Part of my Replay series, in which I attempt to replay all of my video games and review them to see if they hold up. I am aaaaaalmost done with my 40 hour RPGs.
Describing Ni no Kuni is hard to do without referencing other media. It's part Pokemon, part Kingdom Hearts, part Harry Potter, and part Chronicles of Narnia, all wrapped up in the gorgeous animation styling of Studio Ghibli. Yet at the same time, it never quite crosses the line into genuinely great territory. Oh, it has a number of great elements going for it, but as a whole package, it leaves much to be desired.
One big problem plaguing the game is its antiquated design philosophy. As an RPG, it embraces the tedium of fetch quests a little too much. Without doing any of the even more mind-numbing side quests, it will likely take players thirty-five to forty hours to complete. Most of that time, however, will be spent on story missions that very, very slowly move the narrative forward. Every single plot point is built on the same structure: you have to go meet someone to give you a new spell, but they are broken-hearted when you get there, so you have to go do something to get something to give to them the means to become whole again, so that you can meet the next person who is broken-hearted when you get there. Rinse and repeat.
The sidequests don't fair much better. There is an enormous void of interesting quests that provide fun or add anything to the world. Some monster hunts provide a challenge from a gameplay perspective, but they wind up being rather repetitive themselves. Put simply, there is just nothing all that entertaining or engaging to do in this magical realm. Many spells are acquired, only to be used once for a single puzzle and then the game moves on without ever requiring you to do anything with it again.
All of this would be tolerable if the central gameplay were great. Unfortunately, it's also lackluster. Players build a three-person party, each character with their own set of familiars to call in to fight with them. While pre-battle setup is important, that is also the bulk of what control one has over their party members mid-battle. Certain general guidelines can be established during the heat of battle, but individual commands cannot be given. You can switch to them, but the AI can sometimes be very obtuse at best, and extremely frustrating at worst. It doesn't help either that the game is filled with cheap, game-breaking elements. For example, if you use an item or cast a spell just before an enemy casts a one, the enemy spell supersedes it. However, it still treats it like you used your action, so you will lose your item or MP, but never actually get the benefit of said item or spell. This can result in a lot of cheap and unfair deaths.
The most strange element of the game is that it is impossible to tell who it is designed for. On the one hand, there are a ton of gameplay mechanics to learn: from spellcasting to caring for familiars and evolution to item mixing. The entire game is covered in tutorials. Battles can also become challenging, particularly a number of boss fights. The complexity and depth of gameplay can make it seem like it is designed for older audiences. On the other hand, it is so straight forward and it holds your hand every step of the way. The result is that it often feels like they expect the player to be under the age of ten. Seriously, even the final bosses have a character interrupt the fight to specifically state what players should do or watch out for.
Mixed with the animation style and all-ages sense of humor, it's hard to know who this game is for. Is it for adults? Is it for children? At times, it almost feels like it is for adults with children watching them play video games. The story is fine, telling the tale of a young boy needing to overcome the grief of his mother passing. A classic hero's journey, players assume the role of young Oliver, the chosen hero destined to save the world. At its core is a touching story about the power of friends and loved ones, and their importance in overcoming emotional trauma and challenges. However, it gets so bogged down in the typical, generic RPG fetch quest nonsense that it's easy to forget any specifics of the adventure.
Even the score is a mixed bag. Technically, composer Joe Hisaishi puts forth another impressive effort. There are easily three or four memorable stand-out tracks that are resoundingly beautiful. Yet his cinematic compositions performed by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra are often used horribly out of place. The developers rely on the same tracks too much, to the point where certain moments feel ominous when it shouldn't, or things get wonky when it should be serious. It really does appear as though these tracks were built for one specific moment, but then just get repeatedly applied to many other moments regardless of whether it actually fits. On top of that, the music is often mixed too loud, with the orchestral swells drowning out dialogue.
Much of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch would be praise-worthy in another era, but for a game released in 2013, it feels incredibly dated. By no means is it a bad game, but boy does it feel every bit as long as it is, if not longer. It is a slog, often testing one's patience for tedious video game chores, while never really doing anything particularly amazing. If you want a good example of why visuals alone can't save a game, look no further than this.
REDUCTIVE RATING: Eeeeehhh....
Available On: PS3