Sometimes hype can be a dangerous thing, particularly for fans of Japanese video games as the hype builds and builds while western fans impatiently wait for their English translation, only to be left ultimately disappointed by any failure to match up to that hype. Let me therefore preface this review by assuring you of this - Ni no Kuni does live up its hype, and then some.
For anyone unfamiliar with the title, Ni no Kuni (which translates vaguely and poorly as "The Another World" in English) is a collaboration between developers Level-5 and Studio Ghibli, two companies which I assume require no real introduction. The result is a game with all of the artistic and story-telling sensibilities of a Ghibli film, blended with the intelligent gameplay mechanics and how to slot that story into a fun game to play which comes from Level-5's experience.
Our hero for Ni no Kuni is Oliver, a young boy who lives in a small town called Motorville with his mother. Given the name of his hometown, an obsession with cars is probably something of a given, and it's this obsession between Oliver and best friend Phil that leads to an unfortunate accident that will change the former's life forever. Suffering from the pain of an intensely personal loss, Oliver inadvertently releases a fair from a spell that has trapped it for many years - that fairy is Drippy, the so-called "Lord High Lord of the Fairies" (which I guess ranks him above Alan Sugar) who implores that Oliver travel to his world to save it from the menace of a Dark Lord.... oh, and it might just also be the solution to Oliver's problem into the bargain.
So, an initially reluctant Oliver sets off on a journey of discovery, magic and danger that will see him gain new friends, learn more about his existing ones and become ever more determined to save this strange new world into which he's been thrust.
We can't really help ourselves but to begin by talking about Ni no Kuni's visuals - the trouble is, it's hard to find an adjective that suitably describes how sumptuous and stunning they are throughout. From the very start, Motorville is a lovingly detailed 1950s-esque US town complete with cars driving the streets and a variety of shops and houses, which serves as a solid grounding for the incredible vistas that you'll find yourself immersed in once you enter Drippy's world. Has a game ever dropped my jaw as a player so many times? Probably not - such is the impression that the game's stunning landscapes thrust upon you that it actually serves almost as a gameplay mechanic in itself, leaving you desperate to explore every part of the world further in order to soak in more of the lavish visuals and to see what kind of eye-catching wonder it can throw at you next. Even when the game switches between in-game cut scenes, 3D rendered cut scenes using the same engine and those much-anticipated snatches of Studio Ghibli's traditional 2D animation, the transitions between these presentations remains relatively seamless - this speaks to the effort that both parties involved in the game have gone to in ensuring that artwork and game engine mesh in perfect harmony, complete with consistency in character movements and animation and beyond. We could dedicate an entire review to the graphics alone, but let's just leave it at this - you probably won't see a more engaging game from a visual perspective this year.
Of course, visuals are nothing without equally engaging gameplay, and here Level-5 have taken all of the core tenets of the JRPG and given them a bit of a spring clean. Ni no Kuni is meticulous about ensuring that it immerses you in its world slowly but surely - rather than dumping all of its mechanics upon you in short order, new aspects of the world and your abilities are introduced one by one. This ensures that you never feel overwhelmed and, once you realise how the game is staggering things, gives you another good reason to play on to see what is added to your box of tricks. The only risk here is that the game feels overly simplistic early on, but once you've thrown a familiar system (more on that later) and crafting abilities on top of juggling a wide range of magic, provisions, weapons and quests, you'll have more than enough to keep you busy and your brain in gear from start to finish. All of the options and opportunities at your disposal are laid out before you via clear and concise menu systems that never become baffling to use or hard to find - something which other JRPGs could take due note of.
At the centre of the game is, of course, the combat, and it's here that the game really strikes out from some of its rivals by blending elements of turn based combat, accessed via radial menus and allowing you to perform actions which are time-limited, and feeding them into a real-time battle system where you're free to move around the "arena" of each battle at will while everything rages around, only pausing when you enter particular menus (for spells or provisions, for example). It's a weird system to get to grips with at first if you're used to a strictly turn-based system, but once you've memorised the main options on the radial menu and gotten to grips with the fact that you can move around and dodge attacks in real-time the experience becomes hugely satisfying - even the most drawn-out of battles require you to be alert, precise and able to think on your feet without the luxury of long pauses to strategize in.
To further broaden the action, your party (which eventually expands to three main members) are also all capable of carrying "familiars", or creatures that can fight on your behalf. Each familiar has its own specialities, strengths and weaknesses, each one can metamorphose (evolve in other words) into a stronger beastie, and you can feed your beasties various goodies to upgrade their stats. With up to three familiars per party member and the ability to store hundreds more in a "retreat", juggling what are effectively twelve characters to optimal use becomes an enjoyable yet important part of progressing through the game.
Ni no Kuni also seems to have almost perfected the game's balance in terms of combat - every new area of the game is initially a challenge for your party without proving impossible, and you level up at what is usually just the right rate to give you a fighting chance of beating whatever sets itself before you from random encounters through to boss fights while still offering up a challenge to keep you focused. It's only towards the end of the game that this balance threatens to topple somewhat - the introduction of fast travel systems imbalance your progress and levelling somewhat, leading to occasions where you might find yourself needing to grind through levels for a while to progress.
The final piece of the combat puzzle is your companion's AI - you can control any member of your party (or their familiars) at any point in battle, at which point AI will control whoever else is engaged in combat. Thankfully, the computer proves to be pretty adept at making good use of your comrades, while some (admittedly rather limited) tactical options allow you to tweak their behaviour somewhat, complete with the introduction of "all-out attack" and "all-out defence" buttons to control your entire party's behaviour arguably later in the game than it should appear. If I had one quibble with the AI here, it's that your companions tend to be a little heavy on their magic use, throwing around like... well, fairy dust I suppose. Again, this can be tweaked via the tactics screen, but it's a fiddly process that proves repetitive when you need to set it for each encounter, making for one area where things could perhaps have been improved.
Away from the battlefield, all of the other major gameplay mechanics are hugely satisfying - we've already mentioned that exploration is made all the more enjoyable thanks to the game's visuals, but side quests and bounty hunts are fun and valuable yet not vital to progress in the game, and the game's alchemy system and familiar-related activities are also simple but perfectly crafted to feel valuable and remain fun at the same time. We should probably also mention the Wizard's Companion here - a book which ships in printed form with the game's special edition, but is also available to be unlocked piece by piece in-game as a beautiful, high resolution "codex" of the lore, spells and more of Ni no Kuni's world. If you have any doubts about how much thought and effort has gone into the game and its localisation, then a browse through the companion should quickly dispel them.
In fact, let's talk about that localisation a little more. Like many people, I usually head straight for the "Japanese audio" option in both anime and games, but a word of advice to here - don't do it. Sure, the Japanese language audio track is pretty good, but for once the English localisation surpasses it absolutely - from Drippy's Welsh accident (the clear highlight of the dub) onwards, the experience playing Ni no Kuni with English audio is easily the best and most immersive way to do so and I simply can't fault it. The same high praise can be served up towards the rest of the game - there's so much love and care put into every line of dialogue and every enemy name that it's a real sight to behold. More importantly, this care and attention achieves its goal - making you laugh with its humour or smile at its wordplay, and guiding you through a story that might not be the most incredible tale ever told but still serves as a great companion to a fantastic gaming experience.
A JRPG for everyone?
After all of that high praise, one question that you might be pondering is whether Ni no Kuni is going to attract gamers who wouldn't normally touch a JRPG with a sixty-foot pole. Unfortunately, the answer to that is simply "no" - never mind all of the complexities that come with the genre and playing a game within it, which to be fair Ni no Kuni does a manful job of streamlining, the game does contain other frustrations that only fans of the genre will stomach without a thought. Chief amongst these issues are occasions where the game feels like it's trying to pad itself out, sending you to walk across a town or area and back several times with no real benefit to either game or story - sometimes this is handled smartly by weaving it nicely into the narrative, but at others its transparently there just to increase game length. Another irritation that crops up later in the game is the length of boss fights - the "hybrid" combat system helps things somewhat, but you can find yourself fighting boss battles that going on well over half an hour (or worse, multiple battles one after another with no save points inbetween), and more importantly to the point where you know all of the enemy's strengths, weaknesses and attacks and simply have to grind away at its HP until it finally gives up the ghost and does the decent thing. Finally, the length of the animations attached to some in-game actions can be annoying - not to the extent of some other JRPGs but once you've seen them over and over again they can get irritating, while others are frustrating in other ways, such as using provisions in battle taking long enough that you can often die or take substantial damage while doing so.
These negatives are mere nicks upon the surface of a game that is delightfully polished - everything about Ni no Kuni speaks of the huge amount of thought and effort put into the game, and it shows. We could wax lyrical some more about how beautiful the game looks, how smoothly and slickly it plays, how its story (combined with those visuals) always does more than enough for you to want to complete playing, but there comes a point where you simply have to try it out for yourself to really get a feel for why Ni no Kuni is such an incredibly impressive game. "But how impressive, dear reviewer?" I hear you enquire. Well, how about I sum it up like this:
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is unequivocally the best JRPG I've ever played.