Like The Chronicles of Narnia and Peter Pan, Ni No Kuni promises a romping adventure through far-away, cotton-candy lands, but with a snail-like pace, punishing difficulty and baffling design decisions it creates more frustration than anything else. That’s not to say those things you’ve heard aren’t true: step through the wardrobe and you’ll find a beautiful game, with weird, awe-inspiring character and environment design from the conjurers at Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke). Visually, this is a game with few equals. Plus, the British-accent-heavy voice acting is a joy, paired with a soaring Studio Ghibli score that’s perhaps the most adventurous feeling thing in the game. A simple plot ties the action together, and manages to carry enough weight to tug at your heartstrings and make you feel like a kid again.
You play as a young boy named Oliver, who lives in the idyllic American town of Motorville, circa 1950. Early on his mom dies in a freak accident, sacrificing herself for Oliver’s sake. That night, one of his tears drops on a stuffed animal—a gift from his mother—which magically comes to life. The doll, whose name is Drippy, informs Oliver (in a ridiculously endearing Welsh accent) that his home world is in trouble, assailed by evil, and Oliver is the only one capable of helping—and that he might be able to get his mother back in the process. Naturally, they are soon whisked away to this other world.
Oliver, it turns out, is a wizard. In the world of Ni No Kuni, wizards keep themselves out of the fray by employing the use of familiars—beasts which they tame and employ as combatants. A large component of the game is capturing, training and empowering your familiars. Most every enemy you fight is able to be captured and put to use in battle. They level up, gain abilities and evolve into stronger forms—giving the player an impressive amount of “characters” to choose from. That variety is expanded by branching evolutionary paths for each familiar, making for a system that you can easily get lost in.
All that sounds like the stuff that adventure is made of, tinged with Neverland and Mr. Tumnus and the like, but the game employs a slow pace that keeps it from really feeling like the downhill adventure you want it to be. This central conflict of interest infects the whole game, making you constantly wish that things would speed up more—but it never does. Yes, the world is beautiful and filled with wonder, but you slog through it so slowly that it too often feels like a chore, and unlike the fun child-quests that the game uses as inspiration.
This isn’t helped by a number of strange design decisions, which make things take longer and feel harder than is necessary. The game routinely asks you to cast spells outside of combat as you walk around the world. This is fine, and deserves credit for actually even acknowledging that characters can use magic outside of battle, but it’s detrimental given the frequency of such interactions. There is only one spell to fit any situation, and it’s usually clearly spelled out to you by the game. You just open a menu and cast it, without even an accompanying animation for payoff. This is the audio-visual equivalent of matching shapes to each other—a useless exercise that bogs the game down, with no real reward other than jumping through the hoop and moving on. The game’s also slow to add conveniences, with basic travel options—boat, fast travel, flight—being added long after you would like to have them. And even though the voice acting is largely good, it’s sparse that the game occasionally feel lifeless, especially with the lack of music that often accompanies lengthy, text-only conversations.
But one decision Ni No Kuni absolutely nails is the inclusion of an old-school overworld map. Done in the beautiful, rich art treatment found throughout the rest of the game, the map works to make the world feel large and connected, avoiding the set-piece-ism of many modern JRPGs. However, the encounter rate on the overworld is maddeningly high. Adventure, once again, is bogged down too heavily to feel right.
Central to the game is the combat system. You control one party member (and by extension familiar, which each ally can deploy only one of at a time), with the others acting off tactics you set for them. Battles happen in real-time: You select ‘Attack,’ and for the next couple of seconds your character will attack until it’s time for a new command. You’re free to move around, which has limited use beyond running away from enemies and picking up restorative drops that appear around the battlefield. Pressing L1 at any time allows you to cycle through the party member you’re controlling. It will take new players a few deaths to learn that switching between who you’re controlling in battle is the lynchpin to success. You’ve got to do it a lot, keeping in mind the circumstances you’re currently in. Do you need a tank? Someone that can evade? Should you use a ranged or melee attacker? These are life-and-death, succeed-or-fail decisions.
Combat is also very hard. You’ll die a lot, you’ll always be broke, and you’ll win many battles by the skin of your teeth. It feels like a roguelike, or a cuter Dark Souls—expect sighs of relief whenever you find a save point or item shop. This deep, difficult, menu-heavy combat is refreshing for fans of classic JRPGs, but it doesn’t feel like an adventure. There’s no childlike wonder, no thrill, no joy to be found. Ni No Kuni’s down-and-dirty combat system can hold its own against many of the genre’s best, but as part of the game’s whole, it fails to reinforce the central aesthetic.
That combat is also riddled with imprecise design. It’s difficult to move and select an attack at the same time because both of those actions require your left thumb. Attacks and abilities don’t always happen as soon as you initiate them. Cooldowns feel overly long. That makes the game harder, but seems like a cheap way to do so. Another issue: Most enemies, especially bosses, have extremely damaging abilities that you need to defend against. This involves precise timing, requiring you to pay attention to the bosses’ tells, but it’s punishingly fast. Make no mistake, a well-timed maneuver feels damn good—almost addicting—but you can’t help but think that making the window to use it a little more lenient would create a better experience and help make the game feel more like the romp it thinks it is.
These mechanical and tone shortcomings aside, Ni No Kuni is a beautiful game. The graphics need to be seen to be believed. The music hits all the right notes, evoking the appropriate emotions at the right time. The writing is simple and fable-esque, but it maintains a wonderfully quirky tone that’s easy to love. There’s an absolute abundance of puns to be read and chortled at. And almost any character you meet in the game is memorable, be it because of their bizarre visual design or their unique personality. As far as adventure goes, the visuals, music and writing hit the nail right on the head. It’s just a shame that the mechanical part of the adventure falls on its face.
Ni No Kuni is a game at war with itself. During peacetime it’s what you expect: fun, goofy, charming, occasionally painfully sad and nearly always beautiful. During combat it feels like War and Peace to the rest of the game’s Peter Pan. These halves are both fine, but they don’t lock into a single whole. The cumulative game doesn’t resonate, and the difference between the narrative and play mechanics is both jarring and off-putting, especially combined with design that gets in its own way far too frequently. This is a game you want to whisk you away from school, work and the real world in general. It does that, sometimes, in spurts. But there’s always something laborious waiting to bring you back to Earth. Even the Pevensies had to go home sometime.
Ni No Kuni was developed by Level-5 and Studio Ghibli and published by Namco Bandai. It is available for the PlayStation 3.
Adam Harshberger is a freelance writer and the founder of games blog Pixels or Death. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHarshberger.