In the capacity of games journalist, it’s easy to become very jaded about video games. As you find out how things work behind the scenes and play through games looking for points to make in reviews, it’s sadly common to devolve into lazy dismissal of anything with even the smallest flaws.
Then, occasionally, some spark strikes the soul in a way that brings roaring back those feelings you had as a child, waking up early every weekend just to lose yourself in a vibrant and lovingly assembled world. The games you can unreservedly enjoy without them feeling like a second job, which evoke the strongest emotions media can produce. For me, that list contains quite a few titles – Grim Fandango, Mother 3, Flower, Journey, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door and Tales of Symphonia. Now, a new game joins that esteemed group. It’s Namco’s epic Ni No Kuni.
No doubt the most widely known fact about Ni No Kuni is that the artistic direction was chosen and realised by the animation giants at Studio Ghibli, who must by this point have made a more lasting impact on children’s lives than everyone bar Disney’s classics. They’re the geniuses behind Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Laputa: Castle In The Sky and have introduced anime to countless westerners over the years.
The graphics and aesthetic of Ni No Kuni are no exception to their prowess. Anime cutscenes litter the landscape of the game, illustrating important scenes and generally being done with the same level of polish one would expect from a full anime film. When in-game, the environments all look hand-painted and use such smooth animations and a vibrant colour palette it’s impossible not to smile as you explore a 1950s-style American town or a medieval town presided over by a feline monarch.
Yes, Ni No Kuni pulls a Tales of Symphonia and has two interconnected world which can be travelled between in order to complete the game’s story and puzzles. In this universe, each of the parallel worlds have counterparts in the other world, such that if trouble befalls one of them, the other may offer the solution. This forms the basis for the central plot, since after protagonist Oliver’s mother dies, he sets off with odd lantern-nosed fairy Mr. Drippy in order to try to resurrect her by rescuing her otherworldly counterpart.
The story isn’t stellar, inasmuch as it doesn’t push the boundaries of storytelling in games to the extent that, say, Journey or Heavy Rain managed. However, it’s competently done even if it isn’t entirely original and more than made up for by the level of work that’s gone into the English script and characters, who are entertaining and cleverly done.
The voice acting stands out as an achievement, if mostly for the work of Steffan Rhodri, the Welsh voice actor providing Mr. Drippy’s thick, lilting tones. Not only does Drippy use a recognisable and lovely-sounding Welsh accent, he also peppers the role with bits and pieces of the dialect, including ending sentences with a gruff ‘man’ (that’s right hippies, the Welsh had it first) and the use of ‘over by here’ instead of omitting the superfluous preposition.
It’s just nice to see such attention to detail instead of the usual JRPG localisation strategy of giving everyone hideously overacted ‘English’ accents that usually boil down either to RP or Cockney. Interestingly, it seems Drippy’s Japanese counterpart uses the Kansai dialect, a variant of Japanese spoken in and around Osaka which is considered by other speakers to be both lilting but on occasions harsh. Take that to mean what you will about Namco’s understanding of the Welsh, but it’s a nice touch.
Combat is the real meat of RPG gameplay and Ni No Kuni is no exception. The game uses a hybrid turn-based and real-time battle mechanic that revolves around the use of ‘familiars’ – catchable pseudo-pokemon which serve to shake up the fighting with a variety of different moves, strengths and weaknesses.
It can be a little unforgiving sometimes and switching between menu options while running from enemies requires an odd manipulation of the controller. However, it’s never so annoying as to be game-ruining and if you played Kingdom Hearts and found it workable then you ought to cope just fine. Plus, you know, the enemies are adorable so you’ll have a smile on your face throughout. That should help.
The game is long, and I wasn’t able to finish it as I had hoped, but from the dozen hours or so I played I could tell it was something special. If you like your RPGs epic you’ll find lots to enthuse, not only the main plot but the wealth of sidequests and exploration that are possible within the gargantuan world.
Top the game off with an excellent orchestral soundtrack and it’s easy to see why this game is going to resonate with people for a long time. Level 5 and Studio Ghibli deserve to be commended for their achievement and it’s my very great honour to award Ni No Kuni a 9.7/10.