The two worlds between which the pair travel are inextricably linked. Actions performed in one affect the other: to find a missing cat king in the world of Ni No Kuni, Oliver may have to travel back to Motorville to search for the grocer’s overweight tabby, Timmy Toldrum. A potential party member in Ni No Kuni’s world may need her family problems solved in Oliver’s town before her alter ego, or ‘soul mate’, has the mental and emotional strength to join in the adventure. This inter-dimensional travel isn’t nearly so involved as in, say, Chrono Cross, but it provides texture and variety.
Battles – the typically tactical heart of any Japanese RPG, where friction and peril are to be found in the highest concentration – also play with their genre heritage. Oliver takes familiars, Pokémon-esque creatures that fight in his stead, into battle with him. Each can only fight for a limited amount of time, after which they must be stowed away to recover, leaving you to either use one of the other creatures or have Oliver employ his new-found wizardly skills and stand on his own. What first appears to be a simple system soon reveals satisfying depths. Strike your attack button while the command is flashing blue to indicate an incoming attack and you’ll counter the move, nudging this JRPG towards action/fighting game territory.
While you choose commands from a menu list, you maintain full spatial control of your character in battle, dodging incoming projectiles and moving to collect the life- and magic-restoring orbs that spill from enemies like sweets from piñata. Outside of battles, you must feed and nurture your familiars, offering them sweets and buns to buff their stats to either compensate for areas of natural weakness, or to accentuate their strengths. Later in the game, other characters join in battle, and it’s at this point that the fine grain of the battle system is fully revealed.
While Oliver’s burgeoning magical skills are essential in combat, they also find uses off the battlefield. In addition to fire and healing spells, Oliver learns an ever-widening range of everyday magic – spells used to spring locks, rejuvenate tired objects and, crucially, remove emotions from or give them to people in the world. Many tasks involve finding a particularly enthusiastic or courageous denizen of Ni No Kuni, siphoning off some of their spirit with a simple spell, and infusing another, depressed character with its revitalising effects. This restorative work is captivating, as you work to save not only Ni No Kuni’s world, but also its people, one broken heart at a time.
Level-5 and Studio Ghibli’s contributions are harmonious. As a game, Ni No Kuni builds upon classic JRPG foundations, eschewing the evolutions of Xenoblade Chronicles and Final Fantasy XII. But the assured flair with which Level-5 has implemented each of the game’s classic components combines with Ghibli’s masterful storytelling to deliver a JRPG that’s quite unlike any other. And while the story may lean more heavily on cliché than Ghibli’s film work, it retains the studio’s innate ability to articulate the mental landscape of a child, and to relate that viewpoint back to adults in meaningful ways. A familiar tale in a familiar genre, then, but this is a game full of youthful wonder, imagination and thoughtfulness.