So we’re feeling pretty greedy right now. Level-5 and Studio Ghibli have been slaving away for nearly five years to create the most beautiful videogame ever, but what do we do as soon as we get our hands on it? Why, we wolf if down, lick the bowl clean and thrust it out demanding a second helping. It’s impossible not to want more, though. It’s delicious. Coming as it does from two creative teams at the top of their respective fields, we expect nothing less. And it’s expectations such as these that harm Ni No Kuni most of all – were it not for the near impeccible track records that cuts through gloriously in the game’s opening hours, the rest of it would shine far brighter than it does when eclipsed by that initial exciting explosion of potential.
Allow us to explain. Early on, Ni No Kuni is the Studio Ghibli show. The anime team takes centre stage, its animated sequences and artistic style lending the game a wow factor rivalled only by the Squaresoft FMV openings of old within the genre. Even the narrative could have fallen straight out of one of the studio’s movies, even though in this instance it’s Level-5 on script duty just with its pens clearly loaded with Ghibli-branded ink cartridges. The scene is set beautifully and from the tragic circumstances that see Oliver take the spotlight to the fantastical world he ends up in, everything is just… well, for want of a better word, perfect.
But as events unfold, Studio Ghibli’s direct involvement and contribution seems to wane. Its style never drains from the colourful world nor from the cast of generally likeable characters (sit down, Swaine) but as much as it still looks like a playable anime by the latter stages, it no longer feels like one. Well, not to the degree it does early on, at least. Hand-drawn sequences are extremely front-loaded – a third of them take place before you even leave Motorville for the first time – and voiced sequences slowly grow less and less frequent until you’re reading more or less everything that doesn’t bookend a boss battle. Usually, that wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal but having been spoiled by such a lavish opening, it’s hard not to develop a strange sense of entitlement and expectation, even though our logical brains know that to keep that tempo up for the entire game would most likely have bankrupted everyone involved.
And in any case, Ghibli stepping into the wings only allows Level-5 more room to demonstrate its ability. It’s hardly the most ambitious or experimental studio but it generally does what it does so well that it’s tough to complain – it’s pretty much gaming’s Jason Statham in that respect. Like Dragon Quest IX before it, Ni No Kuni deviates little from the writ-in-stone JRPG template older than most of the game’s players and probably twice as old as its target audience. But just as with its twist on the beloved Enix property, there’s just enough creativity and improvisation to make the game feel oddly fresh even though it fundamentally isn’t.
The battle system is the most obvious deviation from the line-up-and-wait-your-turn-to-hit-the-baddies standard, an action/RPG hybrid that calls to mind the largely underappreciated White Knight Chronicles games albeit with a distinct Pokemon vibe permeating the whole thing. Although human characters can participate in battle, most of the fighting is done by Familiars, cute creatures that can be caught in the wild, trained and evolved (sound familiar?) to create your tailor-made mini army. An interesting twist sees HP and MP shared between characters and their Familiars – leave an attack-oriented monster in harm’s way for too long and it’s unlikely that switching to one with healing abilities will give it time to top up the party’s life effectively, if at all.