When Pokémon Red and Blue were released back in 1998 many people liked them for the core gameplay and the collectible aspect, but they had one big problem: the complete lack of any decent story or characters that created any kind of emotional connection with the player. While collecting Pokémon and sending them to do battle was fun, the game felt flat and soulless to someone like me used to JRPGs with engrossing stories and deep, complex characters.
Years passed, and I personally expected to see the franchise evolve. The core target of the first games was growing up, and I waited for Pokémon games to grow up with them. Unfortunately this never happened. The franchise remained stagnant, and despite changing colors and technically being part of the JRPG genre, the developers never bothered adding in something that could be considered an even decent plot.
Of course most of the hardcore fans didn’t care, but that decidedly pushed me away from the franchise, and while I played a few Pokémon games since, I always had to put them down in dismay after a few hours. I saw so much wasted potential that I couldn’t bear playing further.
Of course I’m sure many will feel differently, thinking that Pokémon‘s (excessive) simplicity is fun and a boon to the franchise, but I can’t help but feeling that the addictive collectible element and the balanced battles combined with a great story and actually believable characters would have created a much better game series.
Now, thirteen years later, I see a game that could finally fulfill that potential. That game isn’t developed by Game Freak, but by Level-5, and it’s called Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.
Ni No Kuni offers exactly what Pokémon offers: a lot of monsters to be captured thanks to the Imagine system, online battles and trading with other players, and a child-frendly art direction that can be liked pretty much by everyone.
On top of that, there are quite a few things that Ni No Kuni will have, but that every Pokémon game sorely lacks:
A great story: while Pokémon‘s storylines are a flat framework that could have easily been written by a fifth grader, Ni No Kuni is quite different. Don’t let yourself be tricked by the fairy tale atmosphere and style, as the game tells a deep and engrossing coming-of-age tale of courage, sacrifice and love. It most definitely hasn’t been written for kids, and if the DS version is any indication, even the most demanding gamers will be satisfied by the storytelling. The fact that the PS3 version promises to be even deeper doesn’t hurt one bit. It definitely won’t be just an excuse to fill time between capturing a monster and the next.
Likable, complex characters: Pokémon‘s characters have the depth of a mud puddle during a drought, and honestly detract a lot from the whole experience of the game. Every time I read their dry lines I feel the compelling need to rip my eyes off. I don’t even think it’s just because I’m heading towards the ranks of older gamers, since I felt exactly the same while playing Pokémon Blue when I was much younger.
Ni No Kuni characters are much different. They have the luxury of a personality and they are designed and written to enrich the story, not to be mere soulless entities walking around and offering services.
A deep and varied battle system: Pokémon‘s battle system is actually very good, no doubt about it. The problem comes after two thousand of those battles, as boredom due to lack of variation ensues. Granted, any battle system becomes boring after a while, but Ni No Kuni grants a lot more tactical options and ways to fight in addition to using imagines, ensuring that boredom will come much, much later.
Drop dead gorgeous graphics and art: many people fall in love at first sight with Ni No Kuni graphicsm and can you blame them? Behind the looks of the game there’s what’s probably the best animation studio in the world: Studio Ghibli, fathered by the animation giant Hayao Miyazaki. I shouldn’t even need to mention the long list of anime movies he directed that are almost unanimously considered classic films, as you most likely know at least a few.
The best thing about Ni No Kuni‘s amazing graphics is that there’s a lot to enjoy in the game beyond the visuals. Come for the graphics, stay for the graphics and everything else.
A dreamlike soundtrack: you may think that Level-5 could have stopped there after teaming up with one of the most prestigious animation studios in the world, but they didn’t. They went out and enrolled Joe Hisaishi for the soundtrack. Hisaishi-sensei is one of the most prominent composers in Japan, with more than a hundred movie scores in his professional history, many of which for the movies of Miyazaki himself. Finally, they put the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in Hisaishi-sensei’s capable hands, and the result couldn’t be anything else than pure poetry.
There are few things that can enrich the experience of an RPG game more than a beautiful score, and even in that department Ni No Kuni is set to deliver fully.
Don’t get me wrong: Pokémon was and still is a solid franchise with an extremely large following, but it’s also a barebones JRPG that really doesn’t do justice to the genre and to its own potential. On the other hand that potential could finally be fulfilled and amplified tenfold by Ni No Kuni, that not only offers pretty much the same features, but much, much more, and is the labor of love of a dream team of developers, animators and composers that has few equals in this industry.
I’m sure that many fans of the Pokémon franchise will feel rather outraged while reading this editorial, but in the end they are probably the ones that have the most reasons to be excited for Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Those that started with Pokémon Blue or Red like me are now grown up, but the franchise didn’t grow with them. Ni No Kuni is probably very similar to what Pokémon would be if the franchise was allowed to grow with its fans.
It took thirteen years to get there, but good things come to those who wait.