Ni no Kuni is a game with heart and flaws in almost equal measure. It blends the JRPG tradition of tedious grinding and sprawling breadth with a whimsical cast of characters that breaks away from the traditional sulky brooding party of protagonists.

Developer: Level-5, Studio Ghibli
Publisher: Namco Bandao [NA]
ESRB Rating: E10+
Released: January 22nd, 2013 [PS3; NA]
Platforms: PS3, Nintendo DS
Version Reviewed: PS3

The game starts out in Motorville – a simple rustic town full of simple rustic people – which serves as the home for the game’s hero, Oliver. From the opening moments depicting the town, rendered with Studio Ghibli’s signature animation style, the game handles its construction of tone deftly. The levity and wholesome nature of the game expedites your attachment to Oliver, and they make sure not to fall into any child-character pitfalls that could alienate players from growing fond of the character.

It’s painstakingly slow in the beginning, but I didn’t find myself slipping into boredom before the plot finally had a chance to get going. Tragedy strikes and as Oliver is grieving his doll, Drippy, springs to life and bombards Oliver and the player with exposition. The writing is handled clumsily, but Drippy’s quirky infectious charm and endless reservoir of enthusiasm sells the moment well enough.

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Oliver learns that their may be a way to reverse the tragedy that earlier befell him, and that to do so he must fulfill his destiny by becoming a wizard and liberating a vivid fantasy mirror-world full of animal dopplegangers from the evil of the White Witch and her lackey, Shadar.

The introduction of Shadar sets up one of the game’s core mechanics. Shadar has the power to leave people ‘broken-hearted’ by robbing them of virtuous traits such as courage, kindness, and enthusiasm. Oliver can restore these traits by casting spells on other individuals with an abundance of the virtue and transferring it to those in need. This often requires you to make a short journey back to Motorville to find an individual’s doppelganger. The trips back and forth are novel at first, and they serve an important function in keeping you impressed with the whimsy of the other world by juxtaposing it with Oliver’s humdrum home dimension, but they quickly become a drag on the pace of a game that would already be exceptionally long otherwise.

During Oliver’s travels the player is also introduced to two additional companions: Esther, who is primarily characterized by her optimism and little else, and Swaine, a thief whose function in the group dynamic is to play the part of the rogue. Between the two, Swaine gets the more complete character arc, but neither of them are particularly remarkable.

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In combat Oliver and his friends can handle themselves about as well as snarling puppies fending off grown rottweilers. They each have access to some unique spells and abilities, but they’re mostly around to support their familiars. Familiars are combat-oriented pets that are linked to a character’s health and magic and come in multiple varieties. Some familiars excel as spell casters while others are brutes. One familiar can remain on the battlefield for a limited amount of time before needing to recover which requires careful management of all three characters and all of their familiars.

Ni no Kuni’s battle system mixes traditional JRPG menu-based fighting with real-time movement. Attacking at the right moment acts effectively as a parry against weaker standard attacks. More devastating charged attacks have to be warded off with a cooldown-sensitive defensive command. The freedom of movement, pet management, and command system combined with combing the battlefield for restorative ‘glibs’ made the combat more involved than I initially anticipated, and with so much on-screen at a time the battles proved to be a nice chaotic shot in the arm for such a stagnant genre.

It isn’t without its flaws, though. Battles are clearly balanced around you having a full party of properly maintained familiars and all three characters at the ready, but your allies’ AI is inexcusably pathetic. Without constant babysitting they prove to be liabilities that die off immediately during more difficult boss encounters. They simply make no effort to prioritize defense.

Defense itself can also be dodgy if the enemy AI is feeling particularly ruthless. On several occasions I came up against bosses who would randomly chain cast powerful spells in such quick succession that the subsequent attacks would hit me before my defense command was available again.

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Outside of combat the main hook of the game revolves around a Pokemon-like system of taming, training, and evolving your familiars with stones that correspond to their type. There’s enough breadth in this system to give your lizard brain a good scratch. Each familiar has multiple evolutions that end in branching path, they all have their own particular taste in stat-boosting treats, and they can all be individually equipped with armor, weapons, and an arsenal of spells and abilities that unlock as the familiars level up.

It’s a fiendishly compelling system early in the game, but evolving familiars brings it to a halt faster than a Formula 1 car meeting a brick wall. My problem hinges on the fact that once you evolve a familiar it resets to level 1, wiping away all of the progress you’ve made. Of course, the evolved versions of familiars are better pound-for-pound than their unevolved counterparts, but that means time has to be sunk into training them again. The longer you wait to evolve a pet the more grinding you’re going to have to do for the evolution to be serviceable.

I can see what the developers were going for. They wanted players to carefully plan out when they would evolve which familiar so that you can have an equally strong monster waiting in the wings to step in while your newly evolved pet gains XP and levels up. The reality is that this system, admirable though its goals may be, just pads the length of the game out. Ni no Kuni asks you to weigh greater odds of long-term success against the short-term frustration of having to grind, and the sheer amount of grinding required to make that a favorable trade capsizes the pacing of the game.

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My problems with Ni no Kuni didn’t end with combat limitations or with the grinding. During the 30+ hours I spent with the game I encountered multiple freezes each of which cost me at least 30 minutes of progress. Another bug I encountered had me saving, quitting, and restarting the game to get story progression moments to trigger.

The most frustrating stretch of the game came in a later dungeon called ‘Glittering Grotto.’ Like the rest of the game, the dungeon is a feast for the eyes that betrays its underlying jankiness. I had to use a fire spell to destroy a frozen stalactite which I then could use as a temporary platform to cross a gap. I died later in the dungeon and was sent back to the entrance. I proceeded forward like I did the first time, but my stalactite had vanished. I wandered aimlessly until I finally figured out that there were illusory walls meant to act as passageways in case players got stuck in that position. Expecting stuck players to just stumble upon unprecedented fake walls to continue progressing after sending them back to the start is beyond baffling.

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I loved the arresting visuals and the whimsical world of Ni no Kuni, and I’ll give the game credit for iterating on its genre with some fresh ideas for gameplay in the overworld and its combat system. What I didn’t love was the execution of those ideas. Between the grueling pacing problems, bugs, enemy and allied AI issues, thoughtless design decisions, I walked away from the game feeling as though more time was spent putting on an extra coat of paint than an extra coat of polish.

Some genre diehards will be able to cope with the game’s flaws and come to love what’s buried beneath the muck, but I could not.

5.5 / 10

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