Ni no Kuni PS3 review – Out of the niche, into your PS3

Ni no Kuni

I’m worried about Ni No Kuni – an RPG I fell for the instant I booted it up and selected ‘new game’ – because I don’t know who’s going to buy it. Okay, I know you’re going to buy it, squeeing into your hand-crocheted Porco Rosso snuggie as you check out the screenshots. It’s the guy behind you I’m anxious about. The one who’ll only stop playing Black Ops 2 when he snaps the discs in a fit of pique. (“Oh – shot through a wall. That’s fair.”) He’s going to see a cheery fight sequence against a swashbuckling cat named Purrloiner and cut this game out of his life forever. And that’s genuinely a bit depressing.

Ni no Kuni PS3 review

Which is not to imply that people shouldn’t play COD, nor that they should buy Ni No Kuni to send those damned industry suits in Fat Cat Towers a message. I’m saying this deserves to be picked up by so many more people than the niche of role-players and Studio Ghibli fans it immediately appeals to. I’m saying it’s so finely crafted it could warm the heart of an Army Of Two player and soothe the perpetual anger of a FIFA-phile… if they’d only let it.

Let’s make absolutely sure JRPG fans are going to be on board first, though. How’s this for a setup, veteran world-saver? Earnest youngster Oliver must leave the white-picket safety of his hometown Motorville and travel to another world to save his mum’s soul, accompanied by a Welsh fairy-king named Drippy. If it sounds a bit PG, that’s because, well, it is. Motorville is the friendliest town in gaming. Everyone and their dog is happy to see you, and early activities include high-octane adventure like popping down to the shop, and sneaking out at night to test out your buddy’s kit car.

I lambasted Tales Of Graces F last year for being too damn pleasant, and while Ni No Kuni does walk that line, it never gets saccharine. When Motorville begins to feel a bit safe you’re thrown into a new world. And when the particular corner of the new world you’ve become acclimatised to feels safe, you’re on to a different corner. From forest to desert. From desert to beach. From beach to Pig-village (just go with it). Ni No Kuni’s world consistently excites and surprises for a number of reasons – humour, expansion of gameplay devices, plot exposition – but maybe most important is that the world is geographically exciting to explore in the first place.

Those graphics don’t hurt, either. It’s like Cloud Strife spiked your hot cocoa and you fell asleep watching Tintin. It’s pretty enough to draw people in from across the room who have no interest in games and ask you what in the name of Jeebus is happening on that screen, and why they suddenly feel like skipping. It’s also beautiful to listen to, thanks to Studio Ghibli’s veteran composer Joe Hisaishi who wrote a wonderful score performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Elsewhere, though, Ghibli’s involvement seems sporadic.

ni no kuni ps3 reviewThe 2D cut-scenes aren’t as frequent as the opening four hours would have you believe, so most of the story is conveyed in the 3D engine, which is certainly no bad thing. The voice-acted scenes are less frequent as the game expands laterally, too. It makes sense that not everything you do 20 hours in is as momentous as it was at the start, and there are plenty of side-quests and ‘bounty hunt’ item collection tasks to sandwich key plot moments, but going a while without hearing a voice isn’t the whole issue here. It’s the moments when a few lines of dialogue crop up in an otherwise text-only scene.

I wouldn’t mind if the voice acting wasn’t genuinely brilliant when it is present. I’m mainly hearing Mr Drippy’s loveable Welsh-isms when I say that, but it’s also refreshing to have Oliver – a young boy – voiced by a young boy, and not some manner of Nancy Cartwright freakishness that constantly sneaks through elsewhere in Japanese gaming. The main characters are so well affirmed by the early voice-acted scenes that you read all their lines in their voices; but that’s no substitution for hearing “Curse lifted is it? Tidy!” from the fairy king himself. And, cards on the table, some bit parts are hammier than Richard Attenborough in a bacon-eating contest, but overall this game is incredibly well-localised. Prod random people in the streets of Al-Mamoon, Hamelin or the Ding Dong Dell, and they meet you with puns, jokes, and even a few culturally esoteric references: one spice merchant in Al-Mamoon proclaims “people of the world – come, spice up your life!” We’ve come a long way from the days of “I am error”, JRPG aficionados.

Now let’s take a step back, and explain why everyone beyond said aficionados will love Ni No Kuni. Simply, it gets the sense of going on an adventure so damn right. It honestly doesn’t matter that the vast majority of your opponents look cute enough to star in their own gif memes, because there’s always such a clear idea of where you’re headed, why you’re going there, what the complication is and how to solve it. Where lesser RPGs leaf through the big book of contrived bullcrap for their complications, Ni No Kuni finds something that makes you smile and want to ruffle its hair. You’re still embarking on fetch quests, but like the best RPGs there’s a support net of outstanding writing that makes things worth fetching.