I have a complicated relationship with Japanese role-playing games. Who doesn't, right? They can be tiresome, complicated, long, and fraught with repetition and over-explained gameplay mechanics. Ni No Kuni isn't exempt from any of these, in fact it has most of them in droves. But regardless of its frustrations, imperfections and failings, this little JRPG is singularly beautiful in the context of JRPG history. And I'd like to explore that beauty.
Studio Ghibli & The Magic of Ni No Kuni
As a fan of Studio Ghibli since...how old am I? the concept of their cinematic majesty combined with my love for video games was almost too much to handle. I was an avid Xbox 360 player since the release of Gears of War, and I was very much content living under Microsoft's green bubble. But while the PlayStation 3 had been seductively whispering names like Uncharted, Resistance and inFamous into my ear for years, it wasn't until news of Ni No Kuni reached me that my faith in the big X began to waver. And oh how it wavered, friends.
With the release of Ni No Kuni in 2013 (over two years after it appeared in Japan) my relationship with Microsoft ceased to exist and I've not looked back since. The PS3 became home to one of my favorite games of all time and I was surprised by how welcoming my introduction was.
I Know This Place
Having designated countless hours to becoming familiar with Ghibli's films, Ni No Kuni felt like a homecoming. It was a place I was almost familiar with, except now I could interact with this world in a way that was previously impossible. The inviting music of Joe Hisashi, the studio's iconic animation and this world's endearing characters and narrative were indicative of what this Japanese film studio are all about, but the chance to carve out my own experiences within that environment was invigorating.
And let me also say that the chance to play this game in Japanese was...just...thank you, Level-5.
For what I suppose you could consider a child's game, Ni No Kuni asks a lot of important questions and explores some really dark themes. Within the first hour the protagonist, Oliver, loses his mother after she suffers a heart attack brought on by the stress of attempting to save her son from drowning. Our lead is left alone in the world and is inconsolable at the loss of his protector.
Our initial impressions of Oliver show us an adventurous but ultimately helpless young boy. Were his mother not there to help him he may have died in her place. But this loss represents an awakening in Oliver's life. After clutching to a doll his mother gave him as a child, his tears land on the strange creation and it comes to life. This is Drippy, the player's guide to the world of Ni No Kuni.
Age Old Tale
There have been countless coming of age stories told in every medium imaginable. Ni No Kuni may be lacking in subtlety (there's none) in terms of how it explores Oliver's growth into the hero he eventually becomes, but we are talking about a JRPG, after all. But what it lacks in ambiguity it makes up for in balance and pacing.
Ni No Kuni's narrative never misses a beat. It constantly introduces us to new locations, new characters and a slew of new gameplay mechanics. Right up until the end Drippy throws SO many new combat abilities our way. But none of them feel tacked on or useless. This is a tightly wound RPG with excellent combat mechanics. Though it borrows heavily from Pokémon in terms of how fights actually go down, Ni No Kuni finds a way to make everything feel fresh and responsive for the some 70+ hours you could spend with its campaign.
But deep down, this is inherently a true JRPG.
Critics and fans alike frequently debate the state of Japanese role-playing games in the modern industry. In many ways, Japan's game design can feel outdated and obsessed with past glories, even its combat system refuses to evolve in many instances. But Ni No Kuni is one of the rare games that celebrates the roots of its genre while simultaneously challenging its conventions. The tropes are there: turn-based combat, overtly sentimental dialogue, addictive music, a total lack of ambiguity, everyone talking about their hearts, but Level-5 came together with Studio Ghibli to wrap all of that up in a package that, I feel, anyone could relate to regardless of the kind of games they like.
A Modern JRPG To Remember
Ni No Kuni feels modern, intelligent and patient. Having only arrived in the west several years after it did in Japan, I find it remarkable that the game still resonated so well and felt almost timely. Yes, it can be sentimental nonsense at times and it definitely has its frustrations, but this is a game that anyone who's been moved by Studio Ghibli's work in the past can enjoy.
Do yourself a favor. Give Ni No Kuni some of your time. By all means, analyze it with your cynical adult eyes and pick apart its flaws, but equally attempt to relate to Oliver's childhood wonderment and the sense of adventure that every second of this massive RPG is imbued with. You won't regret it.
Have you played Ni No Kuni before?
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