First of all, let me justify my feelings of JRPG's today. Yeah, they're still successful, especially in its native Japan. Looking at their gaming charts, the majority of the games are RPGs. Going back to 1997, Final Fantasy VII broke ground and popularised JRPGs around the world. Unfortunately, it also popularised the trend of JRPGs being about angst, cynicism and drama including depressed and remorseful characters with flashy outfits, complex gameplay and outlandish storylines, which was at first quite alright but now it has ran its course. For more than a decade, most JRPG's have been like that and I was not enjoying it at all, with few exceptions such as the Dragon Quest series or the Persona series though Persona is coming close to the edge of the trend as of lately but it still succeeds in story and gameplay.
JRPGs wasn't about adventuring or simply saving the world from evil any more, it's about seeing how much far farfetchedness and complexity we could put in the game. Final Fantasy after IX has become a ridiculously dumb series that relies too much on overdramatic stories that contained countless plot holes and rehashed characters, with XIII summarising all the worst of it. While I still like them, I didn't fully enjoy Sakaguchi's Lost Odyssey or Last Story because the story lines and characters were still in the same trend of being either depressed or outlandish. Is there any JRPGs that doesn't have the over-dramatics, the unneeded complexity, the unnecessary angst or the cynicism that has been plaguing JRPGs for god knows how long? Enter Ni No Kuni.
Ni No Kuni is not only a giant breath fresh air in a gaming industry reliant on multiplayer gameplay and DLC galore, it is the game that the JRPG genre needed for a huge contrast. Gone is the cynicism and the complexity, what we get is a good old traditional JRPG about saving the world and adventuring. It's like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy 4-6, Earthbound or any of the 16bit era RPGs never went away, Ni No Kuni is pretty much a love letter to those games. Not harking back to the past, how does the game fair?
The game's most outstanding feature is its visuals. I always believe that if a game have less realistic and more cartoony graphics, they will age better and Ni No Kuni certainly will because the visuals are just astonishingly beautiful and I can see myself still being in awe years later. The overall gameplay is a mixture of the old school JRPGs and Pokemon since the main gameplay feature of the game is capturing familiars to fight for you, upgrading them and leveling them so that they can fight better and you travel around an explorable world with its own individual settings and you can use a boat or a flying dragon at your disposal to go anywhere. Side quests take form of errands and bounties, the errands being kind of hit and miss as they tend to repeat themselves and the bounty being good XP for leveling. The exploration aspect is very simple and traditional and I actually kind of miss this. The battle system is very strategic in contrast to its travel gameplay but it does have some flaws. There are some unfair difficulty spikes throughout and the companion AIs can be quite incompetent as they will unknowingly waste their mana, especially when you need them for backup such as magic attacks or heals and they cannot heal themselves, making you having to swap to them for control. Overall though, the battle system is a lot of fun and keeps grinding a lot less boring in comparison to other JRPGs.
Finally, how does the story hold up? While it does have some pacing problems and technical inconsistencies like where it sporadically swaps from voices to just silent text expositions, the story is really good and just satisfyingly refreshing. The story is just a simple but overall joyful, whimsical and poignant save the world from evil but it comes with many interesting twists and surprises. The main character is not an annoying, angst ridden idiot but a well mannered, naive and courageous kid and the cast of characters are very interesting and well fleshed out, each having their own interesting back stories and unique, not at all farfetched looking designs, courtesy of Studio Ghibli.
Final verdict? Do yourself a favour and buy this game. This is easily one of the best JRPG I have ever played, one of the best games on the PS3 and an easy Game of the Year contender. It is such a breath of fresh air to play a joyful and whimsical game in a market saturated by violence and angst. The game is about 50 hours long, depending if you do all the side quest or grinding and definitely worth £45. It will have a preference audience, that's for sure since it does have a "game for kids" vibe on it at first sight. If you love JRPGs or any type of adventure games, you'll love this game. If you're tired of the plethora of gun-ho centric multiplayer games or ridiculous and overdramatic JRPGs, Ni No Kuni is a great alternative.
Incredibly beautiful and timeless visuals and art designs, courtesy of Studio Ghibli.
A simple yet poignant save the world story with a believable protagonist and interesting characters.
A surprisingly deep combat system and interesting RPG elements.
Pretty much a 16 bit SNES game.
Technical inconsistencies with voices in cut scenes.
Companion AI's are a bit incompetent.
Side quests are either hit or miss, some tend to repeat themselves.