When we first arrived at this current console generation way back in 2006, expectations from JRPG fans were high. There’d been a flood of quality games, both from expected sources like Square-Enix, and surprise upstarts like Atlus that gave fans of the genre a reliable, regular source of quality gaming. The bold experimentation of the Persona series, the grandiose efforts of Final Fantasy and even the flawed but stunningly ambitious space epic of Xenosaga all set a new high watermark for JRPGs that fans expected would be continued on the PS3 and Xbox 360 with the same frequency. That didn’t happen. But every once in a while, a game comes out that brings that promise back to the genre and shows what happens when people who care really take advantage of the power of today’s consoles. Ni no Kuni is one of those games.
A Tale Of Sadness & Charm
Ni no Kuni is a collaboration between developer Level-5 and famed animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, which means that the story is both simple and emotional. Young Oliver lives an idyllic life in a small American town when disaster strikes and he loses his mother in an accident. Unable to cope with his grief, his tears fall on a doll his mother supposedly made for him. The tears bring the doll to life and it reveals itself to be a cursed Lord of Fairies, entreating Oliver to return with him to his parallel world to fight the oppression there and help that world’s equivalent to his mother, possibly bringing his own mother back in the real world. With that, Oliver is off on a quest of the purest—and saddest—intentions, to bring his dead mother back to life.
The story is strongly reminiscent of the timeless, fairy tale material that the best RPGs and Studio Ghibli itself have always featured, espousing old fashioned JRPG values like friendship and perseverance. It’s all played straight, without irony or self-conscious winks at the quaintness of these values, which is a refreshing change from the usual dark, gritty narratives that seemingly give up hope on simple human decency and the power of kindness. Ni no Kuni sincerely believes in the inherent power of helping other people and it doesn’t need an angst-ridden quest for vengeance to justify it.
A Love Letter To JRPGs Of The Past
If you’re the sort of person that misses overworlds, simple tales of good versus evil, a more innocent gaming experience filled with wonder and even delight, then stop reading right now and run off to the store to buy Ni no Kuni. If you’re the sort of person that believes all good games have the word “angst,” “dark,” or “gritty” somewhere in their description then this is something you’ll want to beat your children with to ensure they have a joyless, self-pitying, navel gazing life.
Level-5 generated a lot of skepticism about this game after the surprisingly mediocre White Knight Chronicles series, which was even more uneven than their previous effort, the PS2 Rogue Galaxy. But this is the same company that gave us Dragon Quest VIII, arguably one of the best instalments of the franchise, and it seems like they’ve returned to that previous form for Ni no Kuni. This is, in many ways, an old school JRPG of the sort that hasn’t really been seen since the 90s, or at least, Level-5’s own Dragon Quest VIII in 2005. It brings back many of the mechanics and concepts of the JRPG that have been ignored for so long they actually feel new again.
Rather than a series of confined dungeons separated by fast travel mechanisms, the traditional overworld makes a return, revealing massive landscapes that might hide forests, towns, dungeons and other secrets for the player willing to explore. Turn based battles also return, but now they have a little bit of Namco’s own Tales series flavour, mixed in with some Pokemon. And of course, the usual JRPG tropes of grinding, escalating difficulty and an emphasis on The Power Of Friendship™ are all back in full force. All of this has been coated with the innocent, heart-felt glow of Studio Ghibli’s sense of wonder.
Having said that, Ni no Kuni might not be the type of game that every gamer—particularly FPS fans—can easily play, but it is a game that the entire family can enjoy. The struggle of Oliver is both accessible and by turns both genuinely heartwarming and positive in its themes. It’s a substantial game that will take dozens of hours to complete, and for fans of the genre, it does what Square-Enix JRPGs have thus far failed to do this generation; it gives the gamers what they’ve actually been asking for, rather than what the marketing department feels will sell in the West.
The combat can be a bit tricky sometimes, even for veterans, and the story doesn’t tread any new ground, but these are small quibbles in what is undoubtedly the best JRPG of 2013. The only real downside to this game is that the same in-depth mechanics that make it such a joy to genre fans also limits its accessibility to younger gamers, or those new to the genre.
This is just half of what Wayne had to say about Ni No Kuni! Read Wayne’s full review of the magical Ni No Kuni in the next issue of Comics and Gaming Magazine – out Feb. 20.