"Impossibly cute. But does it have substance?"
Here is an exercise to start things off. Think of, or even write down as many movies that were later made into games as you can. Done? Now go through that list and check off all the good games, or even simply above-average games. The Angry Video Game Nerd is not wrong in saying there are several times where movie to game falls well below expectations. I find that many games based on movies, or tv shows, are bad with few truly exceptional games. If you are like me, your list is long but with minimal checkmarks. Now Ni No Kuni is not based on any particular movie, let's make that clear. Rather, it was made to fit in the Studio Ghibli universe of movies that now includes over 20 films and presents a style similar to what you might see in Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, Spirited Away, etc. I love Studio Ghibli and have seen every movie, some more than once so I was shocked with myself that it took me so long to get my hands on a copy of this game. Ni No Kuni was originally released in North America in 2013 by Level-5 and Bandai Namco with a wealth of input and collaboration from Studio Ghibli. The game was later re-released in 2019 for the switch and is the copy I played.
If I had never seen a Studio Ghibli movie before and was just watching footage of the game with no knowledge of the name, it could be reasonable to assume this was a recent DQ game (post-Dragon Quest 8) innovating the series. The animation style is very similar to that. But those who have watched some Ghibli films will instantly recognize the impact the movies had on the style of this game. Anything from a boss looking like something straight out of Porco Rosso to Oliver, the main character, looking like he could have been in Ponyo or Phillip looking like Tombo's long-lost twin. Of course, that was likely done on purpose as one of the main themes of the game is how everything within it is connected in so many ways, and that probably extends an interconnectedness with the larger Studio Ghibli universe and all of its films. It is hard to think of a game with a more unique world than that of Ni No Kuni. It is so well crafted and almost like a storybook coming to life. Motorville especially looks impressive and made me feel like I was stepping back into time, to a quintessential small American town. Overall, there was a lot of attention to detail in every location, so take the time to stop now and then and sit back and marvel at the quirky, but stunning world in front of you.
That is where the game starts. Although Motorville is quaint and incredibly charming, it is not the fantasy world one might expect. No worries, that comes soon, and the event that leads Oliver to explore it is one of the greatest tragedies I have seen in a video game. Oliver is supposed to be 13 but he seemed a bit younger than that. No worries, he is an incredibly likable main protagonist and it is so easy to cheer for him right from the start and for the duration of the game. That is a pity because his sidekick makes a terrible first impression and if I could have put my foot through the screen, I would have punted him three towns over. Jerk. The thing is, no one who has ever played No No Kuni will ever forget Drippy, I think that is safe to say. Plus it is possible players might soften to him a little as the game goes on. After his initial rude and insensitive introduction, he does show a ton of confidence in Oliver, at least. Esther is also likable, though occasionally intense personality that butts heads with the third main character of the game, Swaine. Like Drippy, the first experience with Swaine is less than stellar. Just watch as he tries to integrate with the other two, especially Esther, as the game continues.
As they journey they come across many incredible personalities, including a giant cat. Many of the people Oliver and company come across are struggling with their inner demons and this is where one of the game's innovative, and interesting gameplay mechanics comes into play. See that gentleman in the center of town lacking motivation and enthusiasm? See the girl over there with the broken heart? The person overindulging or refusing to give back an item they borrowed? If Oliver sees someone else looking happy, behaving generously, looking overjoyed, etc., he can "borrow" that feeling from them, a piece of their heart. These people are represented as green dots on the mini-map. Upon collecting a tiny piece of their heart, he can give this heart to someone else to mend that broken heart, inject some enthusiasm into someone, or restraint or kindness to treat your friends better. One sidequest features a man who is too nervous to ask a girl out. So Oliver must search for someone with too much confidence and ask to borrow it through a magical conversion from that person to a jar that stores these various attributes, so he can give it to someone else who lacks it. I enjoyed this because there were many opportunities to improve someone's life and thus, ways to change each environment Oliver visited for the better. It is easy to see Oliver's actions changing his surroundings for the better.
It is not just that this game looks breathtaking, but the music that accompanies each location is a pleasure to listen to. Take the aforementioned Dragon Quest 8, gather the 20+ Ghibli movies in existence and blend it into a fine pulp and the music in this game is what you get. It is playfully mysterious at times, other times it is adorable. Still, the touching moments have fitting music and the orchestra tracks go a long way in making this game feel even grander than the fairly small world map might otherwise portray. Nothing was spared here and Studio Ghibli and Level-5 pulled all the stops for this soundtrack. But it is not just the soundtrack, but on top of that, each town has the banter of a shopkeeper calling out to customers or friends chatting with each other, and so on. The only thing that got annoying is, much like the clanking of Lux from 7th Saga, the sound of Drippy walking is constant and annoying. The voice actors are excellent, even Drippy. Dare I say they are even better than Dragon Quest 8! There are even regional accents further giving each new place its own flavor. Indeed, each place truly has a look and personality of its own with tracks that are special to its location. I don't recall getting sick of a single track, other than the battle music, slightly.
Speaking of battles, thankfully, enemies can be seen on the world map and in dungeons. Ideally, being able to see them should allow Oliver to run from monsters easily but usually, they are too fast, and trying to run just leads to getting ambushed leaving everyone unable to act for several seconds once the battle starts. Not ideal in this type of battle system which is some kind of action, turn-based hybrid. Later on, once Oliver and company are strong enough enemies will run from him. That can be a pain in its own right if you haven't remained current on errands, get too powerful, and need an item from a weaker enemy. They outrun you and eventually disappear. The wheel system used to make choices can take some getting used to and, for instance, isn't as intuitive as something like Secret of Mana even. It feels a bit clunky and, at first made some of the earlier battles tougher than they should have been. That is not to say it is bad, and a few hours with the game should put most, if not all players at ease.
You control one out of an eventual cast of four characters (the 4th comes very late) and are free to switch between the other characters and also roam around the battlefield with whoever you are controlling between performing an action and waiting for the cool-down clock to allow for another action. Because of the clunky combat defending was annoying for the first portion of the game. Thankfully after some progress in the game, the opportunity to simply push square for everyone to defend, or make an aggressive attack by the simple press of another button, was added to make things way easier than switching from character to character to character, all while navigating this wheel, to tell each person to defend. Nope, just push square, thank the lord for that.
However, it is unlikely people will spend all of their time with just Oliver, Esther, or Swaine. That is because each character can carry with them three familiars, monsters who fight in your place. Nearly every enemy can be turned into a familiar and they all have distinct movements and expressions and the animation for each is awesome. You can whittle down enemy HP to near zero and use Esther to charm them so they join forces with you. I have never been a Pokemon or Digimon fan so I just stuck with the familiars the game gave me and maybe recruited a few more for a few of the sidequests and did just fine with that and didn't bother recruiting otherwise. These familiars gain levels too and as levels increase, so do their skills. Like some other class-based games, you can even evolve them twice if you have the right item. It is annoying at first to evolve them as they go back to level 1 but in this case, patience is a virtue as well as careful planning. In other words, don't evolve all familiars at the same time Evolve 1 or 2, get their levels up again, evolve two more, and so on. Familiars gain stats with levels, but by finding the right treats to feed them, they can have massive gains in stats. Familiars are invaluable for much of the game, but I found Oliver's last few spells that take 32 or more MP to be the best damage dealers late game, so I just used him and let Esther and Swaine throw out whatever familiars they wanted. Always pay attention to a familiars stamina level as, once it is depleted they won't be able to act, so switching familiars in and out of battle is important. Also, look to see if they are affiliated with star, sun, moon, or planets. If a familiar does a good job, enemies drop HP and MP glims which heal your character a little bit. If they do a very good job, an enemy might drop a golden glim which allows for a super strong attack. That golden glim was the difference between victory and defeat in more than one battle, I admit.
This is not a very hard game, in itself. What made it somewhat difficult, in parts, felt more artificial, or a poor design choice. You see, not many chests have MP healing items and, maybe it was just very poor luck during the duration of my playthrough that was 35 minutes short of 50 hours, but not many enemies drop these items, and trying to have Swaine steal was cumbersome. Only a few shops sell MP healing items that heal 70 MP but some of the best spells take 32 or 54 MP so this isn't even close to being enough and these items cost far too much anyway. So this is where the alchemy system comes into play. Maybe I completed 20% of it but still beat the game just fine so it isn't a requirement but it would have been nice to have more options than available to create MP healing items. Plus finding the ingredients for anything useful, like something that heals at least more than a double-digit amount of MP, is burdensome, and not many enemies have the required items or even drop them frequently enough. Would it have killed the developer to make MP items at least a little more common? This is a minor gripe that doesn't come into play until the final few bosses. At around the time, you refight a certain three.
There are a ton of secrets to be found around the world, 100 hidden chests, for example. I found 99 but wished at least a few more was a certain aforementioned item that I, at times, so craved, you know since quite an effort goes into scouring the lands for invisible chests. Still, I enjoyed tracking them down, and allowed me to get to know every square inch of each continent and many of the small islands and minute details of each land.
The game is filled with tons of sidequests. Anything from standard fetch quests, like that one idiot, bless his heart, who keeps losing his diary to the one lazy scientist who wants you to collect all the familiars for him so he can study them. There are also bounties that ask you to defeat powerful enemies that aren't quite as strong as bosses but much stronger than enemies. There are also more simple quests of borrowing a piece of someone's heart with an overabundance of some attribute and giving it to someone else who lacks it. Sometimes both people can be found in the same town, other times they are in completely different places. Completion of each task leads to a monetary reward, usually a useful item and stamps on a stamp card. Turning these filled stamp cards in allows for all sorts of benefits with varying degrees of usefulness. Anything from increasing experience per battle, to walking faster on the world map (or sailing or flying faster later on) to increasing the odds that enemies drop things more, except for, apparently, MP items, ugh. Still, diligently completing sidequests as they are offered allows for these stamp cards, like a buy 10 get the 11th loyalty card for a sandwich shop, to fill up very quickly and many of the benefits offered after turning in some filled cards are much better than any free sandwich could ever be! I was able to complete exactly 80% of the sidequests given and assume there are a ton more in the post-game. Presumably close to 20% of the sidequests are in the post-game, though I didn't finish one, which upon completing, might have led to more.
There is a casino in this game and I imagine it must be a nice diversion for some. But I have never been interested in casinos, for no real reason and no specific moral or ethical objection. But it seems like some solid items can be gained for those willing to be a risk-taker. There are a few tricky parts in the game involving puzzles. At one point you have to use both joy-cons simultaneously to guide Oliver and Esther through a winding path that slowly collapses behind them. The third portion of that where the paths intertwine was fun, not. My most hated part of this game, which probably single handily knocks this from a 10 to nearly an 8.5, was the stealth portion in Hamelin. Worse games have done stealth better. I think Breath of Fire 3 has the best stealth I have seen, early on in that game. In Ni No Kuni it was just obnoxiously annoying and I admit taking more than 30 minutes to do it.
Ni No Kuni is an engaging game with one of the most moving stories I have seen in an RPG. It has a lot to offer those who want to take things slow and go for 100% and I could easily imagine someone wanting to do that could double my time and surpass triple-digit hours. I finished the game at level 67 but I think people could finish this well below 50 if they are content to speed through the game. This game is delightful and sweet and all those other synonyms but you can also peel back the layers and see there is a lot of substance as well. Enough for anyone to enjoy, regardless of how much you might enjoy the role-playing genre. It seems the developers considered the wider audience in offering easy difficulty. I didn't find normal to be very challenging, so this very well could be a fantastic beginner RPG if done on easy and the animation is enough to keep players engaged. There is nothing too complicated and a yellow star always indicates where you need to go. In any case, give this a try, and you surely won't regret it!
Community review by Travelmusicman37 (July 13, 2022)
I also post reviews on gamefaqs and would like to post them here as well and will slowly be moving them here too.
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