Still Playing: Ni No Kuni

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My pet snake is ready to metamorphose. I don’t want him to. But I can’t remember why.

I can’t even remember what species of familiar the hissing beast staring out at me from Ni No Kuni’s Creature Cage sub-menu is, because in an uncharacteristic moment of personalisation, I named the damn thing Prang. It seemed quite cheerfully vicious at the time, just the sort of name you’d want for a giant cobra you can summon on demand. Now it’s useless, devoid of any information that might help a neglectful RPG player who hasn’t dipped into to Ni No Kuni’s cartoon world for over two weeks get back up to speed.

Aha! Prang’s a ‘Naja’. It was there all along in the Friends & Familiars sub menu while I was idiotically hanging around the Creature Cage. Off to Google I go then, to find someone who can tell me how to most efficiently maximise all the arcane, entirely unfathomable but also very important numbers next to his name. If I’m remembering correctly (and it’s been a while, so I may not be) the only reason I retraced my steps back to the game’s first town and caught a Naja in the first place is because the internet encouraged me too.

This is how I play Ni No Kuni, despite all attempts to kick these terrible habits. I leave it, forget how its complex latticework of systems intersect and then deny myself the pleasure of making my own choices, of enjoying any sort of strategic freedom, and instead cull strategies from online. This is all due to a sort of primal fear that, were I act in a manner that didn’t most efficiently make use of every last stat-boosting item, that didn’t ensure I had an immaculately balanced team, that didn’t confirm that every last experience point was accounted for, I’d be somehow denying myself the ability to extract enjoyment from the game.

It’s all Pokémon’s fault, or to be more precise, it’s Ni No Kuni’s fault for accessing a part of my brain that Pokémon shaped. Ni No Kuni’s familiars are Pokémon, you see. They run wild in dungeons and the overworld, attacking when you draw near, but they can be captured and trained, levelling up, learning new moves and even transforming into new forms after enough love and care. So when you look at an adorably doughty little Mite, a bizarre Bighorn or a dashing Purrloiner in the Creature Cage, you’re really looking at bunch of mouldable numbers in bright, colourful disguise.

I was 11 years old when Pokémon Red was released in the UK, and that gave me time to give Nintendo’s cute little bundles of digits all the attention they’d need. I was a thorough trainer, catching whole broods of Poke-species so that I could sift through their stats in menu screens, cruelly discarding the creatures that didn’t measure up to my exacting standards. It wasn’t until much later that I learnt about Individual Values – the hidden statistics governing Pokémon development that, once calculated, let you predict their progress – but, even back then I knew that not all Pidgies were created equal.

I didn’t know about Effort Values, either, another obscure number that increases Pokémon’s stats and which itself increases as you defeat foes. I had, however, somehow absorbed the fact that this made Rare Candy – a treat that causes Pokémon to immediately jump one level – little better than junk food. Feed your Pokémon on Rare Candy and it’d increase in level, sure, but you’d be missing out on Effort Values along the way. I trained my Pokémon the hard way, catching them at the lowest level I could find and rearing them as far as they’d go. I took great pleasure in knowing my team was as close to statistically perfect as possible, though I’d rarely link up with other players to put that theory to the test.

And, I now realise, it’s the legacy of my former life as a perfectionist Pokémon trainer that’s stopping me from letting poor Prang metamorphose. Just as with Pokémon, who would level up faster and learn new abilities sooner if you didn’t let them evolve, Ni No Kuni’s familiars benefit from a delayed metamorphosis. They also learn techniques sooner, and their final stats are improved. But why do I care? I don’t have the time to raise a perfect squad of undefeatable little mystical creatures. I barely have the time to play Ni No Kuni.

Level-5’s game is pretty accommodating of time-pressured players. With the default settings untouched the minimap constantly highlights where you need to head next, and if you stay still for more than a second you’ll provided with a précis of your current objective. It also features the kind of sprawling yet episodic narrative that means that – provided you end sessions at appropriate times – the game can be played in isolated evenings, however far they’re spaced apart. It even provides a sort of in-universe strategy guide in the form of the Wizard’s Companion, an item and familiar compendium worked into the fiction of the game.

I’m ruining it, however, with my drive for numerical perfection, a need to play the game “right” that’s become a barrier to actually playing the game. Without the free time to absorb every last facet of Ni No Kuni’s systems, I’m forced to cross-reference every decision I make with advice available online, in order to make sure that feeding a familiar a slice of cake now won’t come back to haunt me, in some vaguely statistical way, thirty or forty levels down the line.

No more of this. Pokemon get a chance to evolve every time they level up, unless you hammer B to stop the animation occurring. Familiars need more encouragement. If I let my Naja metamorphose it’ll become a Najalisk. Its stats might not be as good as if I’d waited. It might take longer to learn moves. But it’ll be a fetching shade of purple, grow a fierce looking horn, and free me from my own rigidly formed habits of how I’m supposed to play these games.

I feed Prang a sundrop, and he starts to transform.