out on his quest to grow powerful enough to defeat Shadar and free this world.
He won’t be alone though. As Oliver you’ll control various creatures called familiars, which at their base are essentially Pokemon. After a certain point in the story you’ll be able to serenade a familiar and catch them to begin training. Each character has three slots that they can fill with these magical beings and whether they participate in battle or not they gain experience and levels. After a certain amount of experience each familiar has 3 levels of evolution to go through. The first is linear and you can’t choose, but for the final evolution you’ll be picking between two different types. One might focus on defense while the other attack and both learn different skills.
During combat you’ll use your familiars to do battle, though you can certainly sling spells yourself if you so choose. Once you select a familiar and send it out though it replaces Oliver and you control the creature itself. You can move freely about the battle space and choose attacks that are on a timer, though you still use MP to power those attacks. Oliver and his familiars share HP and MP so damage done to one affects both and you’ll find yourself tactically switching between familiars and Oliver to stay healed up and keep your force in fighting shape. Each familiar also has a stamina gauge that goes down as they are deployed so you’ll need to develop a well-balanced fighting force to switch between whenever one familiar is all tuckered out.
These systems, combined with the fact that there is a paper, rock scissors element between all the familiars in addition to elemental strengths and weaknesses, add an impressive level of depth that is approachable yet nuanced. At first you can certainly take most battles just jamming on the X button, but eventually you’ll be slowly guided into the idea of playing familiars to their strength. It’s an excellent system that adds a large amount of player customization. My brother and I are playing through the game at the same time and our teams and approaches couldn’t be more different, though both are entirely viable. This melds a Pokemon like catch em’ all fever with the more nuanced storytelling and progression associated with a more traditional JRPG. In short it’s utter magic.
You’ll navigate the world on an old school map with a top down perspective where you will see enemies on the screen. Thankfully Level 5 went with being able to choose your battles instead of random encounters and it just makes the experience that much more gratifying. Enemies will notice you and rush you or run depending on your level and you can sneak up on them giving you an advantage in battle (though they can certainly do the same to you). Just like any good RPG the over world is littered with secrets and surprises left for you to survive. Due to the aforementioned endearing world and the stunning environments you won’t mind searching every nook and cranny of Ni No Kuni’s world.
It’s not just the obvious stuff that makes Ni No Kuni fantastic, but the little things that often go unsung. For instance, the menu is instantly accessible with zero load time with a simple press of the triangle button. Everything is laid out with little clutter within the menu, and though there is certainly plenty to see and do within, its organized so as not to be overwhelming. Pressing another button instantly brings up a map with no loading that makes the whole experience flow more organically and doesn’t make you dread taking a peek at where you are. Small concessions abound like glowing spots to indicate quest givers and locations of quest; fear not however because in the options you can turn such hints off if you so wish.
An easily accessible journal with filters that let you sort through what you have left to finished makes completing the tasks easier. Even your save spot will let you know what you were in the process of doing and even where you might have been heading on the main story to point you in the right direction after extended periods of not playing (good luck with that: the not playing I mean). In short everything possible is done to make your experience smoother and more enjoyable by taking care of those rough edges that you might find in other games of this genre.
Best of all is the side quest system that fills the aforementioned journal. Whenever you complete a side quest in the game you will receive stamps that will go onto a merit card you have. The tougher the task the more stamps you get in addition to a reward such as armor or money. As you fill the cards up they can be turned in for rewards that affect your character and the game. They might range from hiking up your walking speed to getting a discount in stores. For some reason I am hopelessly addicted to the stamp system and it is yet another driving force within the game. I’m convinced if we had a stamp system in real life everyone would be WAY nicer.
There is so much to do and see in Ni No Kuni that it’s hard to discuss it all here without ruining certain surprises that I’d rather you experience for yourself. There is a crafting system that is fairly simple to wrap your head around. Littered across the over world are spots that shine where you can gather ingredients for alchemy later in the game and you can follow formulas or mix and match to create treats for your familiars, weapons, armor, badges and more. Audio is also something that Level 5 and the folks at Studio Ghibli didn’t skimp on. Music is sweeping and fits the game perfectly, the main theme being one of my favorite gaming themes in recent years. Voice work, typically a downside to these sorts of games, is extremely well done and was given an extraordinary amount of attention down to people you may only hear once.
So there must not be anything at all wrong with the game right? Well there are a few minor issues that some might take issue with. First and foremost is how difficult it can sometimes be to capture a familiar that you want. See, unlike Pokemon, you don’t get a chance to catch it every time with varying degrees of success. Instead you just fight the monsters and take them out. Sometimes a familiar will pop back up ready to be tamed, but you’ll find yourself playing battle after battle trying to win a familiar you want. Once I caught one as soon as I met the creature, but other times I spent well over an hour just trying to get one to be able to be caught. It adds a little bit of grinding to something that otherwise is evenly paced and flows extremely well so it’s exceptionally notable. Some may also take issue with the various puns and at times eye rolling turn of phrase. For instance there is a large cat king that people refer to as “Your Meowjesty” and various other such wordplay. It didn’t really bother me, certainly it felt like just another quirk to the world, but I could see it getting on others nerves.
Ni No Kuni is an experience that is simply a masterpiece. One of those games that, minor annoyances aside, are polished till they shine with every aspect of aesthetics and gameplay coming together to create something spectacular. While it does have a few tiny blemishes, it is one of the most shining examples of the genre. There was a lot of care and love given to every aspect of the game and it shows in an outstanding final experience, which is why it earns a perfect score. Simply put Ni No Kuni is one of the best RPGs this generation and indeed one of the finest I’ve ever played.