When I blogged about the release of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch a couple of weeks ago, I discussed the difficulties I'd had with JRPGs in recent years—a bad start—still, I swore to give the genre at least one more go before abandoning it entirely. A happy ending, then?
Well... let's not jump to conclusions.
I had a fair bit of fun with Ni No Kuni, to be sure. The fifty-odd hours I spent playing it—beating it, indeed—speak to that simple fact. Alas, I'm afraid the very best moments of the experience were behind me five or ten hours in. Things certainly pick up again at the end, but the intervening tedium—especially the text-only story sequences and the endless fetch quests—nearly ruined Ni No Kuni for me.
So it's fitting, I figure, that the story, such as it is, is all about acceptance. At the outset, the thirteen year old player character, Oliver—who lives a quiet life in Motorville: a very Ghibli village full of 1950s kit cars and an ensemble cast of charming inhabitants—Oliver loses his mother, Alicia, in a tragic accident.
That night, as he cries, a few of Oliver's tears fall on his doll... when suddenly, wonderfully, Drippy comes to life, and introduces himself (in an adorable Welsh accent) as Lord High Lord of the Fairies. He entreats Oliver to accompany him to the world of his birth, to save a once-great kingdom from the clutches of Shadar, the Dark Djinn, not to mention his master, the titular White Witch.
At first, never mind that he's talking to a doll of all things, Oliver says he isn't interested, but when Drippy suggests that the orphaned boy might be able, somehow, to save his mother—because everyone in our world has what's called a "soul mate" in Drippy's, and if Oliver can help Alicia's, then perhaps the fate of her counterpart will altered also—there's no longer any question that he'll help.
So begins an epic adventure in a world of wonders. Here be dragons! As well as cat kings, cow queens, evil genies and a few hundred heartbroken humans, through whom we glimpse Ni No Kuno's gameplay. Your task, as your party travels from place to place, is to help heal these people, and thus this land. You'll do this by finding individuals with an overabundance of one feeling—for instance courage, or ambition—and gifting said surplus to someone in need. Someone with an item you require to progress the story, say.
There's no getting around a number of these fetch quests, but though most of them are optional, Ni No Kuni is (despite endearing appearances) a rather challenging JRPG—with not a few unforgiving fights and a difficulty curve that goes off the deep end in the last act—so the more crap you collect, the better. Unfortunately, by the time I'd filled Oliver's locket for the twentieth time, I wanted nothing more than to sell the wretched thing to a vendor.
Same goes for the familiars you inherit as you adventure around the world. Initially, caring for the loveable little monsters which do the vast majority of your fighting for you adds an addictive Pokemon-esque element to the player's progression through Ni No Kuni, but by the time you're entrenched in the game's flat, protracted middle act, the mechanic has become so much busywork.
The various other systems in play in Level-5's latest are in the long haul markedly more engaging, but they're also par for the course in any decent contemporary JPRG. There's magic, crafting, questing and a whole lot of levelling as well—of you and your familiars. And though they can be unaccountably tough at times, most enemy encounters are as rewarding as they are demanding. Meanwhile, while the world seems kinda sorta small, exploring it is a real treat... especially considering how beautiful it looks: you really do feel Studio Ghibli's influence here, and in the cutesy, colourful character designs too.
Studio Ghibli's involvement can also be seen in Ni No Kuni's story, which sacrifices the melodramatic bombast of most JRPGs for a quieter, softer, sadder narrative. There's the makings of a fine feature-length film herein, but remember: this iteration of the tale takes fifty hours to tell, and drawn out to such an incredible extent, I'm sorry to say it seems insubstantial.
Furthermore, what little story there is is well written, evidently well translated, and well performed whenever an actual voice actor is involved... which is to say rarely, I'm afraid. Most of the story is communicated through text boxes. And there's an almighty lack of actual animation. Studio Ghibli have contributed a few minutes here and there, but most of Ni No Kuni's best moments are rendered in-engine.
Which is fine. Perfectly fine. It's an excellent engine, especially considering its modest origins. All the same, the legacy of Ni No Kuni as a handheld game conceived early in the generation that's now ending shows through in so many ways that those things the developers at least try to do differently—for which effort I applaud Level-5—are at loggerheads with the many traits this JPRG simply apes.
But you know what? I didn't dedicate fifty hours of my life to Ni No Kuni so that I could complain about its failings. Sure, it has a fair few, yet this is the first time I've finished a JRPG in years, so it has at least as many redeeming features, including but not limited to the look, the mood and the music. At the end of the day, I'm happy enough to have had this experience that, on balance, I probably would play a Ni No Kuni 2.
So the story has a happy ending, after all!