Ni No Kuni will finally bring JRPGs to PS3
One of the glaring problems of this generation of consoles has been its failure to produce truly great traditional Japanese RPGs. Certainly there have been plenty of solid efforts, and the likes of Lost Odyssey, Eternal Sonata, Resonance of Fate, and Final Fantasy XIII all have their charms. We have even had excellent deviations from the standard style of Japanese RPGs with the strategy focused Valkyria Chronicles. But looking back at the 128, 32 and 16 bit eras it is hard not to get the impression that when it comes to memorable, high quality traditional Japanese RPGs, we have been left wanting by the HD consoles. Ni No Kuni could be the game that finally overturns that preconception.
The cell-shaded look of the game is simple yet undeniably beautiful. Much of this owes to the excellent art direction which in turns owes to the influence of Studio Ghibli. Ni No Kuni replicates the distinctive character designs of Japan’s most celebrated animation studio and transitions them smoothly from 2D into 3D. The effect is breathtaking. There have been many benchmarks set in the utilization of cell-shaded graphics such as Jet Grind Radio and Viewtiful Joe, and Ni No Kuni seems set to join them as examples of the style executed in a way which truly enhances the experience. What sets it apart from its peers is that whilst cell-shaded games tend to be a little stiff, the animation in Ni No Kuni has some wonderfully smooth touches. The sight of protagonist Oliver’s cape fluttering as he nimbly hops across gaps is impressive. Even the manner in which his walking animation subtly changes as he walks up or trots down steps is mesmerizing. It is these smaller touches that help to breathe life into the world.
This attention to detail has seemingly extended to other parts of the game. In the town sequence for example, Oliver is tasked with talking to some inhabitants and to get a fish in order to bribe the feline guards and gain access to the castle. Rather than having an obtrusive arrow to follow, or a map displayed in the corner to determine where you have to go, you can simply look at your fairy guide Shizuku. He trots out into front of you to indicate the direction you should be going in order to reach your next objective. Shizuku behaves as if he and Oliver are magnets of the same polarity, so when you follow him he pushes on at pretty much the same distance. You are free to ignore him if you please, in which case he tags along behind you still showing the way to progress. This way of traversing towns without the need to clutter the screen is just another small touch, but is indicative of the importance of the immersive nature of the world to developer Level 5.
Unlike its DS counterpart the combat in the PS3 version isn’t turn based. Rather it is a curious combination of direct control and issued commands. The player has direct control of Oliver and can control his movement and melee attacks via button presses, and as the primary spell caster of the party you are able to select magical attacks and support spells through a rotating selection wheel in the bottom left of the screen. This wheel is also used as the method for issuing commands to the monsters in your party and you can order them to attack certain targets, cast spells themselves, and make combined attacks, though they still operate independently without prompting. The battle system seems promising, but the brief time imposed by the demo means that I can’t say more than it has the potential to be interesting.
That is what is really the crux of the matter when it comes to Ni No Kuni; the potential. The demo at the Tokyo Game Show merely showed the audience what it had already expected, that it was going to be a very beautiful game with the quality of animation, music, and storytelling that Studio Ghibli and Level 5 are famous for. But it revealed little about the full scope of the game. The DS demo displayed far more of the scale of the game and the impressive variety of styles of gameplay, and their depth, that were going to be a part of Ni No Kuni. It does seem that, like the DS version, there will be an element of collecting and training monsters to fight alongside you, but whether the console version will include the Nintendogs style of maintenance which the DS version contains is as yet unclear. There are already so many differences between the two versions that there is no reason to consider the PS3 game as a prettier form of the same game. And even though the two games share similar story elements, the narratives are going to be quite different, but just how Level 5 plan to take advantage of a console as opposed to a handheld format is intriguing. The DS version is full of elements which suit the nature of the medium, such as using the touch screen to write out runes, as well as the unique spell book required to play the game. Whether as much effort is made to cater the experience to the console could go some way to determining just how good the game is. As its development started far later than the DS version there could even be concerns as to whether the PS3 game has the same aspiration to have such a full experience, beyond the scope of a traditional Japanese RPG, that is evident in the portable game. But if it has the depth, ambition, and variety of Level 5’s PS2 classic Dark Cloud 2 we could be in for a real treat.
When it is released next year we will find out just how much of the staggering potential this game has can be fulfilled. With many more years of this console generation left to run, we might be about to witness the first indisputably great Japanese RPG of the HD era. It has been a long wait.