Level-5 is one of my favorite game studios in business right now. Their catalog includes brilliant games like the Professor Layton series, Inazuma Eleven, Dragon Quest VIII and IX, and a whole host of other imaginative, interesting games. Along with Atlus, they’re one of the few companies that still release quality JRPGs, a genre I’ve always been quite fond of.
Ni no Kuni is their latest game. And it is wonderful.
While Oliver is mourning, he accidentally awakens a fairy sealed away in his stuffed animal. The fairy tells him that there’s another, magical world connected to this one, and it needs to be rescued from an evil wizard named Shadar. Oliver initially refuses, but the fairy reveals that his late mother has a counterpart in the other world that is being held prisoner by Shadar. If they rescue her, it might bring his mother back in his world. He agrees to help, and the two travel to the other world to find Shadar and rescue Oliver’s mother.
This is a lovely premise for an RPG. Other JRPGs like Xenosaga or Final Fantasy XIII (or really any Final Fantasy after five) overload the player with jargon and metaphysics, with the hope that he or she will keep playing just to figure out what the hell is going on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – some games have used such an approach to great success – but Ni no Kuni endears the player to its characters and world right off the bat, with no need for flashbacks or other narrative workarounds. Once the game begins proper, we’ve got a magical world to explore, a wicked sorcerer to stop, and an actual motivation: we might get to see our mom again. Who can’t relate to that?
From there the game progresses as you'd expect. You visit towns, plunder dungeons, and fight bosses. Characters and party members are introduced, make you care about them, and undergo interesting arcs. You fight your way through an evil castle, meet the Queen of the fairies, and save a city from a volcanic eruption. And of course, you collect the three magic rocks to power the ancient weapon of a lost civilization. Obviously it’s not the most original game in the world, but it’s not like there’s an epidemic of classic sword-and-sorcery JRPGs out there. What's the harm in a new iteration of a classic formula every couple of years?
What makes it work is the execution. The main cast and story are well-done, but what truly elevates the game is its genuinely menacing antagonist, Shadar. He's clearly aping Golbez from Final Fantasy IV (the single most imposing villain ever rendered in 16 by 16 pixels), but Golbez didn’t have full voice acting and a fresh, HD look courtesy of Studio Ghibli. He’s not nearly as effective as Golbez at wrecking your party’s shit at every turn, but he still has presence, something sorely lacking among many video game villains.
Most of the best story material is near the end, when the game finally explains Shadar’s motivations and his link to Oliver. The game finally reveals its main theme: it’s a game about love and friendship and coming-of-age-stories and all those other tropes common to the genre, but it's primarily a game about loss. It’s a mature direction to take the story, and it manages to convey itself without conflicting with the rest of the game’s jovial tone. Granted, I'm not a fan of how the game hides Shadar's motivations until an info dump after you've already defeated him, but these are two characters that complement each other and provide different perspectives on a single core theme. That's good storytelling, folks.
My only real problem with the story is an odd decision involving the ending. Had the game rolled the credits after the fight with Shadar, it would have had a perfectly satisfying conclusion. But it doesn’t; instead it goes on for another four or five hours, with an entirely separate final dungeon, final boss fight, and ending. It’s not a bad five hours – unlike BioShock and it's often-reviled conclusion, Ni no Kuni’s second ending is just as well-done and enthralling as the rest of the game. The White Witch is a good villain, whose motivations again compliment Oliver's and provide another perspective on the core theme. But she just feels redundant. Having two entirely distinct climaxes and endings, competent though they may be, is just inelegant. Apparently the two villains are both fought in succession in the Japan-only DS version (which was developed separately), which seems to me like a much better choice.Gameplay-wise it's quite solid, at least as far as the combat is concerned. While the AI for the supporting characters is a little wonky, the action-oriented nature of the combat gives it the same pleasing kineticism of Square's early forays with timing-based combat, like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy IV. Mashing triangle to have all of your characters attack a boss as hard and fast as they can, only to start mashing Square when he starts charging his ULTIMATE ATTACK and praying that everyone defends in time -- that's a great feeling. It's a little like Final Fantasy XIII's combat engine, which I recall having some fans in spite of the rest of the game's overall lousiness. It would have benefited from being able to directly control your party members, but that wouldn't have worked without completely restructuring the battle system, so I’m fine with how it turned out.
Combat is played out mainly using familiars, like in Shin Megami Tensei or Pokémon. There are more customization options in this game, however. Not only can you teach and equip each of the familiars with different moves, but you can also equip them with different weapons and armor, evolve them into more powerful forms, and feed them different foods to raise their stats. It’s a lot to keep track of, and some of the systems could have withstood a little trimming, but I had a nice time optimizing my party between dungeon crawls. There are hundreds of different familiars to collect if you’re into that sort of thing, but the game is perfectly content to let you collect six or seven monsters and focus all of your energies on them if you’d rather just experience the story.
There’s also a whole quest system lifted straight out of Level-5’s (phenomenal) Dragon Quest games. They’re your typical MMO filler quests -- bounty hunts, finding certain items, bringing someone his lunch, et cetera -- but they’re decently fun and wholly optional. Again, you’ll have a nice time 100%ing everything if that type of gameplay appeals to you, but if you’d rather just play the damn game you won’t suffer any penalties.
So. It’s possible to cast magic on the field screen. There’s a whole mess of spells you obtain that are castable outside of battle. That's a clever idea; the problem is that most of these spells are used several times, and then never again. And even then, the game never asks you to use a spell unless it explicitly spells out exactly which spell to use and where.
To whit: there’s one ability called “Bridge” that allows you to cross gaps. If this had functioned like the bridge in the original Legend of Zelda, where you could use it on any one-block wide gaps you came across, it would have presented a neat shortcut to make backtracking a little more interesting. There are several broken bridges in an early dungeon, and being able to cross them instantly on subsequent visits would have been very satisfying.
But instead, you can only use the spell at specific areas. Examine a gap in an obvious dead end, and then your fairy side kick might pop up: “A gap! How do we get across? Don’t you have a spell that can handle stuff like that?” Upon which your spell menu pops up, and you get to select the one spell that seems applicable. The magic system could have been used to fill dungeons with unique, interesting puzzles like in an early Zelda or Lufia game. Instead it’s just another tick mark on the back of the box: “You can use magic outside of battle even if it does absolutely nothing 99% of the time!” If the game is going to spell out every occasion when you can use magic on the field, then what’s the point?
This is really only a minor criticism -- as a whole the game is a tremendous success. It’s beautiful to look at and listen to, it has a meaningful narrative and excellent characters, the side-stuff is fun without unduly intruding on the main quest, and it has a neat combat engine. It’s a great JRPG, and there’s certainly been a shortage of those lately. It proves that JRPGs don’t need to be pretentious to be interesting, or convoluted to be fun. It doesn’t do anything the genre hasn’t seen before, but that’s not a bad thing because it does it all so well. We’re a third into 2013, so we’ve still got another five or six months before people start talking about their “Game of the Year.” But as far as I’m concerned, out of what has been released so far, this is the game to beat.