Nintendo DS

Ni no Kuni Playtest: Journeying Into The Unknown


This is Part 2 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 discuss exploration.


Ni no Kuni sticks to its RPG roots with the “town and dungeon” formula as a foundation and some quests as a topping.  However, it does plenty of other things to make its journey a unique one. 

There’s not much to be said about running around towns.  I’ve already gone into the beauty of the scenery and the splendor of the music, and the towns are fairly extensive, although each follows the same approximate layout.  People fill the streets and you can talk to everyone you see, although their conversation may not be the most interesting to read about.  However, it’s still advised you talk to everyone since they often give you quests (symbolized by a yellow smiley face over their head when you approach them) and alchemy recipes.

In general, towns contain a few residential homes with a person or two inside, an item shop, an equipment shop, an inn, and a place where you can pick up quests.  The first two are self-explanatory, although you can always find better items from monsters or through your own creation.  The quest shop has a billboard that posts all the quests available to you at your point in the game.  They list a simple description of the person and where they are in the world.  For you to actually find out what sort of quest they want, you’ll have to find them yourself.  You don’t have to read the billboard to activate the quest and find the people, but it’s a helpful tool to help you on your adventure.  You can also talk to the man (or half-man thing, rather) behind the counter and he’ll give you bounty quests, where you’ll have to defeat a monster and report back to him to get your cash reward.  This is actually quite an exception, since most of your rewards come in the form of rare items.


Dungeons are interspersed among your adventure, and each is a veritable maze.  The later ones come with some puzzles too, which require either your brain, your Magic Master — the book that comes along with Ni no Kuni — or a magic spell to solve. 


Most of the labyrinths are fairly long and are split into two sections. 


Because you can’t save in dungeons, this is the perfect spot to rest because the interval between two sections always has a save point and a manhole (more on those later) for your perusal.  Save points always heal your HP and MP as well, so they eliminate most of the need for items.

Magic pervades through the game.  You can use spells any time by pressing the Y button, although they usually don’t do anything unless you’re in a specific situation.  Of course, there are exceptions, such as Treasure Search, which shows you hidden treasure chests on the field whenever you use it, and Levitate, which hovers you a foot above the ground and allows you to avoid poison and forgetfulness traps. Otherwise, when you come to a certain situation in the story or when you see an exclamation point over your head, you are brought to the drawing screen, where you can draw the necessary runes for the spell.  


The most common ones you’ll be using are Heart Piece and Heart Cure, which take and give heart fragments to people, which is essential for most quests and the main story.  You can also use any spell you’ve learned previously in battle, such as Fireball, Tempest, or Summon (you learn spells by just drawing them once, whenever you want).


Battles perpetuate through the dungeons, although all of them, with the exception of a single location, are avoidable.  Enemies appear as a single monster on the map — dungeon or overworld — and you can either choose to run into it or run away from it.  It actually takes a bit of practice to successfully avoid a monster, especially the faster ones, but usually a quick turn will shake them off your tail. 


These enemies respawn frequently (as soon as you’ve moved to a different screen) so I was sometimes at my wit’s end to avoid as many battles as possible.  The only time they are completely random is when you’re sailing in the ocean.


Battles are pretty quick and simple.  They’re turn-based, with you giving orders to the entire party at the beginning of a turn and letting speed and luck decide the way the battle plays out.  You can tell your members to attack, use a special attack (or magic), use an item, or defend.  You can also switch a member out (once per turn), check status (like status enhancers and how many Nice! points you have), set an AI, or run.

You can also press the Y button to arrange your three battle members however you wish on a 3×3 grid, with the front row having the highest attack bonus and the back row having the highest defense bonus.  This can be done as many times as you want within a turn.

Nice! points are accumulated by striking at an opponent’s weakness, dodging an attack, or successfully defending your party members from an attack by taking advantage of the party arrangements.  For example, most bosses have an attack that engulfs the entire battle field, but stops at the first character in each column.  If you have your characters arranged in an “L” shape, then one of the characters in the back row will be protected from the attack.  This would grant the character in front of it, in the front row, a point.  Once you have the maximum number of points – which you can check in the status screen – you can activate a special attack that does massive damage.


Now, your party members are formed from a motley gang that you can pick and choose with the exception of three members.  One is Oliver himself, who can use any of the attack spells you’ve previously drawn the rune of, and the two others join through the game.  Maru can play songs on the lyre to befriend monsters, while Jairo can steal items. The rest of the party is formed by the Imagen you have with you.

Imagen are monsters that roam the field, but they are also “creatures formed from the heart,” so if you can befriend any, they’ll gladly fight for you.  You do this with almost any monster – the only exception being evil beings called Nightmares and any of the bosses.  Capturing and raising Imagen are such a huge part of the game that I’d even call them a third division of the game, in addition to town and dungeon exploring. 

First, you encounter an Imagen in battle.  You whack it a bit over the head and, if Maru is in the party and the enemy has been successfully damaged, a heart symbol will appear over the monster’s head.  This means that it’s willing to listen to a tune or two.  After a certain point in the game, Maru has three songs to choose from.  Basically, you have to play the right songs in the right order, and once that’s done, the Imagen will automatically join you.  This is easier than it sounds because after you’ve played a song, a note will appear telling you a hint of what to play next.  What’s more, there’s no penalty for playing the wrong song other than losing a turn.

After you’ve managed to drag the monster to your side, you give it a name (because apparently they feel more attached to you once you’ve named them) and it stays in your cage.  Later on, you get another cage.  Each cage can store nine monsters, although only the ones in your first cage can be switched in and out of battle, and only those can gain EXP (every monster in the first cage as well as your current party members gain EXP after a battle.  Of course, the ones in the battle party on the last turn of the battle are the ones who get the most points).  If both cages are full, they automatically move to the manhole, which is a “dimension between worlds.”  You can switch your monsters in and out of the manhole, which usually appear near save points in dungeons (which always appear before a boss battle), and in every town.


Imagen each have a single spell when you first befriend them.  The only way to learn more techniques is to evolve the monster, which happens at regular intervals.  Once evolved, the Imagen learns a new technique. 

At its second evolution (each monster has three stages), you get a choice between two forms, with each form having its own specialty and its own spell. 


For example, if you have a Seiryuu and have to evolve it, would you prefer a Honryuu, which has an extremely damaging water attack that hits all the enemies, or a Tenryuu, with a healing move that completely restores an ally’s HP?

Different evolutions also have different weaknesses.  While you don’t have to worry about the enemy getting Nice! points, hitting a weakness nets a 1.5x bonus in damage.  Resistances cut the damage to approximately 0.5x.

Raising Imagen is more than simply leveling them up, though.  You have to constantly go to the cage (from the main menu) and check up on them.  There, you can pet them, brush them, and play with them regularly.  Every monster likes the attention, and they show it by a shower of hearts.  Having the Imagen like you serves two purposes.  I believe that the more a monster likes you, the faster they level up.  Also, it prevents them from being lonely.  A lonely Imagen will sulk during battle and ignore your orders, and the only way to cure the condition is by using an item.  You can also feed your Imagen foods, although all the monsters are very picky about what they like.  It’s worth it, though, because some foods you feed will give the Imagen an extra Nice! point to start the next battle with, which is handy in a boss fight.

While the battles did grate on me after a while, I really enjoyed raising the Imagen.  One of my favorite moments in the game is playing with the monsters.  When you tease them with a cat toy, they run around chasing it until they’re exhausted and appear punch-drunk with love, tongue-lolling included.  It’s so adorable.

This is just everything on the surface, though.  There are plenty of quests, side quests, hidden treasures, and other such goodies present in the game.  These will be discussed in the next article.