Recent outcry in the gaming world would have us believe that the JRPG genre is dead; that it’s inability to innovate and stray from established formula has led to the loss of a western fanbase. But is originality really what’s missing from the formula? With the success of Ni no Kuni, Level 5 and Studio Ghibli’s collaborative project, we may have to think again.
Ni no Kuni’s beauty lies in it’s polish. It doesn’t ever try too hard to innovate, but what it does, it does well. Nearly every gameplay aspect is a reinvention of something you will have likely seen before within the genre, but Ni no Kuni doesn’t ever profess to be doing things differently. Instead, Ni no Kuni takes the best of the pre-existing formulas and makes them that little bit better. As a package, it works brilliantly.
Visually, this game is simply stunning. For bothGhibli fans and newcomers alike, the world is a joy to explore. Every environment is lovingly crafted, and the character’s movements feel real due to the attention to detail of the animation. The merging of cell-shaded 3D gameplay with Ghibli’s gorgeous 2D animated cut-scenes is fluid and natural; we can only lament that these cinematic, Ghibli-esque moments don’t appear quite as often as we’d like, with most story interactions taking place in-engine.
Equally, the orchestral score behind this game compliments, creating a true sense of grandness. This is especially noticeable in the world map, where the impressive audio scale enhances the vastness of young Oliver’s surroundings. The music definitely cultivates certain feelings of adventure that the script alone can’t express, adding an extra dimension to the gameplay experience.
For all of this game’s content, perhaps it doesn’t come as a particularly big surprise that not every story central interaction is voiced. This does however, come as something of a disappointment, when the game features such a lively and eclectic voice cast, and massive localisation expense is evident. Despite the stellar dialectal based scripting, for every cutscene that goes unvoiced there is a small sense of the immersion being lost.
The plot itself is, of course, is a typical JRPG affair. Without giving too much away, a tragedy leads to main character Oliver’s life being turned upside down as he embarks on an adventure into another world in the hopes of saving a loved one. So far so generic, however the implementation is where this game shines, especially in how well the game avoids leaning on the standard character tropes of the JRPG. The interludes of Welsh-dialect speaking tear-fairy Drippy, who accompanies you on your quest, inject a dose of humour which is most definitely one of the more stand-out factors.
As far as the gameplay goes, you’ll quickly find yourself falling into the familiar realms of the town-dungeon-town formula, interspersed by battles against the locals. However, there is a new side-quest mechanic to be mentioned, which comes in the form of Oliver’s quests to save ‘broken-hearted’ civilians, often forcing him to travel between the two worlds, as well as backtracking through large areas, in order transfer ‘virtues’ from residents with too much to those with too little. Whilst conceptually this may sound an interesting approach, in practice what you’re faced with is a multitude of glorified fetch quests, which serve to artificially lengthen the game.
However, the reward system makes these interruptions somewhat more worthwhile, as character’s are able to collect merit stamps from completing side-quests which contribute towards tangible effects to the gameplay experience: rewards such as increased running speed or extra experience to be gained from monsters. In this sense, there is at least a strong motivational drive behind the side-quests completion, allowing them to appeal not just to the completionists among us.
For players who enjoy the exploration factor of RPGs, be sure to turn off mini-map markers as soon as you can, as these dilute the sense of mystery in your surroundings. Whilst the game is big, and there is much to see and do, its a shame that there is really not much to explore outside of the main quest-line. This to an extent makes travelling the world map lose a little of the adventuring quality, with the player always knowing that they won’t be discovering anywhere new on there own: access to locations only being allowed when the plot wants you to be there. At times, this can feel a bit too streamlined.
The battle system draws upon a range of recent JRPG entry contributions, the most evident being Dragon Quest, Pokemon and Final Fantasy XII. It features turn-based actions whilst allowing the player to move their character in real-time. This system allows boss-battles to include elements of strategy in the form of attack planning, positioning, and also sometimes exploiting enemies weak-spot locations. Not too far into the game, you are tasked with collecting Pokemon-like creatures called familars, which you are able to enhance via feeding them treats, leveling up and ‘metamorphasising’ them to form new creatures.
One of the largest failings of the battle systems has to be the very weak AI. Many times, especially within the earlier hours of the game, I found my party let down in battle by the incompetence of an assigned healer. Players will often find that if ever a specific battle action is imperative, switching characters and performing the task manually is your safest option. This is quite a large fault with the system, as it reduces strategising elements significantly when you’re consistently finding your reasonably levelled companions unable to survive without constant aid.
Furthermore, the focus on grinding is unavoidable to an extent, as there are sharp difficulty curves to be found for player’s who renounce the grindfest. Bosses however, often display certain weaknesses which allow even under-levelled players a chance of victory; its a shame the game insists on having Drippy hold you by the hand in discovering these weaknesses, as surely part of the fun to be had lies in deciphering them for yourself. Luckily, the sheer depth and breadth of the Familiar system, for which the game must be praised, means there is a lot of fun to be had in the battles, even if flaws are evident.
Ni no Kuni is a work of art, and for existing Ghibli fans this eagerly awaited departure will likely tick the right boxes with its beauty and attention-to-detail. However, for the JRPG old-timers as well as those tired of the established formula, the games more glaring faults are difficult to ignore, with the battle system especially, leading to frustrations which may put off some of the less dedicated, and the heavy grinding investment deterring many new to the genre.
Don’t play this game if you’re a JRPG cynic, as this isn’t going to be the innovative revival you’re hoping for. This game won’t bring much new to the table, and if you haven’t enjoyed many Japanese games in the past, this won’t be the game to change your mind. However, what Ni No Kuni does remind you, with it’s exquisite fantasy landscapes and lovable, emotive cast, is that perhaps there is still much to love within the JRPG formula, when employed correctly. Perhaps this game may even be the one to remind developers looking to innovate that not all current elements need be forgotten. Either way, Ni no Kuni is a game which demands to be noticed: and for this reason, perhaps the JRPG is not quite dead yet.