Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Developer: Level 5
Release Date: 1/22/2013
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Before you continue reading, this review is coming from someone who has grown to hate JRPGs over the past ten years. I rarely play them, and if I do, I never finish them. The story ends up falling flat, too many random battles, the characters are boring, or it’s just too damn hard. Ni no Kuni caught my attention due to the fact that Studio Ghibli was involved and Level 5 is a master at JRPGs. While I didn’t finish Dragon Quest VIII I did enjoy its story and art immensely.
Ni no Kuni is all about magic. A boy named Oliver’s mother dies after saving him from drowning. A fairy named Mr. Drippy comes to visit him and he’s off to another world. It turns out that an evil witch wants to destroy the world. Sounds pretty simple, but there are a lot of plot twists, and the ending will have you going, “No way!” during each cutscene. The game holds a lot of secrets and the characters are engaging and you will get very attached. However, the story is only half of what makes a good JRPG.
The combat is in real-time, not turn-based. It’s all about reaction time and strategy. All three of your characters run around the battlefield. The enemy can strike at any time, but so can you. Each character can cast spells and send out one of three familiars to cast various other spells and do physical damage. There are dozens of them throughout the game that you can capture and train. Oliver is the most powerful mage and by the end of the game, you will be casting room-clearing magic. The biggest issue with this is that the game is solely focused on magic. Physical damage, no matter how high of a level you are, never does the same amount of damage as magic. You will be guzzling MP potions like crazy, always make sure you have a ton stocked up. Enemies will sometimes cast spells themselves or charge physical attacks. You can order your team to defend or attack and then you have to attack yourself. This requires quick thinking and timing, and actual gaming skills. It’s also important to exploit the elemental weakness of each enemy if there is one. During the battle, enemies will drop HP and MP glims to help you out, and rarely the gold glim will supercharge you or you’re familiar with an ultra-powerful attack or defensive move.
Boss battles are the toughest in the game, and towards the end, they will come with 2 and 3 different phases. This game gets extremely tough after the first few chapters, so tough that it will require a lot of level grinding during the last half. I actually played the last half on easy and still died quite often, this game is extremely hard, be warned. There are other things you can do outside of battles like side quests. Oliver can go around collecting pieces of heart from people and giving them to other people who need them. He can cast spells to help advance his way through the world like make bridges, talk to ghosts, and animals, rejuvenate broken objects, etc. There are 150 side quests and you get gold and items for them as well as stamps. 10 stamps get you a card and these cards can be redeemed for permanent effects like extra XP during battle, enemies dropping more loot, and even giving Oliver 100 extra max HP and MP. These side quests, including bounty hunts, can be fun and can add 15-20 hours of gameplay themselves.
After so long you will be able to sail and fly around the entire world allowing you to avoid overworld battles. The game has no random battles, but some enemies are so hard to avoid that they might as well be. If you get to a high enough level enemies will run away and you won’t have to deal with them. The game is also full of dangerous dungeons full of chests of loot. Now, what about these familiars? Think of them like Pokemon. You can feed them treats to advance various attributes and then feed them gemstones to advance them to their third and most powerful stage. As they level up they acquire new spells and techniques. You can swap out different familiars and can hold up to 500 in your familiar retreat.
The game’s art is fantastic and gorgeous along with the music. Studio Ghibli created the animated cutscenes, but there aren’t many of them. There are less than 10 minutes of animation throughout the whole game and that’s very disappointing. I felt they shouldn’t have bothered at that point. There’s also a lot of unspoken dialogue and it just seems random when it happens. Towards the end, there are hardly any cut scenes and it drove me nuts. Why waste the great voice acting and animation only to spread it randomly and unevenly throughout the game? Other than that colors pop on a 1080p HDTV with bright vibrant colors thanks to Studio Ghibli’s art style that everyone has grown to love and appreciate.
In the end, Ni no Kuni has a very engaging story that will keep you hooked for dozens of hours, the combat tries to change things from the typical JRPG format, but there are a few flaws in it. Your spells can be interrupted often and when you defend sometimes won’t register or you don’t get enough time before enemy attacks. You get about a second before the enemy attacks. During that time you need to order your team to defend and defend yourself. It can be tough during boss fights. I also hated the focus on magic and the game was overly difficult during the last 3/4. Other than that the combat was fine. The game suffers from tedium towards the end, and the side quests start feeling the same and you just want the game to end. There is some post-end content, but most people might skip this. Ni no Kuni is a perfect game for JRPG fans, but non-fans won’t find enough here to change their minds.