Ni no Kuni is a game from Level 5 and Studio Ghibli (see: Totoro, Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, Arietty, Princess Mononoke, etc.) with quite a big back and forth in its history. Level 5, like Capcom, is a studio that we pretty much made popular, then the fans in Japan started supporting it, and then they decided that American’s “don’t understand Japanese games” and stopped bringing their stuff over.
A few years and some humble pie later, we’re getting Ni no Kuni and got the Layton that Japan got as a launch title. Thank you Level 5! I’m personally a little ticked that the DS game isn’t coming, blocked by the logic that the book would’ve been too much effort to translate (it’s required to be able to play the game), but, at least we’re getting the PS3 version. The main reason that this matters, is that the two games tell two different stories/chapters in Oliver’s life, but, something is better than nothing I suppose, and if we had to pick at least we got the big budget pretty console game.
Basically, Studio Ghibli provided the art and story, and Level 5 provided the gameplay and helped with the pacing and direction. Oh, and Ghibli did the music which is OMG amazing! The game touts a graphics engine that is supposed to make you feel like you’re playing an anime, and a combat engine that appears to have been heavily influenced by Howl’s Moving Castle, The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles. As a long time Level 5 (Rogue Galaxy, Professor Layton, Dark Cloud) and Studio Ghibli (Ponyo, Howl, Arrietty, Totoro) fan, I was pretty much totally optimistic and excited looking forward to this. As a Christian gamer, I’ve got more than a few concerns. Overall, how does the final package stack up?
The music at the title screen immediately explodes with the classic Studio Ghibli flare as I was invited to Journey to Another World rather than the usual press start. I waited around at the title screen listening to the music when it faded to black, unfortunately no really cool opening was found, just a return to the title screen. I’m sure the full game will rectify this.
I chose English voice acting since I normally like Japanese acting, but Ghibli consistently gets big name actors like Christian Freaking Bale in Howl’s Moving Castle, so I thought I’d give them a chance.
Of the two demo choices, I went first with The Deep Dark Wood location, which had an errand for Old Father Oak. The synopsis stated that Oliver (me) arrives in the other world, and is entrusted with an important assignment by the ancient aforementioned tree. I was told to complete the task, and then head for……Ding Dong Dell….
Sure, why not! It’s not the worst life decision I’ve made up to this point! Also, the music continued to swell and get more and more epic and amazing, while simultaneously gentle and whimsical while I sat here typing all of this, and now I have almost no incentive to actually play the game when I can be listening to it instead. Hey, don’t judge me, I’ve played Viola for like, ten years, so give me a swelling tune and I’m not budging from your menu for at least ten minutes!
Alright alright, let’s get this party started…I guess…
So, as the story goes I guess my mom died (implied heavily) and I cried for three days over her death. One of my tears brought my doll to life, which turned out to be the Lord High Lord of the Fairies…Drippy. Alright, cool, sounds pretty Ghibli so far! Also I love how Oliver pretty much looks like boy Ponyo 😀
Apparently I’m from another world and there might be away to save my mother there. In what is likely an actual cutscene and exploration sequence in the full game, I learn about a broken hearted guard that I guess I have to cure, and then find a duck faced tree (Old Father Oak) who tells me about…familiars and magic…
Immediately the Christian gamer in me has several big red flags. Biblically speaking, a familiar refers to a Familiar Spirit, or a Familiar Demon. A Familiar Demon is a spirit assigned to each human with the purpose of being historians of our lives, collecting data and reporting it to other demons so that when they attempt to trip you up, they can make sure they hit you where it hurts. In various wicken beliefs a familiar is typically a spirit (see: demon) or animal with magical powers (see: demon) who is basically your BFF and guardian…
So yeah…concerned, but then again Ghibli has kind of been getting more and more out there as of late. And, there’s of course that whole “The girl in Spirited Away was a slave in a brothel in the Japanese version” thing…
Well, moving onward and upward I was told there was a forest guardian who was being a brat and needed to get the business, so the business I did indeed set out to deliver!
So, graphics and atmosphere….the game is super pretty. Like, it’s creepy how pretty it is. You can tell that they hand drew Oliver and Drippy’s movements, and, well, yeah, it’s really strange seeing them move so fluidly, a fusion of hand art and CG with the world around them. You can tell Oliver is probably at least somewhat CG, but your eyes will have a hard time discerning it until you either have a headache or just accept that it’s gorgeous and move on. The fusion creates a strange sensation in which you feel like the world you’re looking at is live action by comparison to the anime art, and the feeling of a living cartoon is successfully accomplished.
The atmosphere is both whimsical and dark and moody as I walked around the forest, and was soon jumped by the Guardian of the Woods, who is a big jerk who looks like something out of Princess Mononoke. I soon engaged the Japanese forest spirit (with…boxing wraps? Sure, why not) and found the battle to be an interesting take on real time play. The combat will feel like a fusion of Xenoblade Chronicles and Last Story for those of you that have played that game. Basically Oliver calls his familiar to the physical world, and at that point you’re in control of it as you do battle.
Functioning as the sorcery imbued logic of a familiar does, Oliver and his familiar share health and power. If the familiar, which you control to do battle with, is hurt then Oliver is the one who slowly dies as well. When the familiar unleashes a powerful technique, it drains Oliver’s spirit to use it. Again, I found this to be as disturbing as I did intriguing. Over the course of the battle, the familiar becomes weakened from being in the physical world and has to recharge. During this time, any attacks done to it deal double the damage, and it’s attacks only do half as much. Once the familiar recharges, it’s ready to tear into the opposition once more.
There’s an interesting play mechanic where the enemy will prepare to do powerful attacks against you, and if you defend in time you get a bonus. Do this enough to open up your foe to a world of hurt, as they’ll be too tired to retaliate against you. You’ve got to be careful with your choices in battle however, once a command is issued it takes time to break away from it, and if you cancel early there’s still a slight penalty before you can issue a different command.
By the way, the game doesn’t explain any of this too you; I had to sort it all out on my own as I played. Randomly after I’ve already been doing something for a while, it’ll explain to me how to do what I’ve already done.
Getting back to the boss fight, near as I can tell there’s no item usage in battles. Dippy basically roams the field while you fight, digging up spots of mana and leaving them behind. The green ones restore health, and the blue ones restore spirit. Go figure.
I got my butt handed to me trying to sort out the engine on my own, and had to pay all of my money (50 Gilders) to continue. I figured being that it was a demo, that didn’t really matter. Armed with a basic understanding of how to play, I entered the boss fight a second time and annihilated my foe. This time around, I figured out more things that, once again the game didn’t tell me.
I learned that I could call back my familiar, which the game explains as the manifestation of the love and wonder in my heart (pro tip: it’s not), and fight directly instead. When playing as Oliver, who is basically like a kid version of Howl only not super pretentious, I can use my spells, which the game describes as “the manifestation of my heart’s power, fueled by kindness, love and light” (pro tip: it’s still not) to attack the enemies. This is apparently what I was supposed to be doing while my familiar recharged. Thanks for nothing, tutorial.
I preferred playing as Oliver since my fireball is like, way more powerful than my little apple headed goblin knight, and over the course of the battle I unlocked my “Miracle Power” which basically means finishing move. I used it to scorch the guardian to dust and win the Spirit of the Woods. Also money. Also also a new page in my book of monsters. The now tamed Guardian was all “my bad” and lumbered off, but I didn’t get to see what was next because apparently the demo is timed and it cut Drippy off mid sentence.
Pro tip Level 5: This mess works when you’re at E3, NOT when you’re letting someone at home play. Although it’s marketing genius to be sure; it definitely made me want to play more.
In the second demo level, me and Esther (okay, the other stuff was bad enough and made me uncomfortable, but naming a witch Esther? Yeah, that one offended me) had to stop a volcano from erupting. We apparently had three minutes to do so. As per the other level, the demo was gorgeous and the music was spot on. In battle this tim around I had three familiars with me, my goblin knight, something that was basically little white Totoro (who used snow and lightning) and a peacock of some kind. Esther (who is voiced by the lady who voice Ponyo which gave me a fan boy smile) helped me out by fighting autonomously, using her own familiars to aid me in battle. The environment had Ghibli’s usual interesting takes on the world, such as brilliant white flowers made of candles with soft blue light, and I had to traverse the gorgeous volcano by evading jets of hot steam and bursts of fire.
Once again of my own volition since this game doesn’t explain anything, I found that I can play as Esther in battle by hitting R1. Playing as the female wizard I had a yeti, a ninja bat fish thingy, and a blue duck to fight with. The Yeti is pretty legit; he’s basically a tank character. Rather than using “spells”, Esther sings. The beauty of her voice does things like heal your party or psyche them up. It’s a cute concession that they at least downplayed her witch-ness, making her the team bard instead. Esther quickly became my favorite of the two; her familiars (why couldn’t they just call them pets?) were all adorable and pretty boss. Yeti aside there was the ninja bat fish thingy cut its enemies up with its dress, and the duck was like a little fat samurai.
At the top of the mountain, I met Shadar…Shadar is a jerk. A well voice acted jerk. In a really cool costume. He summoned a twenty foot lava monster for me to fight…did I mention he’s a jerk?
I ran out of time before finishing the boss fight, primarily because I kept forgetting to pause it while I was typing, but by and large Ni no Kuni seems to be a very interesting love letter from Level 5 and Studio Ghibli. Overall, I’m torn in my feelings on the project. On the one hand, from a design perspective the game is shaping up to be a brilliant action RPG with an interesting fusion of real time combat and tactical play. With that said, it’s heavy reliance on sorcery is concerning, and despite trying to wrap it all up in a tidy package of love and friendship, the fact still remains that you’re a warlock out to stop another warlock from doing bad warlock stuff.
Ultimately this all boils back down to insight I’ve provided in my Devil May Cry (posted) and Persona (not yet brought over from the old site) articles; I can’t tell you that you should or shouldn’t play this game. Heck, if I said not to you’d probably do it on sheer principle. What I can tell you is that you probably shouldn’t let your kids play it without sitting down with them and explaining things while you do.
Like I’ve said before, some things convict me and some things don’t. I can’t stand Bayonetta, but I’m cool with certain Devil May Cry titles. Manhunt makes me sick, but I’m totally into Saints Row. The conviction of the Holy Spirit works differently for everyone. As a Christian gamer, I’m uncomfortable, but also curious and intrigued. Ultimately it’s up to you/between you and God as to whether you buy it or not. Me? I’ll probably check it out further when it releases next year.