With art from the esteemed Studio Ghibli, and mechanics that hearken back to the early days of RPGs, Ni no Kuni (literally “second country”) is a game that exudes charm from its every pore.
You play as Oliver, a young boy in a ’50s-influenced town who, after a charming introduction, suddenly loses his mother and is orphaned. After weeks of withdrawn grief, his tears fall on a stuffed toy his mother had given him, and it comes to life. The former toy, named Mr. Drippy, tells Oliver that he’s from another world and says that since the two worlds are connected, it could be possible to save Oliver’s mother if he goes to that world to find her counterpart: a great sage that’s been captured by an evil man.
Fans of classic RPGs will appreciate the structure of the game, with an overarching world map that can be freely explored—eventually by dragonback!—and towns with interactive NPCs. The towns are distinct, often populated by humanoid animals, and provide a lot of side-quests and background information. The combat system involves a little strategy, as each party member can control up to three creatures (called familiars) in battle, and non-lead characters are given general patterns of behavior rather than direct commands. Familiars can be caught or evolved, adding further to the Pokémon-feel of battle…as does the fact that your first familiar is given to you by an Oak (tree).
There is a surprising amount of depth to all of the characters, as should be expected of a Ghibli production, and the story is utterly delightful. The only thing that is any kind of drawback is the pacing. The combat is very easy right up until it spikes severely in difficulty, and right about the time you feel that the game should be wrapping up to a satisfactory ending—albeit with a few loose threads that might seem as if they could be picked up in a sequel—the game throws an unexpected plot twist at you with little to no warning, pretty much doubling your playtime. For some, this might not be a drawback at all, but it felt jarring to me and threw me out of the immersive experience. It hardly stopped me from playing to the end, though, and what an end it has.
Ni no Kuni is a gorgeous, entertaining, fun game, and its few flaws do nothing to keep it from being something worth playing.