The lights are on
Childhood is often a time caught between two worlds; one of the ordinary and that of daydreams. The collaborative genius behind Namco Bandai and Level 5‘s Ni No Kuni speaks to that power in a variety of delightful ways, sprinkling its own magic on the JRPG formula while deriving inspiration from the best of Studio Ghibli. What simple joys can be derived from its heartfelt story further realize an imaginative world full of discovery and while certainly not flawless, its inconsistent brilliance shines through well enough to warrant a captivating time like few others.
Akin to the magnificent JRPGs it borrows from, Ni No Kuni’s greatest talent lies in its ability to create a magnificent world that speaks to its poetic beauty. Taking place over a sprawling world map like that of old Final Fantasies, its vast lands of lush forests to burning deserts exude a picturesque charm to them. Kingdoms are ruled by animals, mushrooms grow into staircases, and strange creatures comprise every diverse locale, from a pirate cove to a volcanic summit out of Lord of the Rings. Traveling the world is made convenient and even more breathtaking upon receiving a sailing ship and eventually a dragon to soar over the skies with. In tune with the game’s powerful orchestral numbers, the sight is splendid enough not to mind the backtracking throughout the course of the game
Not to rely on charm and spectacle alone, Ni No Kuni’s supports a well-rounded plot that captures its childlike essence. Its story centers upon a young boy named Oliver who, orphaned in the wake of his mother’s tragic death, is transported between his real and imaginative worlds along with his beak-nosed puppet come to life, Mr. Drippy. This narrative dances between the comical and serious reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s own cinematic work in capturing the tender face of loss. The twists and turns of Oliver’s journey make for an interesting analogy between its reality and fantasy along with an ultimately poignant finale by the game’s end credits. Unfortunately, the game’s well-written story may come at the price of uneven characterization and pacing. While Oliver and Mr. Drippy serve as a likable pair, they often seem to overcompensate for their fellow partners’ absence of personality. Players will further be met with a slow start following the game’s gripping opening and may experience a lull in the occasional fetch quest. Nevertheless, the story’s highs make even these lows worth championing through in spite of this rather than because of it.
Perhaps the most polarizing of Ni No Kuni’s elements is its unorthodox gameplay. Combining old-school JRPG mechanics of turn-based combat with an active-time battle system, Oliver’s party members are able to maneuver around enemies freely in battle while still taking time to recharge between each magical or hand-to-hand attack. Small glowing orbs of “glims” are earned from damaging enemies for replenishing health and magic along with experience from each completed battle. Oliver can additionally order battle tactics to his fellow members' unpredictable AI, either taking enemies on the offensive or defensive. This all genuinely works well to increase your options in battle and its quick pace keeps fights lively and strategically minded if not for your partners' tendencies to ignore or bumble their way through orders. This doesn’t ever escalate beyond an annoyance, but it does make battling more difficult than need be.
Boss battles bring out the best and worst of additional battle issues. Intimidating in their sheer size and strength and you’ll be hard-pressed to concentrate on carefully rationing your supplies and attacks to exploit their specific weaknesses. Their at times unforgiving nature deals out quick death if taken on recklessly and their thoughtful challenge brings out the intensity out of each you fight. Every part of the battle can revolve around merely making up for your partners’ burning through their own magic and left defenseless. It’s this love/hate relationship with the Ni No Kuni’s otherwise epic battle sensibilities that gets in the way of the gameplay’s full potential.
Of further note is Ni No Kuni’s most engaging exploration aspect of "familiars". Similar to Pokemon’s monster training, Oliver and company are free to tame and train many of the creatures, or "familiars" that they meet in battle. Each of them can be leveled up via the special food items found or bought in the world. Their adorable and customizable nature is arguably the most valuable prize to be gained from your standard battles and catching them all is an amusing if not entirely necessary gimmick to your overall progression.
Note: This review was published at N00b Magazine.com using a retail copy of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on PS3.
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