This is Part 1 of our short series of playtests for Ni no Kuni on the Nintendo DS. Developed by Level 5 and the famed Studio Ghibli, it was released late last year in Japan, and is a turn-based role-playing game. In this article, we touch upon its story.
In Hotroit, there lives a boy named Oliver. He has a mother named Allie who loves him and a best friend named Mark who claims to be an inventor, and dreams that he will one day make the best and fastest race car ever. Oliver has a wonderful life.
And then one day, late at night, Mark invites Oliver over to test drive his new car. Excited at the opportunity, Oliver sneaks out of the house and meets Mark by the river. The two decide that Oliver goes first (on account that Mark made the seat too small and only the smaller Oliver can fit). The car zooms down the riverside, but then, it sputters out of control and crashes into the river.
Mark rushes down to help, but he twists his ankle. The one who saves Oliver is his mother, who was walking by on the bridge, searching for her son. Allie leaps in, saves Oliver from drowning, and all is well…until she comes down with a sudden mysterious pain. Within the next few days, wracked with fever and illness, she’s gone.
Filled with grief and guilt, Oliver stays cooped up in his room for a while. One day, he hugs a doll Allie had once given him and his teardrops happen to fall on it. Suddenly, it comes to life, with a lantern dangling from its long nose and a water-droplet shaped body. In an accented voice, he says his name is Shizuku, the great fairy, and he’s come to bring Oliver to “Ni no Kuni,” a world parallel to our own.
At first, Oliver refuses. His mother just died. He’s disinclined to go on any adventure even if it sounds wonderful. But then, upon seeing Allie’s picture, Shizuku exclaims, “Oh, what a coincidence, that’s the great sorceress Alicia, and she’s currently fighting the evil wizard Jabo in Ni no Kuni!” Because every person in Ichi no Kuni (the real world) has a soul counterpart in Ni no Kuni that is intricately linked, if something happens to one, the other will likely be affected, too. Oliver has to hurry over and defeat Jabo to save his mother.
Hearing this, Oliver can’t say no. So, on a quest to save his mother and to save the world, Oliver agrees to the task. Traveling along with him and Shizuku are Maru, the daughter of one of the Great Sages, and Jairo, a pickpocket who later joins your party.
The story is something you’d imagine from a children’s book. There’s just something heartwarming about a boy going up against what is probably the evilest being in the world in order to save his mother’s soul.
And after the first twenty minutes, with the sudden way Oliver lost his mother, I felt personally motivated to work towards his goal to save her.
In addition, a lot of the story revolves around fragments of people’s hearts being stolen and returning those fragments to them. The world of Ni no Kuni is fascinating. Sometimes, you’ll have to find allies among your enemies. So touched are they by Oliver’s efforts that they actually decide to help you. Other times, you’ll come across flying machines that have wings that flap like dragonflies, and a dragon carries you on his back as you sail around the world.
The entire atmosphere is supported by the art which is drawn by Studio Ghibli, known for similarly simple-yet-complex stories such as Spirited Away or Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Entire scenes in the game are animated as though in a movie, and the transition back to 3D is surprisingly smooth.
It could be the vivid, yet soft color palette, but sometimes, when I’m running through the alleyways of a town, I have to remind myself I’m not watching an anime and actually playing a game. The visuals are incredibly beautiful, even in the overworld and during battles.
Complimenting this is the music by Joe Hisaishi, with a wonderful range of pieces. Not only are all of them well-matched to the situation at hand — a drumming march at an industrial city, a light yet mysterious piece reminiscent of something from Professor Layton whenever you have a particularly hard puzzle to solve, an upbeat track that hypes you up when you take care of your little army of monsters. It’s been a while since I’ve paused a game to listen to the soundtrack. There isn’t a large selection of tracks, but you don’t usually notice it because they’re used wisely.
The sound quality of the game in general is very impressive as well. There’s not a hint of static or low quality in either the voiced lines or the soundtrack.
While the story is certainly one of the main attractions, it’s creating an atmosphere that Ni no Kuni excels in. This isn’t conveyed just through the background designs or the music and art style. It’s also incorporated into how the game plays. There are magical monsters of all sorts of shapes and sizes that are spawned from the heart and fight alongside you through your entire journey. These are befriended using songs played from a lyre during battles. During the game, you get the opportunity to draw runes onto the touchscreen to activate magic spells.
The book that comes with every copy of the game, the Magic Master, is a major part of the enjoyment too, with its complete encyclopedia of alchemic combinations, weapons and shields, bestiary, and even a whole compendium of myths from Ni no Kuni. Reading it won’t spoil your journey. In fact, it’s downright encouraged, despite the fact that part of the book isn’t even written in English or Japanese, but rather in a fictional language called Astram (there’s a translator at the end of the book).
There are very few problems I can actually pinpoint with regard to the game. One is that the number of voiced lines and animated scenes decreases towards the latter half of the experience, but that’s because you tend to spend more time on the quests and dungeons than before. Despite this, there’s still a fair amount of both, enough to pull you in like a storybook.
The other is that sometimes using the Magic Master in conjunction with the game can be a little awkward because a sheer lack of hands (two — too few!).
That said, the book doesn’t hinder the game and offers so much information in a novel way that I was willing to do the “put DS down, pick book up, put book down, pick DS up” routine a few times. Heck, I’ve even used the book as a bit of side reading.
I love playing Ni no Kuni because of a combination of wonderful art and music, and the entire atmosphere of the game. I also love the monsters, the Imagen — raising them and battling them and evolving them — which is something I’ll go into in a follow-up article.