After my Mass Effect journal, I wasn’t sure I’d be chronicling another video game playthrough again. Certainly it isn’t something I intend to do every time I pop in a video game. But I did get to thinking, there are some games I WISH I had hard record of my first experiences in. Earthbound comes to mind as one of those. I have faint memories of my first time through and some specific scenes I’ll never forget my reaction to (like finding smut and pulp fiction in the trashy house you can buy), but so much more has been lost. Yet it’s not as simple as playing the game again to get the same experience. It’s not like I don’t REMEMBER Earthbound. The first time is special, for some games.
Which brings me to Ni No Kuni. I’ve played about 4 hrs now, over three or four fairly short sessions. I was immediately struck by the game’s visual style, which is the cell shaded effect you see in games like Dragon Quest VIII or Wind Waker, but which carries all the charm of a Miyazaki film to give it a truly classic animated flavor. Joe Hisashi was even on board for this one, and his signature compositions lend a distinctly Ghibli film to everything. I somehow doubt that Miyazaki, who is getting well on in age, was involved in this project, but definitely the art style is influenced by his aesthetic. In terms of exact feel, it has that Victorian Ghibli feel, reminiscent of Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky, with a touch of Nausicaa and Mononoke here and there (but definitely leaning towards the former).
The story has been satisfying so far, with a surprisingly moving opening. There are going to be spoilers in this, so be prepared. Near the end of this post, they will come on strong. Each post I do, I’ll put the non-spoiler stuff up front and give ample warning, just in case you plan on playing the game.
And play it you should, if you are into RPGs. I mentioned Earthbound earlier, and maybe that’s because this game brings it to mind occasionally. It is a different feel from Earthbound, for sure, but certain things do bring it up, like the on screen enemies which lead to a battle screen when touched, and who can be surprised if you hit them from behind. The battle system is more reminiscent of a Tales game from that point on, though a little easier. It’s actually one of only two very small complaints I have so far: the game is a little too easy and also I wish that there was some Okami-style system built around the magic casting. The spells are runes and even are drawn with an ink-like effect that includes telling you HOW to draw them. So I was shocked to find out you just select them from a menu and the game casts them automatically. I won’t call it lame, because I’m having too much fun, but maybe a little disappointing. I hear there’s a DS iteration of the game (apparantly not the same story) and I have to believe they use the stylus to draw runes.
There’s also this incredible magic book which has just been beautifully designed and has been worked in as a non-essential yet important part of the game and story. It acts as a compendium of all the enemies you’ve faced, all the items you’ve found, and also little side stories to fill in the history of the world. The graphics make it come to life, sometimes literally, as when you view enemies and they morph from sketchy line art into the 3D model. It does feel like you’re reading a magic book at times like these and the effort is appreciated.
I also enjoy the main character and I LOVE Mr. Drippy, his bizarrely shaped fairy companion. Drippy is a far cry from Link’s Navi. He’s more like an Irish Brawler and I keep expecting him to start chugging whiskey and dropping f-bombs all over the place. The final effect is one of fairy tale bemusement. Playing as a kid has its advantages, too. There’s been so many goddamn Emo heroes in JRPGs in the last decade that I’d forgotten how fun it is to see the world through an innocent’s eyes. It also feels much more in character for a kid to take on simple tasks for villagers. I remember back in FFVII: Crisis Core, I always felt damn silly to run around a town helping people put up flyers or start a business. I was an elite soldier being used for… marketing and sales? Never felt right. Even in Mass Effect it felt silly to put saving the universe on hold to locate someone’s sister or hunt down a missing cargo. But in Ni No Kuni, when someone asks Oliver if he can help find their kids who are playing hide and go seek in the city, or help them plant a garden, it doesn’t feel wrong for him to say yes. That’s another way it feels like Earthbound to me: it was fun to play Ness because he was simply a nice kid. It’s easy to get behind that kind of character.
Now we’re going to hit some Spoilers.
Because despite the niceness of Oliver and the colorful nature of everyone, the game actually gets quite dark at times. Oliver’s mother dies within the first hour of gameplay and the scene is actually quite sad, probably because it’s so unexpected. This isn’t FFXIII, where the world is clearly grim from the start and the death of a mother feels like something that was probably going to happen anyway. No, this is a happy game, full of laughing children and bright colors. So when those children are dashed across the face with something like the death of a mother, it’s (as they would say in pokemon) super effective. I hope there’s more of this, because it’s a clever juxtaposition of styles which should serve to remind developers that it’s often more effective to be light handed with a heavy story. Ni No Kuni is surprisingly subtle, even when it’s throwing giant talking cats at you.