Ni No Kuni review: Fairy tale wedding

Ni No Kuni review
You know the phrase "You should never judge a JRPG by its authentic adaptation of a cherished animation studio's art style?" Well, that happens to apply to Level-5 and Studio Ghibli's Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, in a good way. It's like a computer made entirely out of triple chocolate; the sweet Ghibli coating is as inviting as it is generous, but it distracts from the magnitude of something that works when it probably shouldn't.

Ni No Kuni's combat, its all-important core, is an ambitious fusion of elements from many different walks of Japanese role-playing games, and in particular Pokémon. On paper it's a muddle of methods, but on screen it is the game's enduring component, and frankly a bit of a triumph. It is also what best exemplifies Ni No Kuni: a marriage of styles with a very happy ending.
%Gallery-176871% Before all that, the presentation deserves more mention. Some of the animation studio's subtleties are lost in the in-game cutscenes, but that's made up for by the faithful detail on display in cities and dungeons, the latter in particular. So often RPG dungeons stink of the editor they were made with, but Ni No Kuni's have flair, from the bright, screen-dominating blaze of a volcano backdrop to the joy of magically blooming mushrooms to help navigate a forest.

This charm sadly doesn't extend into the story. In typical Ghibli style, Ni No Kuni stars a child whisked into a fantasy world, in this case Oliver, a 13-year-old plucked from 1950s American suburbia. Following the untimely death of his mother, Oliver is given the chance to somehow bring her back by saving this alternate world from destruction and despair. The tale that unravels is sweet enough, but not much more than that.

It doesn't help that exposition mainly comes via unspoken text. Yes, JRPGs feature a lot of dialogue, but even by the genre's standards Ni No Kuni is stingy on vocals, and when it does speak up, it's a little bland. Oliver and his companions are likable enough, but they have all the depth of a toothbrush, not that a predictable plot asks much of them anyway. Oliver often resembles a Scooby Doo reject, and after 50 hours in his company I never want to hear the word 'Neato' again for the next 50 years.

The saving grace here is Drippy, Oliver's constant fairy companion. The yellow, pointy-nosed runt pierces all the triteness with a warm yet sardonic attitude, one that feels distinctly modern, even grown-up. He may be otherworldly, but as with all the best Ghibli characters he's thoroughly human beneath it all.

Drippy complains about being left behind for younger, prettier models and chirps about smacking people in the gob. In a past life he was a stand-up comedian, but he's been "off the circuit" for years. Even the weird lantern hanging from his nose piercing is an act of rebellion against his mother. Everything about Drippy feels true to Ghibli's inimitable take on fairy tales, and is typically amusing to boot.

Besides, it's harsh to criticize Ni No Kuni's story much when it isn't really the focal point. While the first 40 minutes are wholly devoted to it, the game strives to keep you plodding along with stuff to do, moving you from city to dungeon to city and so on. Linear dungeons feature in an old-school JRPG overworld (albeit with visible enemies frittering about) but a physical compactness ensures you're never stuck in one area to the point of frustration.

Yet, whether you push into side quests or not, there is an appreciable challenge at almost every stage of the journey. This is thanks to the bizarre amalgam that is the combat system, which becomes the unexpected star of the game. This is not to doubt Level-5's JRPG pedigree, which includes the underappreciated Dark Cloud 2 and other hits like Dragon Quest 8 and Rogue Galaxy, but this is something else. Ni No Kuni strives for something that Final Fantasy 12, great as it is, didn't quite manage: dynamic, active-time combat in a 3D arena. Players are able to control any single combatant at any time, but also able to keep the otherwise AI-controlled party in check. With its brave melting pot of JRPG elements, the game succeeds.

The Pokémon-like dollop relates to little creatures called familiars scattered across the world. Oliver and his fellow party members can defeat, capture, train, and then fight using these creatures. Familiar is certainly the word, then, although for all of Pokémon's charms, Ni No Kuni's range of Ghibli-styled monsters is weird and wonderful in its own right. They fight in fully animated 3D moves, evolve metamorphose into two selectable types, wear equipment, and, most importantly of all, have species names with better puns. Take the blade-brandishing anthropomorphic cat, who can upgrade into a dapper dueller or a patch-clad pirate. Those options are Puss in Bouts and Puss in Boats.

Your three party members line up in battle each with a roster of three available familiars. The familiars, who share HP and MP with their associated party member, can be tagged in and out at any point during the battle. That gives you 12 combatants to play around with, bringing plenty of variation to combat which, like Pokémon, screams of rock-paper-scissors but belies an underlying depth.

As for doing what Final Fantasy 12 didn't, Ni No Kuni removes the pre-battle tactical coding and reduces it to concise in-battle commands. Each party member can be given simple, easy-to-understand tactics like "Keep us healthy," "Do what you want," or "Give it your all."

As long as they're coordinated with appropriate move sets, the commands are reliable enough, although sometimes you'll have to work out when the AI will use certain spells, or not. For example, you might need a heal, but if you've given healing commands to a party member with only a group heal spell, the AI might wait for the whole party to need it. This can be tricky to wrap your head around, but there's plenty of time to do so. In any case, it's more enjoyable adjusting to all the tactical coding than programming it in.

Your party can also be coordinated in synchronized blocks and all-out attacks, both key parts of boss battles. Defending is particularly vital, not only because it alleviates attacks that otherwise greatly sap your health (and health really can go quickly) but because it produces restorative pick-ups. Ni No Kuni is stingy with money – there's never enough to get everything – and mana potions are expensive. Blocking to get a mana pick-up is often necessary, especially in the protracted, all-consuming boss fights.

Even if you're reduced to one party member, with little health and no mana, a successful block can turn it all around. It also introduces a reactive element to battles, with bosses only warning of defense-worthy moves seconds ahead of unleashing them.

In summary, the combat is diverse, tactical, customizable, twitchy, and dramatic. All those elements in tandem ensures it stays challenging throughout, but not to the point that I ever needed to grind. Then again, I doubt I ever beat a boss the first time either. I thoroughly enjoyed almost all of the fights, and having completed the game and done a ton of the side quests, I find myself still wanting to play more.

Before eulogizing too far, there are oversights, like not being able to pre-select default tactics, and having to trawl long lists of spells (even if the game pauses to let me do so). There are strange oversights outside of combat too, like the unerring propensity to give you things just a bit too late, like fast travel, overworld flight, and even synchronized blocking.

One biggie comes from the in-game Wizard's Companion guide, a virtual tome which, among many other things, includes a list of formulae for use in alchemy. Alchemy boils down to correctly mixing together ingredients collected along the journey to create things like food, armor, and weapons. The game suggests you try out formulae – not a bad suggestion given the great big list of them in the Wizard's Companion and the initial lack of any in your actual inventory. That would be great if the formulae were then stored for future use after successfully being implemented, but the game doesn't agree. Instead the only formulae you store are ones you're physically given.

That's a dumb oversight which kills off the alchemy element of Ni No Kuni for much of the game, but even that's forgivable. There's more than enough to enjoy elsewhere, and the amount of depth within the Wizard's Companion is astounding. I haven't even gone into that, or the plethora of side quests, bounty hunts, hidden secrets, and so on.

Even if they are on the whole minor, there are enough issues in Ni No Kuni to potentially aggravate. What's remarkable is how little they do. Maybe the issues would matter more if the game wasn't as gorgeous at it is. Maybe all that beauty would be undermined by the low-key narrative if the combat wasn't as deep. It's why this collaboration between Level-5 and Studio Ghibli works. One without the other might have been good, but together they've created a superb role-playing game for this generation to savor.

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of Ni No Kuni, provided by Namco Bandai.

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