It would be easy, while reviewing Ni no Kuni, to sit at my desk and fling adjectives on the page like a fantasy novelist. I'd call the game whimsical, charming, beautiful, fascinating, smart, pleasant, challenging, slow-paced, grand, surreal and aggressively colourful.
And, yes, those are all fitting words for the new RPG, which came out last Tuesday for the PlayStation 3. The product of a collaborative effort between animation house Studio Ghibli and the game developers at Level-5, Ni no Kuni is a stellar mashup of both companies' strengths, mixing Ghibli's eye-popping style with Level-5's Dragon Questy substance. It deserves a lot of adjectives.
But what makes this fairy tale work so well, what has earned it a place among my all-time favourites, demands more of an explanation. It requires more than adjectives. It might even call for a noun.
Let me tell you what makes Ni no Kuni so special.
The first thing you see, when you start up Ni no Kuni (full name: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, which I promise is more fun to play than it is to say out loud), is a brown-haired boy in overalls running next to a lumpy little critter with a lantern hanging through his proportionally massive snozz. Surrounded by nature and strangely shaped rocks, the boy and his tiny friend are clearly in some sort of fantasy world. They're nearly trampled by a pack of stampeding boar things. They get down in the nick of time. Then they arrive at a cliff.
"So this is your world," says the boy.
"That's right!" says his companion, whose Welsh accent, while never quite explained, is remarkably endearing. "A whole ‘nother world. Beautiful, en't it?"
Beautiful, en't it? There's no better way to sum up the Ghibli-crafted animation, which is grand and meticulous, so lovely that it must be impressive even to the most jaded of gamers. Designed like an animated film, Ni no Kuni blends three-dimensional character models and watercolours in a way that makes everything pop, from crusty stone tablets to flying purple dragons.
A few seconds after that intro, we're back in time. We're no longer in the fantasy world. We get our first of many anime cut-scenes, and our first look at Motorville, a generic US city that looks very much like what Japan thinks America looks like. Or what they thought America looked like in the 1950s. Our overall-clad boy — introduced as Oliver — is running to the grocery store, which sets up our first mission: guide the young hero as he brings groceries to his mother.
There's something elegant about that mundane task — about the fact that the first thing you must do in Ni no Kuni is bring home the groceries. Before you can become a powerful wizard and fight monsters and save the world, you have to go get your mother some milk.
Next, as you might expect, some Major Events happen, the game breaks your heart a little bit, and eventually Oliver is told that he is The Chosen One, destined to save both his world and the parallel fantasy world in which you'll be spending most of the game. And then, adventure.
In this case, adventure means following a traditional JRPG formula: cut-scene -> town -> dungeon -> boss -> town -> side quests -> dungeon -> boss -> rinse -> repeat. Sometimes you'll see these events in a different order, but if you've played a game like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest (particularly, Dragon Quest VIII, which is a lot like Ni no Kuni in many ways) you've seen this structure before. But the game is more than that. Like a good basketball team, Ni no Kuni is significantly greater than the sum of its parts.
Here are four possible theories about what makes Ni no Kuni so great:
1) It's a game that pays attention to the little details. The way Oliver's cloak sways and shimmies in the wind. The way his little Welsh companion, Mr. Drippy, tumbles and dances as you wander through the world. The way Drippy stops dancing when you visit one village in the snowy northeast tundra, and instead mopes behind you, shivering from the cold. The way he'll carry important objects on his head. The way every nook and cranny of this massive world feels like it's been crafted with care and precision, from the tiny cave full of tiny crabs to the giant volcano full of nasty fire monsters. The way characters turn toward you when you're standing next to them.
2) It's a game that never stops surprising. During moments that might feel hackneyed in a lesser game, Ni no Kuni always delivers — mostly thanks to the script, which has been crafted and translated with masterful precision. For example, here's one particularly delightful exchange, presented without context, because you don't really need it:
"The girl is correct. It's no ghost ship."
"So what is it?"
"It's a ghost galleon."
3) It's a game that isn't afraid to offer a challenge. If you're not prepared, you might not be able to keep up. It'd be nice if Ni no Kuni had a "very easy" difficulty mode, since by all accounts even easy mode can get pretty tough, but it's also nice to play with a turn-based combat system that takes a lot of skill to use. While you might get frustrated during a few early boss battles, before you get a pair of quick commands to make your AI-controlled companions attack or defend with the click of a button (commands that really should be available from the beginning), Ni no Kuni's combat system never feels unfair. It is punishing, but never cheap. And that makes victory all the more satisfying.
4) It's a game that makes me feel like I'm on an adventure.
We play video games for many reasons, and different types of games can be appealing in totally different ways. A puzzle game might challenge our minds, encouraging lateral thinking and unorthodox solutions. Shooters test our reflexes, while multiplayer games like StarCraft II let us feed into that competitive instinct that keeps so many of us going every day.
Ni no Kuni is something else entirely. As a game — that is to say, as a set of rules with conditions for victory and defeat — Ni no Kuni, like most role-playing games made in Japan, is not particularly satisfying. You win when you get through the whole story. So does everybody else. Congrats?
But as a journey, this is a special sort of experience, a gruelling adventure filled with ups, downs, corny jokes, heartfelt moments and unbelievable sights. Playing Ni no Kuni is akin to becoming a virtual tourist, experiencing a few hours at a time as you wander through a strange land.
Except it's bigger than that. You're not just touring. You're there to help Oliver succeed at his mission. Oliver, a character who is as essential to Ni no Kuni as any sharp backdrop or charming animation, sometimes says some painfully cloying things, but it's his stubborn naivety and unnatural courage that make this adventure possible. Even when you're groaning at the boy wizard's tireless go-get-'em attitude, you kind of wish you had his strength. You kind of want to be him. After all, he gets all these cool spells.
Oliver is joined, in addition to Mr Lumpy Drippy, by a feisty girl named Esther and a snarky rogue named Swain. These characters are interesting, if somewhat... I don't want to say clichéd, but... familiar.
When you and your party aren't roaming towns or fixing peoples' lives, you're battling monsters, which in Ni no Kuni is both complicated and a great deal of fun. Something of a cross between Pokémon and Dragon Quest, Ni no Kuni's combat system requires you to control familiars — little collectible monsters — as you fight other monsters on a constrained battlefield. Each hero can hold up to three of these critters, and you can swap between them at any time.
No matter who you're controlling in battle, you can move freely and swap through commands in real-time, selecting between options like attack, defend, or special abilities. Once a character starts an action, he has to stay in place for a few seconds while doing his thing. So if you make your little skeleton buddy attack, for example, he'll spend five or six seconds hacking away at an enemy and then he'll be ready for his next order.
This system is frantic and fast-paced, like controlling 10 foozball sticks at once. It's particularly crazy during boss fights, when you'll have to watch a boss's ticks and animation cues to see when it's about to cast a spell, then quickly make your characters defend in response. You will inevitably fail to do this in time. You will feel really bad about that. This is part of the fun.
There's a bit more — elemental weaknesses, orbs that restore your health and mana, special golden orbs that give you Limit Break-esque power moves — and it all blends really smoothly. You have to find the best way to take down each specific encounter, whether that's just going all-out and defeating a monster as quickly as possible, or carefully dancing around the battlefield, guarding and firing spells as you zip back and forth.
It's funny: it would have been easy for the folks at Level-5 to sit back and coast, doing the least amount of work possible and letting Ni no Kuni's visuals sell the game for them. In fact they do quite the opposite, and perhaps because they had so much confidence in the aesthetics, this is a game that experiments, and tries very hard to make sure every other aspect delivers. Ni no Kuni knows that it's gorgeous, and that you're impressed, but damn if it won't kick your arse anyway.
Here are some of the things you can do in Ni no Kuni:
•You can visit a handful of towns ranging from a secluded fairy village to a large cat-filled city called, for some reason, Ding Dong Dell. They are all filled with interesting NPCs, helpful merchants and cool things to see.
•You can take on sidequests, some of which are more tedious than others. Every time you finish one, you get a certain number of Merit Stamps, which can be used to fill up a Merit Card, which can be traded in for cool minor bonuses, like cheaper goods and a completely useless (but awesome) jump ability.
•You can go out and bounty hunt for big beasties, whose deaths reward you with items, money and more Merit Stamps.
•You can save peoples' lives by fixing their hearts, which is both a core plot point and an entertaining optional activity. Part of the main story is that this evil wizard dude named Shadar is going around and cursing people by taking away important parts of their souls, usually in the form of emotions like restraint, courage and belief. As the Ultimate Hero Wizard, Oliver can go around the world, find people with extra emotions, take those and bring them to people who are deficient. So you might find a cowardly soldier and give him back his courage, or help an angry merchant learn how to be nicer to his customers. While of course you would do this no matter what because you are a lovely and selfless person, helping people out also gets you Merit Stamps.
Uh oh. I just realised that Ni no Kuni has gamified kindness.
•You can fly around the world map — yes, there's a world map! — scouring the surface for hidden treasure chests and rare monsters.
•You can spend all day reading, if you choose, and work your way through the tremendous Wizard's Companion, a 200-page book filled with spells and short stories. There's even an in-game wizard language based on strange symbols that you can find — and pull out the ol' pen and paper to decipher — all throughout the game. (Kotaku reader Kentoss made this helpful Nazcaan/English translator in case you need help getting your wizard on.)
•You can play games at a casino run by ghosts and skeletons.
•You can collect and cast some of the most specific spells imaginable, like Broom Broom, a bit of magic that brings to life animated objects — so long as they look like brooms. Or Breach Time, a spell that teleports you through time, but can only be used once in your lifetime. There are also, of course, far more helpful spells, like Spring Lock, which opens doors and chests and Nature's Tongue, which lets you talk to plants and animals.
•You can make items with an alchemy cauldron, either by following formulas or experimenting with random objects to see what combinations work. (Most of them don't.)
•You can collect dozens and dozens of familiars, feed them, equip them, train them and evolve them, Pokémon style.
Or you can just say screw it and stand around listening to the score, a sweeping, brilliant set of tracks composed by Ghibli's Joe Hisaishi and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic. I have spent way too much time doing nothing on the world map just to let the music play.
Around 15 hours into Ni no Kuni, as I wrote last week, I thought the game was excellent. Now that I've spent more time with it — last I checked I'd hit around 32 hours — I think it's top-notch. It's fantastic. It's the type of RPG that everyone should experience. Kids, adults, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives. It's a game I want to share with everyone I know.
That's not to say I didn't have gripes: your allies' combat AI is rather obtuse, moving around can feel a bit clunky until you get used to the fact that Oliver likes to walk for a second before he starts to run, and there's a whole lot of tedious, unnecessary menu-digging. But during those little moments of vicarious heroism — helping a merchant control her appetite, diving into a fairy tale and changing the ending, teaching fairy comedians how to tell jokes again — all I could think of were those adjectives. Whimsical. Charming. Beautiful.
There's nothing else like it.