I have been a long time fan of Studio Ghibli and own several of their movies including Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro, Whisperer of the Heart, and The Cat Returns. When I heard about them developing an RPG, I was sold right then and there. Their memorable tales often feature children as the main character, and Ni No Kuni is no exception. You play as Oliver, a young boy whose mother has a weak heart. In an effort to save her, he travels to another world with his faerie friend, Drippy.
Faeries in this game don’t have wings, graceful figures, or any manners to speak of. They’re funny looking and speak with Welsh accents. They’re also short tempered and use the word “flippin” every time they open up their mouths. One example is when Drippy casts magic he says “Abra ca-flippin dabera!”.
Drippy is entertaining, as sidekicks typically are, since his purpose is more about lifting the player's spirits and giving out useful information than fighting. Oliver and his familiar, Mitey, will be doing most of the battles. Later in the game you’ll get some friends and their familiars to help out as well. Each person can have up to three familiars at their beck and call.
Each character (or familiar) has different attributes including attack, defense, evasion, and stamina. When a familiar runs out of stamina, you’ll have to call them back or send out another. After winning a battle you’ll earn money and experience; if you’re lucky you may score some dropped loot. When a character levels up, their stats will adjust automatically. You can manually boost a familiar’s stats by feeding it sweets. With enough love and experience, they can evolve into more powerful versions. Unfortunately this resets their level back to one, but it doesn’t take long to fix that.
Familiars are unique and are limited to equipping specific types of weapons and armor. You can buy swords, axes, shields, helmets, and charms in town. Better equipment can be earned by completing quests. The most common type of quest is where Oliver must help the broken-hearted by collecting and restoring various traits like love, kindness, faith, courage, boldness, and restraint.
Some of the quests are jokingly repetitive, especially the one where a guy habitually loses his diary and asks you to find it yet again. You’ll also come across a snobby scientist named Derwin who asks you to collect specimens of monsters/familiars for his research. Chances are that you’ll catch more than you can carry. Luckily each town and major area has a retreat where you can drop off up to four hundred unneeded familiars.
As you can imagine, some familiars are better than others. There are some exotic familiars that can be won in coliseum battles or by cashing in at the casino. I never bothered getting the rare ones. When it comes to using familiars, they each have strengths and weaknesses, and having variety is key to winning battles against bosses.
Most enemies have a weakness, so if you’re fighting in an ice cave make sure you’re packing familiars armed with fire spells. Having a healing familiar in your group is pretty handy too. You can have up to three human members in your party (Drippy does not count), and you can assign them roles, order them to go all out, or to not use magic. Two other useful features are the "All Out Attack!" and "All Out Defense!" options. Usually enemies and bosses have a glow around them when they are about to unleash a powerful attack. When you see that happening, it’s a good time to get your defenses up. The AI works pretty well and I typically played as Oliver in battles with an occasional switch to Swaine (a thief) to steal loot from enemies.
The boss battles are grueling, but you’ll get to see a lot of eye candy when it comes to the magic spells they cast on you, and vice versa. While bosses are intimidating, they usually have a weakness. Their attacks are not to be underestimated, and they will take away a good chunk of your health. Replenishing your health with food items can save you both time and mana. Magic points are like gold in this game, you can never have too much. The good spells can cost between 30-50 magic points to cast. Caffeinated beverages like coffee, espressos, and cappuccinos can restore your mana points. While buying these items can be expensive, you can use alchemy to make your own. It pays to talk to all of the townsfolk as you may get some free recipes. Not only can you craft your own food, but you can create weapons this way as well.
The caves, towns, and continents are beautifully rendered and look no different than a Studio Ghibli anime. Ni No Kuni does not feel like a game; it’s more like an interactive anime adventure. The characters are likeable and their conversations are fun to read. It’s a shame that the voice acting is limited to major story events.
Musically, this game is top notch. Joe Hisaishi composed the music for this game and for many Studio Ghibli’s films. I’m considering buying the soundtrack for it when it comes out later this year.
Even though my kids enjoyed the music and colorful animation, I’m not going to let them play this game for a couple more years. While most of the uses of "d*mmit" are text, there are some audible instances of it as well. I like how this game promotes the importance of family, but repairing a hurting family gets a little deeper and darker than I expected. One of the families I restored involved fighting off a demon/nightmare that was oppressing an abusive husband/father. This isn’t exactly G-rated movie material.
Like many Japanese animes, you’ll find spiritual references everywhere. This story revolves around traveling back and forth between two worlds linked spiritually. Oftentimes a person can be cured by traveling to the other world and helping their soul mate. Soul mates are bound to each other between worlds, and spiritual oppression affecting one can also impact the other. Magic and the use of familiars is pretty much unavoidable.
If you are not fazed by the magic or spiritualism, you’ll enjoy this tale of a little boy who saves the world with the help of his friends. With the high quality visuals, music and story, Ni No Kuni is easily one of the best games available for the PlayStation 3. It’s a must play for any Studio Ghibli fan. But just like some of their movies, the spiritual content may not be suitable for everyone.