Given the storytelling pedigree of co-developers Studio Ghibli and Level-5 – and the latter's prowess in the role-playing game genre – my hope was Ni No Kuni can be as enchanting as Spirited Away, yet underlined by the kind of design that makes Dark Cloud 2 so deep.
Based on my brief experience with the final build, there's legitimate cause for optimism; however, concerns remain. There are, at the very least, the seeds of curiosity in Ni No Kuni.
A JRPG is only ever going to reveal so much in its first few hours, and Ni No Kuni is no exception, with the first 40 minutes of the game reserved for storytelling. The initial gameplay downtime allowed me the chance to soak in the gorgeously presented prologue, which introduces the suburban life of 13-year-old Oliver and his mother Arie. It's all very quaint, with Oliver's endearing innocence a touch more in line with Disney than Ghibli. Things then take a turn for the tragic after Arie's weak heart fails her in an accident, leaving Oliver on his own.
The tragic soon becomes the absolutely peculiar with the introduction of Drippy, Oliver's stuffed toy somehow transformed by the devastated boy's tears into a small fairy. He more resembles a dumpy banana in a onesie, but Drippy's look is nothing compared to the thick Welsh accent emitted from his tiny frame. Deep, rough, and not unlike the shouty twang of comedian Rhod Gilbert, it's totally out of place in the game's neat and cutesy presentation. It's also exactly what makes Drippy interesting.
Drippy enlists Oliver on a special quest, transporting himself and the boy to a parallel world. Unlike the familiar suburbia of Oliver's home, this lush new setting is a cuddly take on medieval fantasy, very much reminiscent of Hyrule from the Zelda franchise.
It is here where the gameplay finally begins, swiftly introducing players to the enemies traversing its overworld that rush at Oliver as he moves along. A successful ambush leads to combat, entered via a very quick warp effect.
It's with the combat that the most major of my concerns resides. Ni No Kuni walks a bold tightrope, combining the static command-based traditions of turn-based RPGs with the manual movement of an action-RPG. Commands issued to Oliver play out through a timer, with each selected attack given a cooldown once executed. While players can move freely within the battle space, control is taken away as soon as a command is issued. Selecting 'Attack,' for example, sends Oliver rushing automatically toward his target. When commands aren't in queue, players can control Oliver to dodge incoming attacks, pick up health and magic orbs, and reposition Oliver to identified weak points on an enemy.
It's the half step that makes things feel redundant, giving players complete control and then pulling it away. Or, if your focus is a command-based experience, movement around arenas is relegated to the slightly laborious necessity of picking up orbs and trying to steer clear of enemy attacks. It's a combination of these two concepts that is a difficult sell in the first few hours.
Despite those initial gripes – and it's entirely possible that side of the combat will evolve over time – there's reason to believe the command-based mechanics are deep enough on their own. A good example is how Oliver can obtain, train, and use unique companions in battle. These companions, known as familiars can be swapped for Oliver during combat and vice versa. However, Oliver shares health and magic points across himself and all familiars, so if any character falls in battle, they all fall. In essence, familiars are Oliver's tag team of weird and wonderful critters.
The first familiar Oliver acquires is an adorable little demon knight, sporting a cape, dungarees, a sword, and a Muppets-like width to his yapper. Unlike Oliver, whose effective firepower seems limited to spells, the demon knight is strong with physical attacks and sports a magic-depleting move that does damage across all enemies. This already introduces a bit of tactical play, with Oliver able to deal decent magical damage from afar, but the demon knight able to take up the fight when the collective pool of magic points is depleted.
Like Oliver, the familiars can level up by gaining experience in battles, and as they level up they automatically gain stat boosts and, at certain levels, learn new abilities. High level familiars will have a range of moves to choose from, but only four can be selected for use in-battle. Outside of battle, Oliver can help strengthen familiars and his relationship with them by feeding them treats; however, feeding familiars too many causes them to grow full, which apparently isn't good.
There's a definite rhythm to the opening, with Oliver going to a town or area, doing a spot of investigating, and finding a dungeon to clear out. Navigating the actual dungeons themselves is something else. The detail in the two dungeons I explored was superb, filled with winding paths, beautiful flora, and babbling brooks.
My hope is that the narrative and presentation intertwined within that natural rhythm are strong enough to make it easy to be swept along. Without going into spoiler territory, there is enough going in those opening hours to leave me itching to carry on. It's not like there aren't doubts, because there definitely are, but more niggling than any of them is the underlying feeling Ni No Kuni may just play almost as good as it looks.