Ni no Kuni first impressions

At the very tail end of last year I wrote a blog all about how I had, generally speaking, been pretty disappointed with the new gaming releases of 2012 but how the spring of 2013 looked like it would more than make up for it. Well let me officially declare that the gaming spring has officially begun, despite it still being winter, and the game that has fired the starting pistol is Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.

Story

Ni no Kuni is a JRPG that focuses on the adventures of protagonist 13 year old Oliver and his sidekick Mr. Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies. The game is made by Level-5 and Japanese animation gods Studio Ghibli and published by Namco. When Oliver’s mother suddenly dies of a shock induced heart attack after saving him from nearly drowning, which happens in the first 20 or so minutes of gameplay yet still manages to pack a real emotional punch, Oliver spends the next three days in his room crying. When a stray tear falls onto the doll his mother made him as a child the doll turns into Drippy who then gives Oliver a magic wand and a wizards manual so that they can travel to another world. Everyone is linked in these two worlds by a soul mate. If Oliver can find his mother’s soul mate in the other world, who turns out to be the great sage Alicia, then he can bring her back to life in his own world. The problem is that a prophecy declares that Oliver is the pure-hearted one who will save the world. The White Witch does not like this, if she did she’d be a pretty rubbish villain. As such she sends the evil wizard Shadar (who has the power to destroy peoples hearts and fill them with negative emotions) off to stop our young hero.

Visuals and Sound

To say the game looks stunning is an understatement. Sure it doesn’t look amazing in the same way that a game like The Last Of Us does but its use of vibrant colours with its clean and simple anime design really works when viewed on a HDTV. This game truly looks like a Studio Ghibli film that has come to life. What’s best though is that with all cell-shaded games you just know that this is going to age amazingly well. Look at games like Wind Waker, that game is 10 years old and presented in SD yet still looks stunning. The voice acting is also top notch with Drippy stealing the show due to his amazing Welsh accent and frequent use of the phrases “Tidy”, “Proper”, “Youer”, “Knickers!” and “Mun”. The soundtrack is composed by Studio Ghibli veteran Joe Hisaishi and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, so needless to say it’s absolutely stunning.

Gameplay

Don’t let the cute anime style fool you, this is a full-blooded JRPG and not a kids game (well maybe a Japanese kids game, but then again they had the proper version of Super Mario Bros 2) meaning that there’s an awful lot of grinding that needs doing in order to level up Oliver and his familiars. Familiars are the little monster things that you use to combat the creatures and villains that you encounter throughout the game. Familiars share HP and MP with Oliver so when one dies, they all do. Familiars are obtained by stunning them in battle then having Esther play her harp to serenade them, which makes them join your group (which I think is a nicer system than the blatant slavery and ownership system of Pokemon). Once this is done the familiar is yours to level up and do battle with. It’s very reminiscent of Pokemon in that you have to travel a large overworld where battles take place, familiars can be caught and you can visit towns etc along the way. Unlike Pokemon however, the encounters with familiars are not random. You can see them walking around in the overworld and have the ability to dodge encounters if wished. A cool addition is that if you can sneak up on a familiar without it seeing you then when the battle begins you will get a 10 second or so head start on the battle, where you will do extra damage and your foe cannot strike back – though if one sneaks up on you the same thing will happen but in reverse. There are also little side quests that can be done in order to earn stamps. Every 10 stamps earns you a card, which can then be exchanged for new abilities, such as making it easier to sneak up on enemies in the overworld or faster movement. These side quests vary in type. One minute you’ll be exchanging courage from the heart of someone who has it in abundance to someone who needs it, to delivering a picnic that someone forgot before heading off to work. These side quests get old fairly quickly though they are totally optional and the rewards make the game far better. A necessary evil then.

Overall

Ni no Kuni is my first proper go at a JRPG since Pokemon Sapphire on GBA and I have to say it has hooked me in. I love exploring new areas and charming familiars to fight for me. The side quests are fairly so-so but they don’t distract from the main experience of level grinding and exploration. I’m a good few hours in yet feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Reports from Japan state that the game will take around 40 hours to complete the main storyline with another 40 if you fancy going for the platinum PSN trophy, which I do. Currently this is the title to beat for game of the year (I reckon The Last of Us will be my favourite but you never know) and lots of people seem to agree with me. Good luck getting it from GAME or Amazon because, at the time of writing, they’ve completely sold out of their initial shipments. If you own a PS3 you owe it to yourself to add this one to your collection. As Drippy would say it’s proper tidy!

By Ian Dutton

 

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