In the midst of this fall gaming season I only just now got the chance to actually install the Ni No Kuni demo that came out a little while ago. There’s been praise all over the place about this game ever since Level-5 announced an English version, but I’m still shocked by what this game manages to be.
Basically, Ni No Kuni is what a Japanese RPG is supposed to look like in 2012. To me, this game looks like what the designers of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest probably envisioned when they were making the Famicom entries in those franchises back in the 80’s. It is very much that style of classic console RPG, but with today’s graphics.
Of course the main part of this game’s appeal is the involvement of Studio Ghibli in the art direction, story, and music (Joe Hisaishi’s score is another major reason I’m buying Ni No Kuni). Those elements alone, perfectly distilled into a cel-shaded graphics engine, make for a world that I really want to dive into, in the way I would Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI.
Gameplay-wise Ni No Kuni doesn’t even do all that much new or different. It is very much an oldschool, pre-PlayStation era kind of RPG. What gives it value for me though is that this is the first time I’ve seen such a game with current generation, high definition graphics. Even seeing the menu interface feels familiar and fresh at the same time.
The most controversial part of the demo is probably the combat system. At first glance it’s your basic Dragon Quest clone with some Pokémon trappings, but actually get’s fairly deep and quite hectic. The problem is that the demo doesn’t give you enough time to fully grasp it. For starters the demo throws you into a boss fight right off the bat with almost no tutorial. After a little while I was able to pick up most of the rules but was still unable to beat the boss of the second half of the demo. I was able to catch another thing I already like about Ni No Kuni thought — even though its battle system feels very classic, they still saw fit to keep it modern by making it real time with the ability to pause and strategize. I like to think that this is what classic Dragon Quest style battles would actually look like if they ran in real time.
What drives it home however is the world map. The fact that Ni No Kuni even has a traversable overworld in the way NES and Super NES RPGs did, in this day and age is kind of incredible. It’s the first time in a long time I’ve been able to explore a game world like this on a console. What really impressed me is that the world map here isn’t just a flat one rendered in 3D. Level-5 actually put in peaks and valleys and other natural features to make it feel like you’re traveling across real terrain and not just a map.
It’s entirely possible though that the reason I’m even seeing Ni No Kuni this way is because other than Final Fantasy XIII and Demon’s Souls, I haven’t actually played any Japanese RPGs on the HD consoles. There aren’t that many and the aforementioned two are very different from the norm, but I’ve barely touched the few that exist. I still have yet to find the time to play Lost Odyssey, or Blue Dragon, and I have an unplayed copy of Tales of Vesperia sitting on my shelf. I actually had a similar “finally!” reaction to booting up the Final Fantasy XIII-2 demo and seeing a JRPG with a real HD town for the first time. All of my RPG time this generation has either been with JRPGs on the DS or western RPGs on the PC. I’ll try to get on some of the console games eventually, I just don’t know when.
The point though, is that Ni No Kuni is the first game I’ve seen that looks like it’s taking everything I used to like about console RPGs and finally bringing it up to modern visual standards. This is probably what some people back in the 80’s and early 90’s imagined console RPGs would be like in the future. This is basically the game I expected Japanese developers to put out back in 2006.