‘Ni No Kuni’ Preview: The JRPG you’ve been waiting for

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You know, sometimes a game doesn’t need to flip the script in order to grab some attention. I love innovation and fancy new mechanics as much as the next guy, but every once in a while, all I want to do is sink my teeth into some gaming comfort food. JRPGs have been my go-to genre for the past few generations of consoles, and thankfully, Level-5 and Studio Ghibli are bringing what’s shaping up to be one of this generation’s most interesting role-playing adventures to North America and Europe early next year. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has more charm and endearing characters than almost any other entertainment product out there, and while it won’t drag in the droves of players drooling over the next Call of Duty title, fans of RPGs, both old and new, should take notice.

However, don’t expect to see the classic tale of a spiky-haired hero battling heinous monsters (and amnesia) in Ni No Kuni. Level-5’s latest title follows a thirteen-year-old boy named Oliver, a resident of Motorville. This innocent lad may not seem like protagonist material at a quick glance, but once his mother, Arie, suddenly dies after rescuing him from drowning, things change. His tears transform a doll Arie gave him into a male fairy named Drippy, who hands Oliver a book unlike any he’s seen before. The tome gives him the power of magic and the ability to enter the world of “Ni no Kuni,” a reality parallel to his own. Why go to this crazy, unfamiliar world? According to Drippy, Oliver’s mother may be within this supernatural land.

As you can see, it’s not all roses and butterscotch kisses. Yet, this whimsical world holds all the allure of a Hayao Miyazaki flick. Simply dubbing Ni No Kuni another cel-shaded JRPG would be a crime, as the vibrant vistas and detailed characters are some of the most striking I’ve witnessed. That same cartoon aesthetic Level-5 achieved in games like Dark Cloud 2 and Rogue Galaxy is on full display here, but the PlayStation 3’s increased horsepower allows for an even more stunning result. The soundtrack’s appropriate swells and foot-tapping melodies also help to make Ni No Kuni feel like one of the most crisp, creative anime around. But thankfully, you’ll do much more than just marvel at its looks.

The two scenarios that are presented in the game’s demo, which is available for download now on the PlayStation Network, give players a good look at what they’ll be doing in this JRPG. The piece first is an introductory look at the combat, which is a real-time system that allows for control of both Oliver and whatever monster’s willing to battle beside him. Unlike the turn-based combat seen in most iterations of Final Fantasy, the action of Ni No Kuni is fast and furious. It’s essential to switch control between the creature on field and Oliver himself, but juggling their unique sets of skills is no easy task. Most of the damage will be dealt by Oliver’s monsters, but they can only take so many blows before a healing spell is needed. Special attack, which consume MP, help diversify the moment-to-moment action, and the rain of recovery items that Drippy provides helps allow for a steady stream of interesting offensive moves. Playing defense at the right moment, which your enemies will often telegraph, is also crucial, and weak spots on the more harrowing beasts also come into play. It’s not easy, and thankfully, that’s what makes it so engaging.

Difficulty becomes more of a factor in the second part of the demo, which increases both the size of your party and the number of monsters Oliver can summon. The battlefield gets a bit more hectic, but even the massive boss encounters don’t feel overwhelming. Unlike many RPGs that seemingly pack every nook and cranny with enemies waiting to be encountered, the consistent battles of Ni No Kuni don’t just play themselves. Players are forced to be both active and aware of the combat taking place on screen, and this allows each engagement to feel more intense – even if you do find yourself battling a buck-toothed gofer with a bad temper.

Full Japanese voice acting will be available in the final game, and if you want to play it that way, that’s absolutely fine. However, the English version is more than serviceable. This isn’t your standard, cheesy interpretation of a highly Eastern narrative. Oliver, Drippy and the various other personalities encountered in the trial were both believable and interesting, and that’s mainly due to the strong delivery by the voice actors.

If you’ve been looking for a solid, charming JRPG on modern consoles, I implore you give the Ni No Kuni demo a download. This isn’t a game that’s attempting to stretch the genre in new directions, but after experiencing two segments of Oliver’s extended adventure, I feel confident in saying it doesn’t have to. Feed me an interesting story, fun battle system and creative characters, and I’ll absolutely set innovation to the side for the sake of good, old-fashioned fun. Hopefully, it all lives up to the promise when Ni No Kuni hits the PlayStation 3 on Jan. 22, 2013.

When not writing about all the latest and greatest happenings in the video game industry, you can find Josiah on PSN, XBLA or Steam (Lionheart377). He has a soft spot for classic, turn-based RPGs, but also spends a great deal of time jumping from platform to platform and shooting dudes in the head.