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Ni No Kuni takes JRPGs back to the familiar

Thursday, 17 January 2013 21:32 GMT By John Robertson

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch succeeds in championing a genre all too often derided. John Robertson remembers why JRPGs are the once and future king of single-player gaming.

Ni No Kuni is not only one of the finest JRPGs of this century, it’s one of the best games of this century. A wonderful and enthralling example of why this is a genre still worthy of attention and respect.

The Japanese role-playing game is dying in the face of Western efforts. Western RPGs allow more exploration. Western RPGs allow greater diversity of battle tactics. Western RPGs allow you to interact and alter the course of the story. Western RPGs feature online elements that widen and deepen the experience. The Japanese role-playing game is dying.

Or so they say.

For sure, the Japanese videogame industry’s continuing identity crisis – coupled with enormously high production costs – has in recent years resulted in genre efforts that are mere shadows of the glorious epics of the nineties. The likes of Tales of Graces and Eternal Sonata aside, there has been little to get excited about in way of JRPGs since the onset of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era.

What’s the saying, though? Class is permanent, form is temporary? We could well have ourselves a case in point.

Hyperbolic statements leave one open to mockery and ridicule at the best of times, but here goes: Ni No Kuni is not only one of the finest JRPGs of this century, it’s one of the best games of this century. A wonderful and enthralling example of why this is a genre still worthy of attention and respect.

A collaboration between Professor Layton creators Level 5 and anime producers Studio Ghibli, Ni No Kuni’s great trick is not to attempt to rewrite the rules from scratch. Instead, it’s the way it skilfully blends various well-known elements into a single experience that makes it such a rich and diverse journey. It’s an example of how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, familiar components playing off against one another in a way that adds added weight to each action.

Those components that make Ni No Kuni such a delight are the very same ones that have been largely shunned by more popular Western RPGS such as Mass Effect, Skyrim and The Witcher. You’ll need to grind through character levels to meet the strength/skill requirements to defeat certain bosses, a Final Fantasy VII-type world map system provides an exact sense of scale to the world and potential exploration and there is no means whatsoever of altering the course of the narrative. Because of this, Ni No Kuni can feel outdated at times. Outdated, but never outplayed or dull.

Each of these elements that have, to some, become dirty design ideas have been implemented with a clarity of purpose that demonstrates how much they still have to give. Take the grind. Usually as attractive and varied as counting Fiats on the motorway, grinding here is given extra life thanks to the ‘Familiar’ collecting system. Almost a wholesale copy of the core pillar of the Pokemon series, every enemy (excluding bosses) can be caught, added to your squad and used in the game’s turn based battles.

Battles are no longer about simply achieving the next level, they’re about satisfying every geek’s desire to collect for the sake of collecting. Stamps did it, football stickers did it, now Pokemon Familiars have done it.

The way Familiars work in battle also feels nostalgic but fresh. Each of your three squad members is able to take three Familiars with them into battle, although only one is eligible on the field at a time. You’re able to swap them in and out as and when you like, a mechanic that is vital to success because of each one’s unique abilities and the fact that they all share the same health and magic points. Therefore, it’s no good keeping your melee expert active when you’re on the verge of death and your healing expert is not going to be much use when you’re out of magic points.

One of the best examples of cel-shaded
visuals you’ve ever seen.

Each Familiar really does tend to be very specialised which, combined with the shared health, prevents them from feeling like a rounded fighter in their own right. Your chosen team of three is the single fighter, a fighter that you can meld and forge into something that feels right by getting out in the world and capturing complimentary Familiars.

That level of forced unity is what elevates the system above what’s on offer in Pokemon and it’s one of the components that keeps you coming back for more; no matter how good your team is, there’s always the possibility that it could be better.

Like Tales of Graces, you’re only in control of one of your three team members at a time. The other two are controlled by the AI, which does a commendable job of interpreting the situation and acting accordingly. However, you’re able to switch between characters and their Familiars whenever you like which prevents you having to deploy the same moves over and again. It’s the best of both worlds, you get the clarity of thought that comes with controlling a single character as well as the option of switching it up whenever you like.

The fact that Ni No Kuni is a strictly authored story lets you concentrate on these matters of strategy as a priority, rather than constantly worrying about whether you’re selecting the ‘right’ narrative options for the kind of outcome that you want. Plots that allow you to control the outcome (or, at least, serve up that illusion) are an interesting study in player participation, but there can be no substitute for actually sitting down and being told a story.

Ni No Kuni can feel outdated at times. Outdated, but never outplayed or dull. In the right hands, seemingly archaic genres and mechanics can still work on the big stage.

Like many Japanese RPGs, Ni No Kuni tells a tale that embellishes the same old themes of growing up, friendship, loyalty and self-sacrifice but it’s presented in such a way that makes it more charm than cliché. Protagonist Oliver, a thirteen year-old boy on a journey to save his mother, is every bit a character from a Studio Ghibli movie – fiercely ideological and naive, yet brave and smart enough to make it okay for you to like him. Offset that with the crackpot sidekick Mr Drippy and his two other travelling companions (a rogue thief and a feisty teenage girl) and you’ve got all the elements for a family-friendly story that it’s okay for adults to enjoy.

Wrap this up in packaging that features one of the best examples of cel-shaded visuals you’ve ever seen and Ni No Kuni is a real gem. It’s also proof that, when in the right hands, seemingly archaic genres and mechanics can still work on the big stage.

The mix of different elements means that there’s going to be something that draws you in before you get caught up in what else is on offer. For me, the Familiar system and the visuals were the hooks I needed. For you, it might be the sheer scale of the game, the cheerfully sinister narrative or the flexibility of the battle system.

Whatever the case, it’s nice to have a JRPG worth getting hot under the collar about again. Class, it seems, really is permanent.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch releases on January 22 in the US and February 1 in Europe, exclusively for PlayStation 3.

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36 Comments

  1. Elven_Star

    Great piece. I hope we see more true JRPGs like this. Sadly, I won’t be able to play it though. Don’t have a PS3 :/

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Ireland Michael

    I think the problem with many JRPGs is that they flew so far away from the fundamentals of the genre that they ended up forgetting the charm that made them so appealing in the first place.

    I think “archaic” is the wrong choice of words in this instance. “Traditional” is closer to the mark.

    For example, the process of storytelling in literature has been refined immensely over the centuries, to the point that certain rules are accepted as things that you simply *have* to do to tell a good story.

    I think the same is true of video games, and I think Ni No Kuni is a perfect example of how certain things just “work” to make the final product better, no matter how old or “archaic” the method of design may be.

    I think JRPGs in general could learn a lot from this games, instead of constantly throwing countless overwhelming extras into the mix of their game design all the time. I strongly believe that’s where a lot of the modern JRPGa have gone most wrong.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Telepathic.Geometry

    The problem with this game was that it held your hand too much and pretty much told you where to go mid-puzzle. I hate that shit. Might be that it was designed for kids or something, but still… It is lovely though.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. moobs007

    Great read.

    Nice to see someone sticking up for this genre. It’s true that it has fallen by the wayside with this generation. Hopefully Ni No Kuni does well enough to convince people to caring on making JRPGs.

    I really hope they don’t die out.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Ashlen

    @3 I’ve been told you can turn off the help in the options.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. Telepathic.Geometry

    @5: Ah cheers, I didn’t even look at the options. The next time I’m playing it, I’ll try to kill the hints. :)

    #6 2 years ago
  7. Clupula

    I cannot wait for this game. I tried not to play too much of the demo, so as not to ruin the feeling of adventure for myself. Very excited for it.

    “The likes of Tales of Graces and Eternal Sonata aside, there has been little to get excited about in way of JRPGs since the onset of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era.”

    I do have to say that I totally don’t get the love Eternal Sonata gets. That game was such a chore to play through, it wasn’t even funny.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. monkeygourmet

    What PS3 is all about, kick ass exclusives!

    Can’t wait! :)

    #8 2 years ago
  9. Brenna Hillier

    I feel like JRPGs get a lot of unfair flack. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in Japanese development but most of us only see the big budget stuff that gets localised. It’s like judging the entire western shooter space on Call of Duty and Medal of Honor – highly formulaic, because that’s what triple-A development is at the moment.

    So yeah, it’s really good to see one that makes people remember the genre has a lot to offer, even when it makes no bones about just doing it old school style.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. Ireland Michael

    @9 Well said.

    Then genre is undeniably nowhere near as strong as it used to be, but I could still easily list off a dozen JPGs this generation that are any avid gamer would do well to own. Lost Odyssey, Dragon Quest IX, Tales of Vesperia, Xenoblade Chronicles…

    #10 2 years ago
  11. YoungZer0

    The only JRPG’s that still work for me are the Shin Megami Tensei Games.

    Person 3 and 4 are fantastic examples of JRPG’s done right: something new and different. The mix of rpg elements + social interaction is superb. Combat is just as fun as meeting people and hanging out with them. The game is very well written/translated. All the characters have a lot of depth and the game even tackles issues like sexuality and identity crises. The persona design is definitely unique and the whole series is very charming. Seriously if you haven’t played it yet, what the fuck are you waiting for? It’s one of the best series out there.

    You usually don’t get something like this in other JRPG’s. It’s still the same old, same old. Shallow “funny” young main character, shallow unfunny female character, racial stereotype character, cute underage girl with annoying voice/personality, broody, silent character with dark past, animal/animal-human hybrid character silent/or funny, some fanservice character with huge godongos.

    Shallow unfunny main character has self-esteem issues and tries to save the world while at the same time conquers the shallow unfunny female character through shallow uninteresting romantic dialogs. Shallow and unfunny.

    Can someone please tell me of a game that doesn’t fit that boring blueprint?

    It has to be for either PC or PS3, otherwise i can’t play it. Heard a lot of good positive things about Lost Odyssey, but it’s 360 only.

    Recently bought Folklore, interesting game, very charming design, but the gameplay is fucking boring. Get to new place, beat enemies, absorb enemies, fight boss with new types of absorbed enemies, get to new place, beat enemies, absorb enemies, yadayada. It lacks a lot of depth. Soundtrack’s beautiful though.

    #11 2 years ago
  12. orakaa

    Ah Lost Odyssey… managed to play it before my 360 died (RROD). Didn’t buy a new one and sticked to my PS3 since.

    I don’t understand why Lost Odyssey was so heavily bashed by game press/reviewers, especially since the game was truly brilliant. Classic and traditional (as in a perfected, shinier JRPG in the likes of Final Fantasy VI) but brilliantly executed.

    I almost missed it (as most reviews I read seemed to be disappointed with the game) and finally got it several months later. Oh boy, what a ride: I enjoyed almost as much as FF VI on SNES (and that’s an outstanding compliment, for me).

    I sold my Wii before The Last Story and Xenoblade were released but I’d be interested in getting a WiiU ONLY (so far) to be able to play those games (and also because Sakaguchi seems to be focused to develop only on Nintendo consoles and not on Sony/microsoft platforms)

    #12 2 years ago
  13. Ireland Michael

    @12 Unfortunately, there aren’t many great exclusive JRPGs on the PS3.

    There are two I’m personally quite fond of – Disgaea 3 and Valkyria Chronicles – but they’re acquired tastes. I would suggest researching them before playing them, see if they’re the kind of thing you’d be into.

    The best ones are honestly on the other format. Xenoblade Chronicles is easily my JRPG of this gen. The PS3 version of Vesperia never released in the west, which is honestly tragic.

    Here’s a little secret. The PSP is practically goldmine of great, traditional JRPGs. You can pick up one of those nowadays for less than a hundred, and many of the games sell for pennies. Even on the PlayStation Store, most of them are incredibly cheap now.

    #13 2 years ago
  14. killersense

    ^Jeanne d’arc for example :P

    man valkyria chronicles was sooo good i wish they made another one for a home console or even vita at this point or at the least valkyria 3 localized. .

    #14 2 years ago
  15. Unlimax

    One of the Best and Depth JRPG in the Japanese industry to date .

    #15 2 years ago
  16. Mike W

    excellent read :D

    #16 2 years ago
  17. Clupula

    I dunno. I’ve played some great JRPG’s on the PS3. Valkyria Chronicles, Disgaea 3 & 4, the Atelier games (especially Totori), the Yakuza games (which are RPG’s, just with a beat-em-up fighting system…but they even have random battles, for crissakes), and Tales of Graces F, which is criminally underrated. I also am probably the only person on Earth who liked White Knight Chronicles (and Star Ocean: The Last Hope International).

    It’s nowhere near the JRPG machine that the PS2 was, but it has some really cool exclusives in the genre. Then there’s the multiplatform stuff like Resonance of Fate, Nier, FFXIII-2, and the aforementioned Star Ocean, which I understand only I like.

    But Eternal Sonata sucked. I’m sorry…

    #17 2 years ago
  18. lexph3re

    what about the hyper dimensia neptunia series mk1-3? Last Rebellion? Trinity Universe? Mugen Souls? Cross Edge? Tales of Graces F? Trinity souls of zill o?Soon Tales of Xillia.

    White Knight Chronicles 2 is cool will finish it one day. And now ni no kuni I don’t think ps3 is starving on the jrpg front. Just most people don’t want to plah half the ones i named

    #18 2 years ago
  19. Ireland Michael

    @19 Bar Tales or Graces, most of those are incredibly average. They’re also near inpenentrable to anyone who isn’t already heavily immersed in the genre, which is just bad game design.

    Only play Hyper Dimensia Neptunia if you’re willing to accept to yourself that you’re a raging pervert.

    #19 2 years ago
  20. lexph3re

    You can enjoy games without telling yourself your a pervert for playing it you know. And I wouldn’t say its hard to get into tales games at all. I have a gaming group i created a while back and over half of them never played a tales game since then I have been circulating my copy of graces f and everyone thats played it loved it. Now its no Phantasia but the well defined battle system and gameplay is more then enough to cover any story flaws that might arise to some.

    They’re typically very enjoyable games.

    #20 2 years ago
  21. Ireland Michael

    @21 Tales games are the exception. I said so in my post. Those have always been exceptionally good games.

    Hyper Dimensional Neptunia though… yeah, I’m sorry, but playing that game makes me feel like a really creepy pervert. It’s not the sort of thing I want to be staring on my 42′ inch HDTV… heck, it’s not the sort of thing I want to be staring at full stop.

    #21 2 years ago
  22. Dragon246

    @22
    Look man, generalizations aren’t good. Same could be said for Shooter players who are killer maniacs. Now does that sound good? NO!
    If you don’t like a game, fine. But castrasizing others for liking is not fair.

    #22 2 years ago
  23. Ireland Michael

    @23 Yup, clearly not created for perving: http://fc04.deviantart.net/fs70/f/2011/347/3/9/hyperdimension_neptunia_wallpaper_2012_by_f12ostii-d4inqoj.jpg

    The entire franchise is a poster child for the creep factor that permeates the vast majority of anime and manga. It’s juvenile wank fantasising for dirty old men, and little else.

    #23 2 years ago
  24. YoungZer0

    @13: Oh, right! I think I’ll go with Valkyria Chronicles! Was never too fond of Disgea’s artstyle. Which is also something i should’ve mentioned.

    It seriously doesn’t help that so many JRPG’s look the same. Heavily anime inspired characters with stupid clothes. I really liked the design in Resonance of Fate, but there was an insane amount of grinding in place and i lost interest pretty soon. Combat was fun though.

    I shouldn’t have sold it. :/

    Maybe i will read some reviews for White Knight Chronicles, as it doesn’t seem too look as bad as the other games.

    I never understood why Sci-Fi RPG’s like Star Ocean, don’t really look like Sci-Fi Games period. They all seem to follow the Phantasy Star Online Art-Direction. Has none of them played games like Mass Effect or hell even Zone of the Ender 2? That game had a nice art-direction.

    And yes, Hyper Dimensional Neptunia combines a lot of the things wrong with Japanese Videogames. This game seems to have been made for dirty, old, pedo men.

    #24 2 years ago
  25. Digital Bamboo

    So glad that Ni No Kuni appears to have turned out amazingly good, if this and the majority of 90%+ reviews are anything to go by.

    Debating whether or not to play the demo I downloaded, or wait unitl I get the real deal. I rarely purchase games new, but I may have to make an exception for such a unique title, if only to show my support and hope that they are encouraged to make another game like this in the future.

    As far as PS3 JRPG’s go, I’ve only played Eternal Sonata, Nier & Valkyria Chronicles thus far, & VC was easily the best. I quite liked Nier (especially the first half), and Eternal Sonata was pretty, with a decent battle system, but the dialogue was weak & a few of the characters just annoying. ES had an interesting concept, but I’m glad I played it before the others, because it really pales in comparison.

    But yeah, PSP & DS have tons of great JRPGs. Perhaps the genre just needed a little more time to evolve & fill the bigger shoes of the next-gen systems.

    I’m pretty surprised that the Hyperdimensional Neptunia games are even released outside Japan. That style is so pervasive(perversive?) through so much of Japanese culture. In Osaka, I was slightly shocked to find that all the porno mags, dvds, and adult mangas were right out there in the open, in the basement of the bookshop, one aisle over from the video games, with 4 grown men browsing them at 11am on a Tuesday. Yeah, I was one of them, but my browsings were more out of cultural curiosity than anything. Trust me, Hyperdimensional Neptunia is tame compared to some of the shit in Japan. Never mind the ultra-pervo themed restaurants.

    #25 2 years ago
  26. polygem

    would like if we can avoid the usual fanboy calling and just have a discussion eventhough i will drop the N word in 3,2,1…

    do you guys think a wiiu port might be on the way or will this stay a sony exclusive?

    i am glad this game is coming to the west but there’s a DS ni no kuni game in japan i think, that was rumored for a western release which never happened. level 5 and nintendo are having a sussessful business relationship. a jrpg like this could shine on the wiiu with it’s game pad…

    would make sense on paper…don’t know what’s the deal here with sony though.

    #26 2 years ago
  27. Clupula

    @26 – there are pervo-themed restaurants? Tell me more.

    @19 – I really liked Trinity Universe, Cross Edge, and Neptunia MK2, but I wouldn’t recommend them to someone who isn’t super into the genre, especially since Trinity Universe and Cross Edge are crossover games that expect you to know who the characters are already.

    As for the other stuff you mentioned, the first Neptunia had one of the worst battle systems I’ve ever experienced in a JRPG. I don’t know who actually thought taking away the ability to heal except whenever the game randomly decides to do it on its own was a good idea. It was a very tedious slog, even if I thought the game industry in-jokes were funny.

    Last Rebellion, I’ve never played. Mugen Souls I refused to buy because of the censorship. And Trinity: Souls of Zillo’s demo kinda turned me off to it. It seemed very poorly put together.

    I’m actually surprised you didn’t mention Ar Tonelico Qoga, which I loved, but I don’t think you can really fully enjoy if you haven’t played the first two Ar Tonelico games. Also, if ever there was a game where people would accuse you of being a pervert for liking, I’d say it was that one way more so than either of the Neptunia titles.

    #27 2 years ago
  28. Clupula

    @27 – Considering the sales of the Wii U in Japan, I doubt there’s a port coming. Dragon Quest and Monster Hunter probably aren’t going to help systems sales this time, because they’re ports of Wii titles. Dragon Quest X has already dropped down a lot on the Japanese charts and there were only 20,000 Wii U’s sold the last week, which puts it below PS3 numbers.

    Japan sees the PS3 and the portables as the place for RPG’s. There was a DS version of this game that was never localized and never will be. It’s basically an abridged version of the PS3 story. The only RPG’s the Wii got in the last three years have been first party. Considering the sales, the Wii U is probably going to be in a similar boat.

    I would not wait around for a Wii U version. You want it, get the PS3 one or if you can speak Japanese and want a simpler experience, there’s the DS version.

    #28 2 years ago
  29. Clupula

    If there’s ever going to be a port, I’d guess it’d be for 3DS or Vita, since the 3DS is the top selling system in Japan, but considering this is a game expected to sell better in the West than Japan, I’m not sure if that will ever happen either.

    #29 2 years ago
  30. polygem

    ps3 just makes most sense for a western release atm with the wiiu still in it’s launch window. i can see a port in a year or so if it’ll sell well.

    this is not a big deal but i think i will wait a while and see if something will be announced. the magic system could be awesome on a touchpad.

    #30 2 years ago
  31. Dragon246

    I think 2 platforms are enough for this game. They won’t generate any significant revenue from more platforms.

    #31 2 years ago
  32. Clupula

    @32 – Yeah, I don’t see this getting ported. It’s too old a title already.

    The big reason for the DS title not getting ported was that the game came with that big magic book in the PS3 Wizard Edition. Now, you could say that they could just make the game without, but that book is pretty much necessary to casting spells. The DS version did NOT have an in-game version of the book since there was no way they could fit it in the game. The PS3 one does. To take a poor selling DS title and then port it with a book that will add a huge expense to it would make no sense.

    #32 2 years ago
  33. polygem

    i’m just thinking the magic stuff would be great for a touchpad, be it wiiupad, 3ds or vita…but prolly unlikely, yeah.

    #33 2 years ago
  34. Digital Bamboo

    @28 Well, since you asked. While I can’t speak from personal experience, a friend of mine worked in Japan for several years, and encountered all manner of perv sub-culture imaginable.

    There are most definately pervo-themed restaurants. One he visited was called “Little Sister” in which all of the female servers (naturally dressed hyper-sexually) spoke to the patrons as if they were their older brothers, and you could pay to play little games with them like taking turns pulling teeth out of a plastic crocodile until it snapped shut.

    He also told me about some mangas so perverted that I shall refrain from detailing them for fear of being banned from this site for life.

    /end post far removed from the evidently magical Ni No Kuni.

    #34 2 years ago
  35. Da Man

    This looks like an amazing videogame aimed at successful 40 years olds with a family.

    #35 2 years ago
  36. Ireland Michael

    @36 In fact, that’s exactly what it is. Good observational skills there.

    #36 2 years ago

Comments are now closed on this article.

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