It looks proper good!
It's been less than a week since the Ni no Kuni demo landed on the PlayStation Network for Studio Ghibli and Level-5 fans alike to clamour over. It offers two trips into the game, each at about 25 minutes long apiece, but perhaps that isn't enough for you? While it'll give you an idea of what you can expect from the game come January, it does drop you into the deep end a little bit.
Namco Bandai kindly invited me to their offices at the end of November to play around with Ni no Kuni from the very beginning of the game, for a very generous three hours. While I was racked with temptation not to shove a few of their Mojipittan cushions up my shirt and do a runner (seriously, feel free to send me some!), I did manage to make good progress into what is likely the final build of Ni no Kuni. Why not come hear all about it after the jump?
As is the case with most of the Ghibli films, Ni no Kuni has a simple yet gripping story designed to pull you right into its fictional world. An ordinary young boy called Oliver lives in the ordinary town of Motorville, which is pretty aptly named as his friend Philip has been building a car (kids these days!). While I could tell you more about what happens next, it came as quite a surprise when I played it, so I'll just hope you haven't found out already! Oliver soon finds himself in the land of Ni no Kuni, where he and 'lord high lord of the fairies' Drippy set out on an adventure. Consider that the spoiler free synopsis!
On his journey, Oliver will be faced with many people that are 'broken hearted'. You will have seen one case of this in the demo, as you meet a guard that lacks enthusiasm. To cure them, you must source another person with excess enthusiasm in order to do a little transplant of sorts. These people have been cursed, so as the innocent young boy you are, you should help them out! What happens when you help them often yields different results, be it opening a new path (like the guard in the demo) or giving you new spells and/or items. The entire system is an interesting one, and using the spells to fix those who are broken hearted is very simple. No complex menus to scroll through, so that's a bonus!
Like any localised Japanese game, you've got to know just how good the vocal dub is. Even more so when it involves Studio Ghibli, as their movies have become renowned for having great voice actors work on them. From what I have played, Ni no Kuni doesn't disappoint either. Something I want to point out is that Drippy has a Welsh accent in the English dub. The reason I want to point this out is because I played the first half of the demo and noticed that it wasn't until the end that we ever get to hear Drippy speak! I'm sure this will have confused a lot of people, as I even saw mention that his dialogue had 'typos', where the dialogue has been written to reflect his accent. He speaks a lot more in the actual game and his voice is just perfect, so much so that a few of us at Namco Bandai began to discuss it.
Oliver's voice is an interesting one. I discovered that the company behind the dub actually went around London-based schools in order to find the perfect voice for him, so when you hear it, know that there is a young boy behind it, not an actor! I'm not sure about the rest of the voice cast, but characters like Philip, Oliver's mum and the Great Deku Tree Old Father Oak certainly had solid voice work. The problem with dubbing voices in another language is that there isn't often much you can do about the original mouth movements in the game/film. Still, Ni no Kuni does very well to keep them in sync, and there were only a few occasions where it really became noticeable (on a parrot, no less!). Short of messing with the character models there's nothing much you can do about these few instances, and I think I'd rather the game come out as soon as possible over waiting another year!
Dialogue in the game is always written with the accents included, meaning that speech from characters like Drippy may appear a bit strange. I personally found nothing wrong with this, as the first time you speak with Drippy specifically, you hear his voice. I know a lot of people don't like it when accents are written into the dialogue, but I personally think it's a good thing. It's a shame that the demo players were left a little confused by what appeared to be typos before Drippy spoke, but for the deaf gamers amongst us, it's great for characterisation. It also really isn't an issue for the rest of us, but after hearing one person on Youtube speaking Drippy's lines in a Jamaican accent before hearing the little guy speak Welsh, I figured I'd point it out!
This game is an RPG, so there are many little systems to learn during the beginning of the game. Drippy helps to explain everything in the first hour and a half or so, which isn't so long when the game will likely take over 40 hours of your time to see it through to the end. The game takes its time to explain things and make sure you aren't left wondering what it is you're mean to be doing, as well as establishing key characters and the stories surrounding them. Sure, this means you don't get into your first battle until around 40 minutes into the game, but I came away from the entire event feeling confident that I knew the ins and outs of combat and the various mechanics.
So, let's talk battles! The battle system is certainly unconventional, but it's not at all difficult to get to grips with when the game talks you through it. You control Oliver on the battle screen, and you can move him around the battlefield like you can in games like Star Ocean. He can perform regular attacks by hitting enemies with his wand, cast magic spells which come with an MP cost and a cooldown to prevent mashing fireballs one after the other, or even summon a familiar to fight in his place. He can also defend and use items, in case you find yourself in a bad situation.
An interesting system introduced in Ni no Kuni involves 'glims', small, coloured spheres that pop onto the battlefield when you land attacks on the enemy, and occasionally when Drippy throws some in to help you out. They only provide very minor boosts to HP and MP (depending on their colour), but quite a few times it meant I could afford that one extra fireball or cure spell. There are also gold glims, which I only saw appear during the boss fight with the Guardian of the Woods. They seem to give Oliver and his familiars a super move of sorts, and while it isn't guaranteed to defeat the enemy, it certainly inflicts a sizeable amount of damage on whoever is on the receiving end.
Pre-emptive strikes can be performed by creeping up on an enemy, which grants you some extra time to perform attacks before your enemies can act. Similarly, enemies can get behind you and initiate this themselves, forcing you to wait a short time before you can act and leaving you running around the battlefield in a wild attempt to avoid being hit. It certainly means you'll be more vigilant on the world map, making sure that the fast-moving bird enemies don't manage to get behind you. I also made sure to have my character be defeated in battle, just to see what would happen (and not because I messed up, honest!). Interestingly, you are allowed to carry on from where you were, but you will lose 10% of your money, known in this game as 'guilders'. You also have the choice to decline this offer and carry on from the last time you saved, if you prefer. It's definitely nice to have this option, and I'll take a 10% hit to my wallet over a traditional game over any day!
As mentioned earlier, Oliver can use familiars to fight for him. These little critters have their own stats and attacks, and they also level up individually. They can learn new attacks after hitting certain levels, and each familiar can only have a set number of attacks 'set' for use in battle at one time. It's all a little bit Pokémon in this respect, but rest assured that you don't 'forget' attacks that you aren't currently using. Using them in battles is a good way of protecting Oliver, and using them to exploit particular weaknesses in an enemy seems to be the way to go. I got to use Mitey (who you use in the Guardian fight in the demo), as well as a second familiar that I earned towards the end of my three hour session. They have plenty of differences besides their attacks, so picking which one to use isn't as simple as seeing which one has the higher level. Familiar stats can be boosted by levelling up, as well as feeding them 'treats' outside of fights. It seems that there is a limit to how much you can boost their stats this way, but I'm unsure exactly where the boundaries are.
The graphics, as you might well have seen already, are absolutely stunning. It comes as a mix of gorgeous cel-shaded models for most of the game, with animated videos placed here and there in the traditional Ghibli style. Cel-shaded games are certainly a dime a dozen these days, but Level-5 show that they aren't going to be satisfied with simply looking like the others. The models are neat, the animations add plenty of character and the shadows, which are usually terrible in cel-shaded games, look pretty good too. Perhaps the highlight of all things graphical in Ni no Kuni is the world map. It oozes charm and looks fantastic, while simply serving the same purpose of any other world map. It's quite the sight, so be sure to check it out!
One thing that does concern me about this game is how it'll be accepted by those who frequently play JRPGs. Don't get me wrong, the battle system and all of the stats and mechanics surrounding it are great, but my issue lies specifically with the mini-map. If you are given a quest, it shows you exactly where you need to go instead of making you explore. Sounds good in theory, and I'd certainly agree, but you could argue that you will only be moving from one waypoint to another this way. Hopefully this isn't always the case, as I wonder what the popular opinion on it will be, otherwise.
As is the case with all games, you'll be pleased to hear that I experienced no issues with frame rates, and the loading screens were extremely short. I've been trying to beat Final Fantasy XIII before the end of the year (I know, I know) so I can appreciate the lack of loading times when my chocobo treasure hunting has been hampered so much by it! I can't tell you for sure if it's because the game was installed on the hard drive or not (or whether you can actually do that and if it's required), but the less time spent in limbo staring at a swirly icon and not in the wonderful land of Ni no Kuni, the better.
Joe Hisaishi is in charge of the music, and it might be a name you are already familiar with. He has composed a lot of the soundtracks to existing Ghibli films, including My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away and Ponyo, so rest assured that you will be receiving a stunning musical score. If you were worried that this game might not feel like a Ghibli production, know that this is just one of many things that make it feel almost like an interactive Ghibli movie. I mean this as a compliment of course, don't go comparing it to Modern Warfare 2 or something! Ni no Kuni belongs on your shelf next to the other Ghibli films, and I feel that's the highest compliment I can give it.
As for my three hour progress, I managed to complete a few quests in Ding Dong Dell (which is perhaps the best name), which is the area you get to see at the end of the demo. I really enjoyed my time with it, but I have only scraped the surface when it comes to actual content. I eagerly await getting my own copy of the game to play through, and sincerely hope that the Ghibli magic I saw in this brief time lasts throughout the entire experience. Rest assured that we'll have a review nearer the time, and I'll certainly be aiming to see everything the game has to offer before giving you my final thoughts.
Be sure to grab the demo if you still haven't, and keep your eyes peeled for a review around the official release date of January 22nd/25th (US/EU).
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