Oliver does not want to save the world. Not at first, anyway. Thus Ni No Kuni stands out as being a different kind of JRPG. When Oliver is informed he can save another world, he initially refuses. It is not until he discovers he can personally benefit from it that he agrees to travel to a parallel world. What follows is forty odd hours of a gorgeous game with fluctuating levels of difficulty and a memorable story.
In short, the story does not disappoint.
The graphics are, of course, stunning. Level 5 is no stranger to great looking games (see Dragon Quest VIII), but Ni No Kuni is breathtaking thanks to the co-development with Studio Ghibli. With rare exceptions, the game always, whether in a cut-scene or strolling in-game along a desert, looks like an anime. And not just any anime; it looks like Studio Ghibli drew every angle of every environment and character model. And when it seems the artistic direction cannot be better, a new area opens and it turns out that yes, it can. For example, the castle of Nevermore is fantastic in every way.
It is difficult to be spoiler-free and discuss the plot for this game, because the initial hour throws in a fair share of emotional turns. In short, the story does not disappoint. It can be childish at times and some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy, but these are the exceptions rather than the norm. In fact, the localization is very well done. Puns abound like sunlight in Ni No Kuni. Some are a bit on the nose, but generally the monster names and dialogue are enjoyable because of the constant bombardment of laughable moments. As with most Ghibli films, the story ostentatiously appears to be this side of childish, but in fact delves into heavy themes and character development.
The voice acting on all the main characters is great as well. Oliver can be a little wooden at times, but the supporting characters are all spot on, especially Mr. Drippy. All characters have some form of an English accent, and it adds to their charm. All the major villains are appropriately sinister in their fashion and it is disturbing how fun it is to listen to Shadar growl in his low bass.
The difficulty in Ni No Kuni wavers.
The combat in Ni No Kuni is an interesting mix of Pokémon and arena RPG matches like that found in the Star Ocean or Tales series. The Pokémon comparison is apt because the main characters can tame the beasts in the wild and use them as familiars to fight in their place. Using familiars is actually the principal means of combat, and substituting Oliver or one of the other characters into the fight is not advised unless they are being used for their special abilities. The flow of combat takes a while to get used to and adheres to one of the tenets of gameplay: be easy to learn and difficult to master. The latter half is especially true. The difficulty in Ni No Kuni wavers. Every little fight in an area near the end of the game is a life-or-death struggle, but the boss fight at its very end is ridiculously easy. And some grinding is required, so be warned. It’s nowhere near as bad as Persona 3 or even some of the earlier Final Fantasy games, but expect to wander around to get past a boss that is particularly challenging.
Ni No Kuni is not perfect. The combat can be frustrating and some line demarcating the boundary of fights would have been a welcome addition. But it is a great, beautiful game and even though it is still early, Ni No Kuni is undoubtedly a contender for one of the best games of the year.