Ni no Kuni is many things; part Pokémon, part Dragon Quest, all JRPG. As a joint venture between Studio Ghibli and Level-5, the game features a cast of memorable characters (not always for the right reasons) as well as excellent visuals and animation. Both companies are highly regarded for their quality products in their field, so expectations ran high for this title. While it does measure up to a degree, it is let down slightly by simple oversights that could have otherwise made a brilliant game.
The story begins in the small town of Motorville, a quiet place that likes its cars. Slipping out late one night, Oliver heads to meet his friend Phil to test a new vehicle he has created. Things do not go as planned though, as a broken wheel soon sends Oliver straight into the nearby lake. Thankfully his mother, who was out searching for him, was close at hand to rescue her boy before he could drown. Sadly, the stress of the situation causes her already weak heart to give out, but not before she manages to give some final words to her son. As Oliver spends days crying over the death of his mother, his tears magically awaken a stuffed toy she had once given him. This toy is none other than the Lord High Lord of the Fairies, Mr. Drippy, who teaches Oliver the spell necessary to travel to the other world where he might be able to save his mother.
The other world is full of magic and monsters. It is not long before Oliver is taught the spells needed to fix the brokenhearted. This mechanic forms the majority of the tasks that Oliver has to perform as residents of both worlds have been affected by evil magic. It is while learning these spells that Oliver is taught how to summon familiars, small Pokémon-like creatures that Oliver is eventually able to tame during battle. All battles in the game are fought using a party of three characters, and any character can be substituted for one of the three familiars they are able to summon. Familiars can be freely swapped between characters and a limited number of reserves outside of combat.
Catching new familiars is handled by the second character to join the party, Esther. As only she is capable of taming the wild beasts, Esther needs to be kept alive long enough to tame them. As long as the monster does not run away during this process, success is guaranteed. However, Esther can only tame monsters that want to join the party, and there is no method to make them want to join. It is all based on chance when the beast is about to die, often requiring many battles to collect even the most common familiar. In combat there is nothing to indicate if a monster has already been tamed, frequently causing double-ups to be obtained.
The combat in Ni no Kuni does not offer much challenge. On normal (the highest difficulty) regular battles do not require much more strategy than mashing the attack button, then topping up health after combat. As only one character can be controlled at a time, the AI can be set to perform certain roles during combat. The AI will also ignore any harmful effects on the floor, sometimes killing themselves while on low health. Mr. Drippy will jump in during boss battles to offer ‘helpful’ advice on how to defeat the enemy. This is usually as obvious as “defend against X attack” or “Use fire on this ice beast”.
The training wheels never feel like they come off in this game, as Mr. Drippy will offer clues for each magic-based puzzle. The answers to these are never very challenging, as most non-combat spells are required once or twice throughout the game and seem more to prevent areas or sections of story from being skipped. An extra level of difficulty or an option to turn off advice would have been most appreciated.
Graphically, Ni no Kuni is absolutely gorgeous. The anime cut-scenes are of the highest quality, with the rest of the game looking as if it has leaped out of the drawings. The same art style is maintained throughout the entire game. Each town has its own theme and feels unique (if not original) and alive because of it. The level of detail in some areas is simply amazing. Enough cannot be said about how good this game looks.
The audio is equally impressive. It is composed by Joe Hisaishi and fully orchestrated by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra right down to the humblest of town themes. The voice acting is solid, though sparse. Less vocal work could have been used during combat and instead added throughout. Of particular note is the Welsh accent of Mr. Drippy, it is pleasure to hear him rambling on whenever he talks, and the subtitles reflect his accent in the style Level-5 have used in other games.
Ni no Kuni is worth picking up to play. Fans of the Dragon Quest series can expect a simpler, though action based combat. A completionist could have some trouble in acquiring all the familiars in the game. While the game may at times seem simplistic, it is still a little too complex for a child to play by themselves. This could have been the JRPG of this console generation, but its many simple flaws prevent it from being perfect.