Friday, June 13, 2014

What I'm Playing: Ni No Kuni

As you can surmise from my participation in ArmchairBEA, I spend a lot of time reading. To a lesser, but still significant. extent, I spend a lot of time playing video games. They are one of my geeky loves and if I'm going to share my love of books here, why not my love of video games?

JV combed through his PS3 collection the other day and a generous third (or a skimpy half) of his collection was deemed "unworthy." We schlepped them all over to GameStop and with the store credit from those he bought three new games, including Ni No Kuni.

I had first heard of Ni No Kuni from an acquaintance of mine back home and it piqued my interest right away, because it was developed by Level 5 and Studio Ghibli. Yes, Studio Ghibli! Two things I love, together at last!

I'm not sure how much input Studio Ghibli had with the game itself, or whether they were just consulted with for character design, or art, or just the cut scenes. Level 5 developed the Professor Layton series for the Nintendo DS, so they're no strangers to the ~kawaii~~~ market. I'll only say that there's nothing in this game, from the art to the story to the character design, that would be out of place in a Studio Ghibli movie.

That is to say, the game is basically made of cute (and magic). It's a breath of fresh air in video game trends.

Which isn't to say that a gritty, dirty, "realistic" game can't be good, mind you.
But sometimes I just need something cute.
You play as Oliver, or Ollie, a young boy transported to another, magical world. There's a big bad evil threatening the land and breaking people's hearts, and a fairy with a lantern nose ring thinks that you're the Chosen One.

The mechanics are firmly rooted within the tradition of JRPGs, so none of it will take you by too much surprise if you've spent a lot of time with Pokémon or the Final Fantasy series. You kill baddies and level up, and as you progress through the game you'll learn spells to use in and out of combat.

One of the earliest spells you learn is how to create a familiar. A familiar is basically like a Pokémonc crossed with a Tamagotchi: it gains experience from combat and learns skills as it levels up, but you can also improve it by feeding it treats. Different treats will improve different stats, and you can only feed it so much.

A familiar can fight in combat for you, and you can control it directly—it isn't operated by AI or anything like that. In fights, your familiar uses your HP and MP, but it has its own stamina gauge. When it runs out of stamina, it can't fight anymore, even if you have full health. Regardless of who fights, every encounter awards experience to you and your familiar like (so you don't have to include it in combat to get experience, like you do in Pokémon).

The combat system works well enough. Generally I'm not a fan of the tactical, turn-taking combat like in Final Fantasy Tactics, Baldur's Gate, or Knights of the Old Republic, and Ni No Kuri avoids that model. There is definitely an element of timing and turn-taking, so it isn't a totally realtime beat 'em up hack 'n slash, but it's all very fluid and flows well. You can cancel an action at any time, and if you're not in the middle of an action you're free to move around the battle area as much as you like. Which is handy because enemies often drop free HP and MP recovers. My only gripe is that it can be difficult to switch out of characters or to switch spells in a pinch: you move with the L joystick but use the D-pad to choose among Oliver and his familiars, or among your current character's skills. That makes trying to evade hits while switching to anything besides "Attack" incredibly awkward because it's all happening on the left hand side of the controller.

Outside of combat, there is a lot going on in the game: you have spells to learn, you have to manage your HP and MP, you have your familiars to tend to, you have your party members to tend to, you have hearts to mend, you have do-gooder quests and monster hunts to complete, and probably more that I haven't encountered yet in four hours of play. It seems like a lot at the beginning, especially for something that looks so light and cute, but the game does a good job of walking you through things and getting you used to everything.

I'm not very far in, so I can't comment on the characters or the story or so on, but really, Ni No Kuni is such a striking, unique game that I wanted to share my thoughts on it right away. I don't expect to be disappointed in the story—I trust that Studio Ghibli wouldn't have gotten involved if they couldn't have some say in that, after all—but we shall see.

Ni No Kuni is available on the Nintendo DS and the PlayStation 3. I'm playing it on the PS3; I think on the DS there are neat little motion elements with the spells (similar to Ookami) but otherwise they're not too different, I don't think. If you haven't played it already, I highly recommend it.


  1. This is at the top of my to buy list and has been since we got our PS3 last Dec.

    (But I told myself I couldn't buy any more games until I play through the ones I have)

    1. Oop how does that happen.

      Which ones do you have already? Demon's Souls (and by extension the Dark Souls games though I haven't played them yet) is probably my number one PS3 game, no such thing as too difficult~~~