By mutual agreement with my wife, I get to play on computer RPG a year – although because of the birth of my son it’s actually been two years since I have. This Summer, I enjoyed Level 5’s new franchise Ni No Kuni…
Once upon a time, the Japanese RPG was the queen of the world with titles such as Final Fantasy VII setting new high water mark sales figures for videogames, and Sega betting on expensive games like Skies of Arcadia to save the Dreamcast from financial ruin. But the Golden Age of the JRPG has passed, and the genre is rapidly sliding towards niche status. With console development costs rising, JRPG sales figures are declining and massively occluded by their Western alternatives such as Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. Of the Japanese RPG franchises, only Nintendo’s Pokémon bucks the trend – and even then, its success is specifically limited to handheld devices.
With this background, it’s hardly surprising that fans of the JRPG have been keen to dub Level 5’s Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch the ‘saviour of the JRPG’, since it combines the animation skills of the world-leading Studio Ghibli and the development skills of the company who created the successful Professor Layton franchise for DS and kept the ailing Dragon Quest franchise afloat with its eighth and ninth instalments. It even rolls in Pokémon-style creature management into its heady blend of classic (but not too classic) grinding fun – indeed, one way to neatly summarize the game is to say “it’s Pokémon meets Namco’s Tales series”, all set in a charming fairy tale world. But can Ni No Kuni bring the magic back to the JRPG, or has the sun already set on the sub-genre?
Let’s start off with those places where Level 5’s game manages to go spectacularly astray…
1. Bad Japanese AI. Oddly, despite Japanese programmers being just as competent as those from elsewhere in the world, Japanese AI is notoriously awful. I suspect this is partly from a planned decision to invest more time in the game’s other subsystems and less into AI (not necessarily a mistake) and partly down to a massive cultural difference in sensibilities about the minimum bar for ally AI. Nonetheless, players of Ni No Kuni are shocked by just how bad at making tactical choices their allies really are. When enemies are so weak you can tap them with a stick to knock them down, your computer-controlled party members will fire up a super-spell that does nothing but waste their Magic Points. When a rare golden power up appears, expect your allies to pick it up with someone who can use it to do absolutely nothing useful. If you don’t invest in a little grinding, you’ll frequently find everyone that you don’t control in your party is lying around unconscious.
2. Ghibli – but Not Miyazaki. I’ve seen a lot of players complaining that the Ghibli contribution to Ni No Kuni isn’t on par with (say) Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. This is a silly complaint because although this game does sport animations by the company co-founded by the director of those films, Hayao Miyazaki, no-one ever claimed Miyazaki-san would have anything to do with the game! Ghibli’s contributions are on a par with say, The Cat Returns, which is about what should be expected. Nonetheless, there is a definite sense that there’s not enough Ghibli in this Ghibli collaboration. The game suffers from slightly weak plotting (although its no worse than every other CRPG in this respect), and emotionally it falls far short of the work of Ghibli’s other co-founder, Isao Takahata, who lacks Miyazaki-san’s visual flair but more than makes up for it in emotional depth. The reason? Level 5 are completely responsible for the story, while Studio Ghibli provided solely the animations – which are excellent throughout (although when it switches from in-game sequences to traditional animated cut scene the quality actually gets noticeably worse…).
3. Whiter-than-White. Japanese developers seem to have real difficulty shouldering ethnic diversity. One of the secondary characters in the story, Rashaad, has a middle-Eastern appearance, but his daughter, Esther – who becomes the inevitably plucky female in your party – is so white she could take up golf. Presumably the developers didn’t want the major female character to be anything but white for the purpose of appealing to a Japanese audience (who have certain expectations…) – but it really stands out that Esther and Rashaad are supposedly blood kin. I began to wonder if she was supposed to be adopted! I would have loved a little more ethnicity in the party, and the missed opportunity ends up also smelling of mild racism.
4. Japanese Puzzle Sensibility. Oh those Japanese planners (i.e. ‘game designers’)… they have a funny way of thinking about certain mechanics. Case in point are the Green chests, which one of your characters unlocks by targeting in a reticule. Trouble is, to trigger the targeting sequence you have to stand at a very specific spot – and there’s absolutely no logic behind where that spot is supposed to be. A Western game designer would have made the targeting function solicited, thus avoiding the problem, but Level 5 had other (rather crazy) ideas. There are also some rather irritating look-up puzzles – but fortunately the answers to these are readily available on the internet. Still, I can’t claim the game’s puzzle design sensibility is anything but a liability.
5. Fixed Capture Chances. Capturing monsters (known as familiars) is a big part of the game – but for inexplicable reasons, Level 5 left out an important part of the Pokémon-inspired system they are borrowing. In Nintendo’s franchise, different pokéballs affect the capture chances, and the player is also allowed a special item that’ll capture anything (although they only get one…). Yet in Ni No Kuni capture chances are at a permanently fixed rate – and nothing the player does will increase or decrease the chances of capture. (There’s an unlockable that raises all the chances by a small fraction, but it’s rather inconsequential). Now random factors are an important part of game design – hell, Minecraft would be nothing without them – but when the player needs to do something and absolutely nothing they do can increase the chance of success it inevitably leads to frustration. The only possible justification for this odd choice would be that the planners wanted to artificially inflate the game length – but even then, there were better design options than fixed rate capture chances. It rankles, and many players justifiably complain about having spent, say, two hours capturing a creature other players picked up in seconds.
6. Pokémon Crossed with Traditional RPG Combat. And speaking of GameFreak’s all-conquering twist on the JRPG format, the final worst point of Ni No Kuni is that the combat is familiarly Pokémon-esque but with a twist that creates all manner of problems. Whereas the pocket monsters form a party of individuals who work just like any CRPG party would, in this game your hit points, magic points, and status effects are all shared with your familiars (which are supposedly projected from you by way of explanation). What this means is that when your best monster is put to sleep or stunned, you can’t switch to your second best monster because she’s asleep too. Worse than this, for most of the game there are very few reasons to use anything other than your best monster – because if you swap in an underpowered beastie, your HP total is vulnerable to their low defence score, and you’ll be rendered unconscious faster than you can say ‘I wish I was playing Pokémon instead’. I found the consequent inability to experiment with new monsters very disappointing, and much of my combat experience was mechanically deploying the same creature over and over and over again…
These complaints make Ni No Kuni sound terribly unplayable – but actually, I came to absolutely love the game and most of these problems are far more cosmetic than they first seem. To understand why, you need to see what Level 5 managed to get magnificently right in this bold attempt to revitalise the JRPG formula…
1. Pokémon Crossed with Traditional RPG Combat. Wait a minute – didn’t I just say that was one of the worst things about Ni No Kuni? Well as is so often the case, the problem is as much about the prior knowledge the player brings to the table as it is about the game’s actual design. Part of the problem is that the combat and familiar-training systems initially feel extremely familiar, allowing you to pick them up very rapidly. But coming at them this way misses what is unique about the familiar system. Once you stop thinking of them as individual party members who are irritatingly denied to you when related party members are out of action, you begin to appreciate what makes the combat system work on its own terms. Need to cross the battlefield quickly? Switch out to your fastest familiar – then switch to the best combat option when you arrive in position. Enemies launching a devastating attack? Switch in your ‘tank’ and Defend – or if you’re timing skills are good enough, switch in an agile familiar and Evade. The setup has all the emotional engagement of any creature trainer but with a highly kinetic punctuated real time battle engine to fully enjoy them in.
2. Perfect Overworld. As someone who loves exploration games, the overworld is an important part of my enjoyment of any JRPG. Taking full advantage of the PS3’s excellent draw distance, Ni No Kuni offers a beautiful world to explore – and releases four methods of travel throughout the game at a pace slightly faster than would normally be expected in a Japanese design. It really helps that the world is littered with foraging spots that produce alchemical ingredients every 10-60 minutes, giving you strong reasons to dash about the map farming items as soon as you are sufficiently mobile.
3. Enemies Run Away. Speaking of the overworld, Ni No Kuni adds something simple to the Japanese formula that really adds to the fun of levelling up: enemy monsters run away from you when you are stronger than they are. It’s possible another JRPG beat them to the punch, but this is certainly the first one I’ve seen to do this – and it really works! Not only do you not have to worry about fighting the chaff when you’re high level, but there’s a real sense of accomplishment and power when you see the big guys doing a runner as you appear on the scene. Level 5 even use it to add challenge, since sometimes you want to capture a monster that is scared of you, requiring a tactical approach (and for players who find it frustrating, a later spell makes it easy). It all adds to the joys of Ni No Kuni’s excellent overworld.
4. Side Quests Matter. Although the side quest design is frequently weak (in some cases requiring you to walk ten yards to talk to a neighbouring NPC then walk back), all the side quests are joined together into an entirely separate reward schedule, Merit Stamp Cards, that unlock unique bonuses. Most of these are quite small things, but several are highly rewarding to acquire. Whereas most CRPGs suffer from meaningless side quests, Ni No Kuni invites players to spend as much time on these as the main story – and benefits from it.
5. Reference Guide Included. I’m a long time advocate of including as much reference content as possible in games. It used to be that we’d get chunky manuals for this purpose, but these days you’re supposed to pay half the price again for a Prima Guide instead. Ni No Kuni, however, includes a reference guide in its menu options – the Wizard’s Companion – including fairly complete descriptions of all the familiars, spells, equipment, and alchemic items. Not to mention maps of the overworld that show you where secrets are hidden. It unlocks as you progress in the game, and I found myself really enjoying access to useful information somewhere other than GameFAQs for once.
6. Polish. Finally, the thing that Ni No Kuni has that most contemporary JRPGs lack is production values. This is a seriously classy game throughout, with almost every aspect of the interface and structure put together thoughtfully. It’s the little touches that make a difference – like not only being able to skip cut scenes from the pause menu, but also being able to skip talking heads click-through-dialogue sections as well. This is far from standard in JRPGs, but I hope it becomes so! Add to this a beautiful score performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic, the wonderful Ghibli art design, and an excellent localisation job by stalwart translators Babel and you’re left with a JRPG Level 5 and Sony can be justifiably proud of.
Alas, Ni No Kuni will not reverse the ailing fortunes of the JRPG because the rising cost of development means the US market is now the core of the commercial fortunes of console games, and the illusion of freedom and agency offered in the Western CRPG has far greater appeal there. The JRPG, by comparison, requires patience, at at times asks the player for some intelligence. These are not qualities the mass market seeks. For the fan of lavish JRPGs of the kind that typified the late 1990s and the early 2000s, however, Ni No Kuni is a real treat and not to be missed. It isn’t old school (it’s highly forgiving, and will only punish you if you ask for it), but it builds upon everything that is great in the JRPG formula and finds an interesting new way to remount the Pokémon formula. This will certainly not convert those who hate the games it descends from, but for those players who already appreciate its pedigree, and enjoy (or can tolerate) a fairy tale world rather than a gritty fantasy setting, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a welcome rejection of the Americanisation of computer RPGs. Expect to see this on lists of favourite games for a long time to come.