- Publisher: Namco Bandai
- Developer: Level-5
- ESRB Rating: E (Everyone)
- Genre: Role-Playing/Family
- Pros: Enchanting Visuals, Gorgeous Score, Plays Well For Kids Too
- Cons: Repetitive Battles, Static Camera Issues
Fans of Studio Ghibli would know that this game came from that studio if they saw just a minute of it. A boy is given a toy by his loving mother, who then drowns in a horrible accident. The toy comes to life (names himself Mr. Drippy and has a lantern hanging from his nose) and transports the boy to another "parallel world" where there are alternate versions of everything in this plane of existence. A normal cat in this world is a king in the other. And so on. Of course, this means our boy can be reunited with a version of his mother and maybe even save her in the real world as well. It sounds like it could be the plot for the next Ghibli film and its symmetry with the legendary animation studio is one of the best things about this enchanting experience.
There were times in "Ni No Kuni" where I didn't feel like I was playing a game, just watching a gorgeous cartoon that I was subtly pushing forward by going places and pushing a button now and then. Especially the first hour, which is heavy on exposition and low on combat, gamers looking for action will be disappointed. I found the low-key approach to actual gameplay not only charming but something that young gamers could embrace as well as older ones. In fact, "Ni No Kuni" is most likely to fall flat for the middle demographic: teens looking for something a bit more action-packed. In other words, the game rewards patient gamers. If you're not one, it probably won't win you over.
Action will be familiar to most role-playing game fans. Combat is based on a series of instructions like "Attack," "Defend," "Spells," and a series of special moves. Your character gains access to familiars over the course of the game and they actually do a lot of the fighting for you. Different familiars work better against different types of enemies and each familiar will learn new combat skills and be equipped with weapons and armor. You'll even be able to give your familiars names and feed them treats to make them happier as your quests progress. Collecting and personalizing familiars will be addictive for the generation of gamers that loves collecting different character types like those who love "Pokemon" or have convinced their parents to buy them two dozen figures for "Skylanders Giants." The game also has a clever focus on balancing emotion in the fantasy world as you take intangible elements from those who have too much -- like enthusiasm -- and give it to those who need it. What would a child who lost a parent want more than an emotionally balanced world? It's a gameplay aesthetic that enhances storytelling -- something all too rare in all types of modern video games.
Spells, combat, quests -- these are all elements familiar to role-playing games but it is the world of "Ni No Kuni" that distinguishes it from similar titles. The greatest moments of joy I found during "Ni No Kuni" were not in combat but in simply enjoying the environments, animation, and character design. Worlds like the "Whispering Waterfalls" are as beautiful as anyone who has seen "Princess Mononoke" would imagine them to be. And this is not one of those animated games in which cut scenes look beautiful but gameplay looks inert. In fact, I found the gameplay the most enchanting, as the backgrounds look even more detailed than in cut scenes and the world feels truly alive. And I would be remiss to not mention that "Ni No Kuni" is very much a kid's game. When you're trying to find a lost cat, you may long for a shooter to kill the kiddie mood. But those feelings don't last. Maybe it's just because of how thoroughly the game plays to the kid inside.