Video Game Review: NI NO KUNI
When I was too little to realize that anime was actually animation from a different country, not just a different American style, I saw a movie about a couple of girls, a few dust bunnies, and a large, gray, furry creature. Oh, and a bus that looked like a cat.
Since then I have been a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki and I’ve loved almost all of his movies. So, when I found out his animation studio, Studio Ghibli, was doing all the art for a video game and that they’d brought their friend Joe Hisaishi along to do the music, I practically threw myself out the door to go find a copy, despite the fact that my PS3 was in storage at the time.
Here’s a little review of the game:
Studio Ghibli is the universe’s gift to animation lovers, and the graphics in Ni No Kuni are an excellent example of this. Though there are sadly a lot fewer fully-animated cut-scenes than I had hoped there would be, the ones that do exist are gorram GORGEOUS. And they did a pretty darn good job making the whole game have a very similar look, though it’s obviously not the same.
The music is also wonderful, because Joe Hisaishi is the man. No, seriously, he’s done over 100 film scores since the 1980s, and I’ve yet to hear one that’s less than amazing.
You start the game as Oliver, a little boy who has lost his mother after a freak accident. Oliver’s tears bring to life a stuffed friend his mother had made him—and this friend, Mr. Drippy, turns out to be a fairy from another world. He tells Oliver they might have a chance to save Oliver’s mom if they pop over to that other world and save his mother’s counterpart there: The Great Sage, Alicia.
Thus, off you go into another world, running amok, learning magic, and summoning little critters called familiars to fight for you. Later you get a few companions and learn how to tame familiars. The games gets a little bit Pokemon-esque on that front, with some problems I’ll discuss later.
The combat system isn’t my favorite, but I’ve certainly experienced worse. Your companions aren’t the brightest crayons in the box, but they’re pretty useful if you set them up with the right mix of familiars and commands. You can control any of them in a fight but Oliver is easily the most effective choice (sorry, Ester and Swaine. . . . Marcassin, you join too late in the game for me to care). Ollie’s got healing, offensive, and defensive spells, and a good chunk of health. I suppose it’s nice that they give you a reason to have the main character as your go-to guy. However, keep in mind that the key to combat is learning when to swap around between characters, familiars, and the ever-important All-Out Defense/All-Out Attack Moves you learn.
Once you’ve caught the familiars you want and you’ve trained them up a bit, you’ll probably be using them just as much as the human characters, if not more. They’re fun little buggers with so many variations, customizations, and quirks I haven’t explored them all yet, and I finished the game a while back.
Personally, I found the game pretty darn fun. There’s are lots of possibilities when it comes to your combat team, the story is cute, and you can sink a lot of hours into it—especially if you want to hit full completion. But that brings me to . . . .
Oh, Ni No Kuni, you fall into the trap of so many RPGs, and Japanese RPGs specifically. For one, the grinding. My god, the grinding.
Here’s what happened to me a lot: I would go into an area, kick all the little monsters butts, fight my way to the boss, kick his butt, and then, in an digital adrenaline high that came from my victory, I would cruise over to the next area, eager to tackle the next part of the game . . . and get murdered horribly by the first set of new little monsters I encountered. Then I would slink off back to where I’d been and chase around the weaker little monsters (who had actually learned to run away from me at this point, and would fade out of existence if I didn’t catch them within a certain time frame) so I could beat them up and level up enough to take on their cousins in the next area.
Japanese RPGs LOOOOOVE doing this. I eventually learned to just over-level myself before I passed from one area to another, but I still find it frustrating that I could cruise through a boss fight, only to have couple of mooks could mop the floor with me. It soon became habit to do grinding and side-quests for a few hours before I moved on.
And speaking of the side quests, boy, did those get repetitive. Oliver encounters a lot of people who need their broken hearts repaired, so he has to go find people with more heart than they need, and give it to people who have the deficiency. This wouldn’t be so bad except for two things:
1. You can only keep one piece of one type of excess (Courage, Love, Kindness, etc.) in your heart locket at once.
2. Every time you get a piece, even if you’ve gotten it twenty times before, an unskippable animation plays for a few seconds.
It would NOT have interrupted the flow or feel of the game had they allowed you to stock up on heart pieces, or at least skipped the animation after the first time we saw it. I started to get so annoyed with these quests (but needed the resulting merit stamps to give Oliver & Co. better items) that I would just cruise through the dialogue every time I found someone with a broken heart, get the missing piece as quickly as possible, and then ditch my new friend in a hurry.
Then, as much as I love them, I think the familiar system had just a few too many things you needed to balance to be perfect. Please keep in mind that you do NOT need to be perfect to get through the game (because I sure as hell wasn’t), but here are all the things you can use to customize your experience:
1. Sun-Moon-Star and Planet: The Rock-Paper-Scissors of the game. Two exactly identical familiars with different signs will be stronger or weaker depending on the symbol they have. Sun beats Moon, Moon beats Star, Star beats Sun, and Plant kicks everyone’s butts, but I think there’s only one of those guys in the game.
2. Evolution: That’s right, familiars evolve. After a certain level you can morph a familiar into a bigger, more powerful creature—but that’s not always a wise idea. You see, each evolution of a familiar has a Max Level they can reach, so if you wait until they his that max level (they can evolve before hitting that level) they’ll be stronger when they change into the next version. However, some species stop learning new powers pretty early compared to their max level, and you might get stuck with a familiar with a minimal amount of useful moves. All in all, it’s a conundrum: Evolve them quickly and risk overall stats but get new tricks, or have a familiar with limited tricks but better stats in the long run.
3. Treats: You can fee your familiar treats to increase their stats, and make them like you more. If they like you more, you can increase their stats more. You can also teach a familiar tricks with certain kinds of treats, but each familair can only learn certain kinds of tricks. You also don’t know what the trick the treat bestows does unless you already have a familiar WITH that trick. To top it all off, most of the time your familiars will be able to learn naturally any tricks you could teach them this way.
4. Elemental Weaknesses: Pretty standard stuff. Fire guys are usually vulnerable to water, water is weak to eletricity, etc. etc. However, you can’t look up the weakness of a critter you’re currently in battle with, even if you’ve fought them five hundred times before. You have to memorize it.
5. THE CATCH RATE: This is the big one. The only way to get new familiars is to catch them. The problem is they all have different percent chances that they will become vulnerable to being caught. That’s right, there’s a small random chance you might get any familiar in the game to work for you. If you want a specific familiar, you’d better hope it has a high percent chance of being caught.
You can eventually increase the catch percentage but not by much, and when you do it’s so late in the game your team is already established. This leads directly into my biggest problem with the game. . . .
THE COMPLETELY AVOIDABLE UGLY
If there was EVER a game that needed a New Game Plus feature, it was Ni No Kuni.
I’ll give you three guesses as to what feature the designers totally neglected to put into the game, but the first two don’t count.
Sure, there’s post-game content. You can go back, fight “stronger” versions of all the bosses, unlock a secret boss, get some new side-quests, get a car, try and complete your
PokeDex collection of familiars, and grind for materials to make the best weapons. But at that stage you’ve defeated everyone of consequence, so what’s the point? Unless you want to see how long you can keep your temper in check when you’re trying to catch critters with a 2% chance of becoming tamable, or trying the increasingly complex series of steps it takes to get the materials for those ultimate weapons, there’s no fun left in the game.
Ni No Kuni New Game Plus didn’t have to be complicated, either—I would have been completely satisfied had they only carried over your familiars and nothing else (I don’t really need the shiniest weapons or all my spells right off the bat). I’d love to run through the whole game with a different set of familiars, instead of having to suffer through trying to re-catch ‘em all. But it didn’t happen, and that significantly detracts from the replay value of the game.
Despite all its flaws, I had a good time with Ni No Kuni. I laughed and groaned when I realized how many terrible puns were in the game (for example, you meet a guy named Con . . . he’s an artist); there are a couple of jokes in there specifically for the Miyazaki fanboys/girls. While I’m probably going to move onto other games for a while, I may come back to my post-game save to try and complete some of the more complex tasks. Or start a new game. I’m undecided on that front.
If you’re a perfectionist/obsessed with completion, you’ll have plenty of stuff to do once the game is “over.” If you’re a little more like me, and you’d considered replaying the game from the beginning, you might find it a little frustrating to start from scratch for another play through. All in all, if you’re on the fence about it, I recommend borrowing it or renting it before buying.
Of course, if you’re a Miyazaki/Hisaishi fan, just go buy it now. You’ll thank me.