From the moment we first heard about it, we had an inkling Ni No Kuni may turn out to be something special. After all, with the amount of talent behind it, how could it possibly fail? With an art style and cutscenes by the immensely talented Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio behind films such as My Neighbour Totoro, and Kiki's Delivery Service, paired with game design from Professor Layton studio Level 5, for months, we sat, with practically everything crossed, hoping the game would be even half as good as its constituent parts. At one point, it even looked like we may never get it, with the cost of translation proving too much of a barrier for the game to leave Japan. But now, after years of waiting, the game has finally hit these shores. And it's even better than we thought.
A breath of fresh air in a world of shooters and grit, Ni No Kuni is a tale of childish innocence, which follows the story of Oliver, a young boy who lives in a town called Motorville. One night, without his mother knowing, he sneaks out of his house to go round his friend's, and take the custom hot rod they've been working on out for a test drive. Unfortunately, things take something of a turn for the worse, as the wheel comes off the car, and Oliver plunges into the river. Luckily for him, his Mom had twigged what was going on, and arrives on the scene just in time to dive in and rescue him, dragging her now somewhat damper son to safety, before collapsing from exhaustion. Sadly, her condition soon takes a turn for the worst, as it's revealed Oliver's Mom had a weak heart, and with the stress and physical exhaustion of rescuing her son, she ends up passing away. Overcome with guilt about what's happened to his Mom, Oliver becomes a recluse for several days, clutching the little cuddly toy his mom made him on her first day at her new job. But just when things are starting to get a little bit depressing, something a bit magical happens to lighten the mood. As Oliver cries, his tears fall on the toy, and bring it to life.
More than just a toy, it turns out the bear is actually called Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies, a small, teardrop shaped Welsh thing with a lamp hanging from his nose. And he's "sick to the teeth of youer snivelling and moaning. Three days man!" Providing some much needed comic relief (as he does for the rest of the game), Drippy goes on to explain the situation - far from just a toy, he's actually the Lord High Lord of the Fairies, and from a parallel world to Oliver's - a "whole 'nother world", you could say (Ni No Kuni roughly translates as "The Another World"). Unfortunately, things in Drippy's world aren't great, as the evil Shadar, the dark djinn has been running riot, taking over people's hearts and spreading misery across the land. When the brave, if somewhat diminutive Drippy stood up to him, Shadar kicked him out of their world too, and banished him into Oliver's, imprisoning him in this doll. But there's more. For Oliver to have been able to break the curse by crying on Drippy, he must be the "pure hearted one" - the only one who has the power to stand up to Shadar. Better still, as Drippy explains, if he can beat Shadar, there's a chance he may be able to save his Mom as well. You see, everyone in Oliver's world has an equal in Drippy's world, that are joined together by their soul. Oliver's Mom happens to be a spitting image of the Great Sage Alicia who, like Drippy, tried to take on Shadar, only to end up being trapped inside a thing called the Soulsnare, which cut her soul off from Oliver's world. If you can find her, and free her, there's a chance you can restore the link - which may just bring Oliver's Mom back. And so, with the pieces all in place, young Oliver agrees to set off with Drippy on a the adventure of a lifetime in the "other world", teaming up with a host of colourful characters, to save Oliver's Mom, and defeat the evil Shadar.
And an adventure it is. From bustling cities to remote forests, from the middle of the desert to the top of a volcano, your adventure will take you across the four corners of the land, and it all looks amazing. While it's not often you'll hear us go on about how good something looks, Ni No Kuni gives us reason to make an exception to the rule. From the cat residents of Ding Dong Dell, and "His Meowjesty", the cat king, there are nods and references to Ghibli films scattered everywhere, in a world that seems full of life, rather than stoic and bland. With gorgeous, cel shaded visuals, the towns and the characters look like they've jumped straight out of a film - and you'll want to explore every inch of them.
Of course, this being a role playing game, each town is packed to the brim with characters looking for help with their troubles, whether they've lost sight of their children, or need some special ingredients for a curry they're making. And although you've got a world to save, being the nice chap that you are, you're never too busy to help a citizen in need - especially if you'll get a reward for doing it. Witty and well written, you'll find yourself chatting to every citizen in the town as much to hear their awful puns as to glean useful information. With a distinct animal theme throughout the game, you can buy your weapons and armour from a town's Cawtermaster (sigh), who assures you "With these prices, we must be raven mad". Items are purchased from the owl shaped "Hootique", run by the Hootenanny, whilst the Cat's Cradle inns are staffed by the Purrprioter. Eye rollingly bad, yes - but the game's just getting started.
Of course, this being a role playing game, a large part your time will be spent doing battle with the game's various foes. Rather than truly random battles, the game's world is instead populated by random creatures who, should they spot sight of you, will chase you down, and drag you into a fight. A mixture of real-time and turn-based battles, Ni No Kuni attempts to blend the best of both worlds, and almost gets it right. Choosing a move to perform (whether you want to attack, or use a spell), your character will follow your orders automatically for the next few seconds, which works as a kind of "cool down" time before you get to choose another move. Getting rid of the annoying button mashing of real-time battles, whilst not quite being as rigid as those that are turn-based, the battles mostly work fairly well, although there are a few problems.
Defending, for example, relies that little bit too much on your reactions. If your enemy's charging one of their fancier moves, the chances are you won't to just stand there and take it - but actually reaching the defend button in time is quite a feat. If you're mid attack (which you likely will be), you'll have to press circle, then scroll around the battle menu until you find defend, and press it in time to block the incoming attack. In the middle of a fight, it can be a little bit of a faff, and is more a test of your reactions than your brains. The only other problem with the battles is that, thanks to the strange real-time/turn based mix, in the heat of battle, it can be easy to miss the move timer counting down to zero, which leaves your character standing around uselessly for a few seconds until you give them something else to do.
However, the few minor flaws in the battling system are more than made up for by one of the more inventive parts of the game, in the form of familiars. Taking the best parts of Pokemon, and mixing them with some ridiculously cheesy names, as you progress through the game, you'll be able to find, catch, and collect little colourful monsters, that can fight alongside your team. Although it takes you a while to earn the ability to catch a familiar, your familiars effectively form their own, incredibly addictive "Gotta Catch Em All" side quest, as you go from battle to battle, searching for new creatures to collect.
Much like in Pokemon, any of the creatures you get into a battle with in Ni No Kuni can be tamed - although unlike Pokemon, things are a little bit more random here. Rather than being able to at least attempt to catch a familiar every time you face one, here, only occasionally after defeating a monster will the option pop up that'll let you tame it. Unfortunately, the process of doing this is a little bit more awkward than we'd like, as you have to switch to the character that can tame them, and choose the option within a certain time limit - whilst making sure any other characters on your team don't attack them in the mean time, which can be a bit of a challenge in the heat of a battle.
Once you've befriended a familiar, though, they become a regular part of your team as you journey around the another world. Able to give them nickname, and even, slightly more strangely, feed them treats in order to increase their attributes, your familiars also have the power to evolve. Use them enough (or even have them in your party enough), and they'll eventually be able to evolve into a different form - although you'll have to use a certain type of stone in order to trigger it. Happily, the terrible naming conventions are all present and correct here too - when they evolve, a Turban Bandit becomes a Turban Legend, a Minor Byrde becomes a Major Byrde, while a Jabber becomes a Stabber, and then a Stabberwocky.
Each of your characters can have up to three familiars on their team at any one time, and those familiars will gain experience whether or not they're being used in battle. Sent in to fight with a simple push up on the D-Pad, you'll find yourself relying on your familiars a lot in battle, if only because their stats end up being so much better than your own. With the ability to equip them with items too, the familiar system is as deep as you could hope - and is yet another incredible facet in an already incredible game.
But perhaps the most impressive part of Ni No Kuni is just how fresh the whole thing feels. In a world where companies are increasingly reluctant to fund new, original games, and it's become something of a rarity to see a game on the shelf without a number after the name, Ni No Kuni is a breath of fresh air amongst the stench of repetition. It's not about an apocalypse, it's not about a war, and it's not about shooting everyone in sight before they turn into a zombie. Instead, Ni No Kuni connects on a much more personal level, with a twisting storyline of childhood wonder, some fantastic characters, and most importantly, the ability to get emotional without ever feeling too heavy combining to make an incredible experience. You'll be wanting to keep playing just for Drippy alone.
With so many quests to complete, an epic story to follow through to its conclusion, and a spectacular soundtrack, not to mention the addictive familiars system, Ni No Kuni is, in our humble opinion, one of the best games ever made. At the moment, one of our staff members is kicking themselves for having chosen a 360 years ago over a PS3, and they're right to be doing it. If you don't already have a PS3, this is all the reason you need to get one. And if you do already have a PS3, what are you doing still reading this review? Go down your local game shop, buy Ni No Kuni, and wave goodbye to the rest of your weekend, as you dive head first into one of the most fantastical worlds to ever grace a game.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 3