Ni no Kuni Spreads Two Hours of Charm Over Forty Hours «

Take an animation studio beloved the world over, and pair them up with what just might be Japan’s fastest growing game maker and publisher — it sounds perfect. Level-5 (Professor Layton, Dragon Quest IX) teamed up with Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) to create two RPGs (same name, but different platforms) that feature Pokemon like monster catching mechanics. It’s called Ni no Kuni and it sounds like an amazing game. Last year’s Ni no Kuni: The Another World failed to set the world on fire after its release in Japan despite its impressive pedigree. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a part follow-up, part remake for the PS3, and it sounds amazing, but the reality doesn’t quite live up to expectations.
If Ni no Kuni seems so amazing on paper, why am I so bored when I actually sit down to play the game? I’ve put around four hours into the Japanese version, and despite an amazing art style, wonderful voice acting, and the game featuring a charming cast of characters that really would be at home in a film by Hayao Miyazaki (Ghibli’s most famed director), the moment to moment gameplay of the game is dreadfully dull.

Ni no Kuni stars Oliver, a recently orphaned boy who discovers a magical parallel universe after his mother’s death. He’s told by Shizuku, a fairy with a lantern in his nose who talks like Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII (at least in Japanese), that he’s destined to save the parallel “Ni no Kuni” (Japanese for second country or second world) from the titular White Witch. He’s initially reluctant to save the world, but eventually agrees once he finds out that a version of his mother may be alive in the second world. The story is a bit more by-the-numbers than you’d expect from a Studio Ghibli film, which makes sense given that the animation house contributed more to the game’s art and wonderfully drawn animated sequences than the narrative.

Combat takes place in real time, but you’ll select attacks and spells from a menu like you would with any traditional, turn-based JPRG. Though you’ll only directly control one character at a time, you can move freely around the battlefield at any time. Most encounters come down to spamming the Attack button, but things get a bit more interesting during boss battles. Some enemies will unleash devastating attacks, and you’ll need to block and counter-attack at the right time in order to survive. If you take too much damage you can restore some health (and MP) by picking up glowing orbs that fall from the enemies as they take damage. If Oliver’s attacks aren’t enough to take down the enemy, you can summon a creature called an “Imagine” to take over. However, your new ally will share the same HP and MP pool. There are enough mechanics tied into the battle system (health pickups, blocking, counter-attacking, and summoning your Imagine) in order to ensure that you don’t spend most of the time staring at a static screen waiting for your next attack. However, a game keeping you busy is not the same thing as a game being interesting or fun.

The battle system presents very few interesting choices. In general, you’ll always know what you need to do in order to survive (e.g., defending before a massive attack) and if you simply do the obvious, you’ll survive. There’s nothing that requires you to balance risk over potential gain. Even the exploration sections of the game follow the same pattern. You could go off and explore the world, but at least in the early section of the game that I played, I wasn’t rewarded for my initiative. Eventually I decided it would be best to simply walk directly to the next waypoint each time.

So far Ni no Kuni isn’t bad, but it’s not particularly interesting either. No doubt many of you reading are huge fans of Studio Ghibli, and the game functions quite well as fan service. The art style is charming, the characters amusing, and the settings are fantastic in the way that only Ghibli can manage. That charm, however, is designed to get viewers through a two-hour movie — not a forty-hour game. Maybe that’s why I feel fine putting the game down so quickly already.

Both the DS and PS3 versions of Ni no Kuni are set for English release some time next year; we’ll see if Ni no Kuni does indeed simply stretch two hours of interest across forty, or if it manages to become interesting later on.


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