Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Graduation Day - Ni No Kuni

Out of all the gaming genres, RPGs are nearest and dearest to my heart, particularly JRPGs. While many gamers are turned off by common JRPG conventions like grinding, grinding, and grinding, I can’t help but fall in love with the traditional JRPG elements like classes, summons, world-destroying villain, and yes, even the grinding. It is with this in mind that I finally took the dive into the world of Ni No Kuni.

To be honest, I really took the plunge because of two reasons: a) I finally bought a PS3 a few months back and b) a friend of mine lent me the game for free. This isn't to say that I didn't completely and utterly want to play this game! When you’re an arguable hardcore JRPG fan and a game like Ni No Kuni comes along you don’t just shrug and move on with your life. It’s the same reason why I regret never finishing Final Fantasy VIII or Legend of Dragoon – games like those speak to the very essence of who I am as a gamer: obsessed, stubborn, old-school, and willing to sacrifice personal relationships for something that nobody else really cares about (okay, that last one is harsh, but do you really think the world gave a fuck that Cloud saved them from Sephiroth?). But how exactly did Oliver and his band of familiar-wielding (aka – summon-wielding) pals sit with the late-20s me that may have a teen version of me trapped inside?

To be brief, I loved it. Not in the, “Oh yea, I love the visuals and the action!” way of loving it that so many gamers seem to have these days (forgive me if this offends but as of writing this I've had a rough week and I have the urge to speak my mind – seriously graphics aren't everything, people!). I’m talking, “I wish I didn't have so many distractions in my life like a job, bills, loved ones, and the so-called ‘real world’ so I could grind to my heart’s content and get all my familiars up to level 100” type of love. It’s an obsession, and that’s what, to me, JRPGs are all about. The reason IMO that JRPGs fell out of favor with people in the 2000's is because people got lazy. Again, this isn't a problem with gamers as much as it is with the industry for not recognizing their consumer trends to not want to grins for dozens of hours to beat a few middling bosses. Gamers were screaming for more western RPGs and FPS games like Fallout 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Gaming styles aside, the industry responds to what sells, and that’s what the industry has churned out en masse the last 10 years of so. However, as with fashion and history, things go in cycles and we’re now seeing a Renaissance of the JRPG, and I couldn't be happier.

So back to Ni No Kuni – what exactly was it about this game that dragged me back into the rabbit hole like Earthbound and Super Mario RPG did to me before? Well, first of all, it’s the likability of the characters. For Ni No Kuni, the star of the show, Oliver, is what I’d like to focus on. When I play a JRPG, for some reason I’m drawn more towards the characters that exhibit a bit of pure idealism, which some can also call innocence. Take Earthbound for example – you have a young kid who embarks on a massive adventure to save the world from an all-powerful alien being on a whim because he truly believes that his psychic abilities can do the trick. If that’s not innocence I don’t know what is. However, with the advent of Final Fantasy VII, popular characters and heroes became darker, edgier, moodier, and essentially Dariah-esque. While it did great to bring JRPGs back into the mass public’s attention, that anti-hero, emo archetype took away a bit of what made the genre special in some ways.

Some cartoons just want to watch the world burn.

Ni No Kuni brings us Oliver who is on the “Ness”-end of the hero scale. The journey has the feel of something straight out of Calvin & Hobbes. A boy running around with his stuffed animal friend and a stick for a wand just screams innocence and harkens back to the child in gamers like myself who grew up in awe of the magical worlds we were fortunate to explore. His sense of wonder and desire to do what’s right by the world and his friends is inspiring, and while it’s corny at times, it never gets over the top. 

Still, no game is complete with just great characters, One of the best things about Ni No Kuni is its balance. You have a choice of two difficulties – story-focused, or easy, and combat-focused, or normal. You get the same story either way, but one gives you an added challenge. This essentially boils down to grinding, but any JRPG fan would be remiss to select easy. I say this because even while playing on normal difficulty, I never felt extremely overwhelmed to the point of frustration. Sure there are times when a boss fight is tougher than others, but it’s not to the point where you have to grind for hours to beat it. Either you need to grind a bit more or you simply need to change your battle strategy.

And this is where Ni No Kuni has its best innovation but also its greatest flaw. The battle system allows you to take control of any party member and their familiars (more on them later), but you also dictate how your other party members should battle. Should they attack the weakest enemies? Should they act as a healer? Or should they not use abilities and only use physical attacks? This is great for many battles as the party AI is good for straight up attacking normal beasties. I rarely had issues with my party failing to contain a randomly encountered mob.

"Oliver, promise me you'll never set your AI to do what they like!"

However, boss battles are where the AI loses its luster. I found myself having to focus too much on keeping my team alive or out of danger because they did a terrible job of doing anything else but head-strong attacking. Setting a member to a healer means they heal when they feel like it, and it’s so random that it can hardly be called intelligent. Most of the time a healer would die in between heals because they rushed into the battle irresponsibly. Also, the team AI doesn't know when to retreat if their health is low, meaning they keep putting themselves in harm’s way leading to quick deaths. Eventually, I started treating boss battles like solo affairs and just ignoring my team members. While this strategy works, it’s frustrating to stretch a battle that should take 10 minutes into one that takes 30 minutes. Regardless, it’s forgivable for how infrequently it happens.

Now on to the most addicting aspect of the game – familiars. Think non-turn based Pokémon with armor and weapons, and you've got the gist of it. The world is full of familiars that you have to battle, and early on you’re given the ability to capture familiars and level them up. Each familiar has 4 evolutions, 2 of which are a choice between the 3rd and final form. Believe me when I say that familiar hunting and leveling becomes a game in itself. The addiction factor is high, and the cuteness factor even higher. I can’t tell you how much I've agonized over which final form to choose with some of my favorite familiars. When you've spent over 30 hours with the same creatures, you start to develop a bond. It’s akin to that feeling you have when your little Charmander finally evolves into a Charizard. It’s easy to get lost in the world of familiar hunting and leveling, but it’s a welcome distraction when you need a break from the overall adventure.

I choose you, you adorable sonofabitch!

I could go on about how the game looks great, but it’s on the PS3 so you know that already. I could go on about the story, but it’s a JRPG so you know it has a hero saving the world. All of these things are secondary to the best aspects of the game I mentioned above. The point is that Ni No Kuni harkens back to JRPG forefathers like Earthbound, earlier Final Fantasy games, and Super Mario RPG. If you’re like me and love the feel of exploration, with a dash of innocence and a hint of Pokémon, then you’ll love Ni No Kuni. It may take you 50+ hours to beat (not complete), but you’ll enjoy every minute of it. I know this will be a game I’ll come back to years later, pop it in, and have major feels about the first time I played it, and that’s when I know a game is something special.

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