The identity and actual definition of the role-playing game genre has changed a lot since I first became acquainted with them in the 90s. This definition has been extremely broadened, and many games have strayed from any hardline characteristics that were more or less pre-ordained for many years. The genre has greatly expanded due in part to games like Mass Effect and Borderlands, whose developers opted to borrow from RPGs and JRPGs alike rather than conforming to any pre-conceived notion of what these games should be. There has been a noticeable rift between newer RPGs and those that are considered to be more classical in their structure.
Ni no Kuni is definitely a combo-breaker in that regard; the game has a lot in common with some of the much older RPGs, and in the midst of the genre’s current climate, it could be a very refreshing title. The game was being developed by Level-5 in conjunction with Studio Ghibli. The original Japanese version was released almost two years ago on November 17th, 2010. A Japan-only DS version was released a year prior on December 9th, 2010.
Level-5 has become known for producing a plethora of games in a variety of genres and platforms, most recently the Professor Layton and White Knight Chronicles series. Studio Ghibli is a film studio known for such hits as Spirited Away (2001) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). This version of Ni No Kuni – subtitled, Wrath of the White Witch – was developed solely for the PlayStation 3 and, after two years, is finally being localized for Western audiences.
I was able to take the reins of the main character, Oliver, for a short while. Oliver is a thirteen year-old boy who journeys into the world of Ni no Kuni in order to save the life of his mother, who became recently deceased in the real world. Many of the game’s overarching themes revolve around journey, hope, and the enduring soul.
The chapter in which I played took place about one third into the game’s main story. The environments and characters are rendered in a style reminiscent of the aforementioned Studio Ghibli films, to the point where it might even feel like the gamer has been thrust into a cinematic experience. Traversing the forest was a matter of running through a small variety of different paths, all of which in a way lead to the same endgame: a boss battle. This linear design, with roaming monsters, was much akin to certain characteristics of Final Fantasy X and XII.
While I was not able to get a real feel for the story, I was able to try my hand at the battle system more than once. Oliver has a lot in common with a magic-specializing mage character, able to cast both offensive and defensive spells, in addition to cures. Oliver is able to run around the battlefield while simultaneously picking up green and blue orbs that restore his magic and health points, respectively. Do not worry, you will not have to scramble to get into your spellbook in the heat of the battle. The game will slow time down to the point where it is almost frozen, so that spells and other abilities become easily accessible in the heat of battle. Other abilities aside from magic include different stances, one of which is where Oliver will take a defensive posture, negating a ton of damage from otherwise devastating attacks.
Calling a companion into battle is the game’s other major ability. These companions are known as ‘familiars.’ They serve to augment battles by adding abilities and combat skills that Oliver is otherwise lacking or simply doesn’t have. The familiar that I used in my battles had a lot in common with a knight-type character. Oliver meets a number of different familiars throughout the game, presumably many of which have different talents. There is the potential for a wide range of party setups and strategies if the bestiary is deep enough, a la Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Overall, the game looks to be a very refreshing experience for those yearning for an RPG that is in line with more classical Japanese RPGs that we were familiar with back in “the day.” The story also appeared like it could be very accessible by Western audiences, it reminded me a lot of The NeverEnding Story (1984) – the Konami employee that was playing through the demo with me enthusiastically agreed.