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One setback might involve spellcasting to redistribute the essence of enthusiasm or courage from one person to another, mending their ‘broken’ heart. Another quandary could involve casting a portal back to Motorville to find a character’s soul mate, solving their problem in that world to improve their plight in the magical realm. Another still will boil down to good old-fashioned ‘hurting things’.
Whatever the methodology of your current quest, you’re inclined to see it through because you trust Level-5 with your time. The game’s not sending you over there because the dev feels obliged to stretch the story over 50 hours – it’s doing it because there’s something cool to show you, something interesting to say. Just as the best kids movies have adults clasping their hands together in delight, Ni No Kuni is blessed with a surplus of charisma that can hold the most joyless, cynical audience in its charms.
Combat is more divisive, particularly if you still give Final Fantasy XIII’s quasi-turn-based system a dark look now and then. While exploring the world, you alert nearby enemies. When they get near enough, the screen spins out into a combat arena. Like Final Fantasy’s Lightning and Serah, Ollie-boy is free to move around once he enters a battle, but performing attacks, spells or using provisions locks him into a timed action that cools down once used.
Again like FF’s candyfloss-topped heroines, Ollie likes to collect the local fauna and train it up for battle. Familiars play a much bigger role in Ni No Kuni, though. Oliver is a wizard not a warrior, and deals a mighty one hit point of damage with his non-magical attack, which amounts to lightly tapping an enemy on the head with a twig. Your magical attacks turn mighty when you hit higher levels, but manna doesn’t regenerate – so most of your attacks must be physical. Hence throwing small, adorable creatures into battle to do your bidding.
My first familiar was called Mitey. Yours will be too, unless you rename him Familli Vanilli or Mitey Cyrus. He’s a kind of imp, strong in both attack and defence. I used him a lot early on. Primarily because he was the only familiar I owned, but even when Thumbo the monkey, Planter the wood… thing, and other recruitable famalams came along, I still relied on Mitey – he was high level, and had been fed a lot of chocolate to improve his attack rating. But when Mitey metamorphosed to gain extra powers and spells, he reset to level 1. If you tend to obsessively pour all resources into one area and create one resplendent Mitey, rather than a fistful of competent creatures, you’ll find it frustrating to have to sideline that chap until he levels back to a respectable number. Especially if you’ve been feeding all your stat-raising snacks to one in particular.
Ni No Kuni’s biggest irritation is that it really doesn’t want you to walk away from a fight. Those who’ve played the demo – a twisting, battle-filled walk up to the summit of a volcano called Old Smoky – will know how hard it is to avoid combat if you want to nip somewhere in a hurry. The option is there to run away when you enter the battle, but by that point you might as well see it through. It’s Level-5’s way of keeping you at roughly the level you need to be to tackle main plot events, but until you unlock a perk that gives you quicker movement speed, the constant ambushes grate. Although much less so than in Final Fantasy XIII-2, in which the latter half often felt like the game was throwing enemies at you to halt you because it hadn’t quite finished building the bit around the corner yet.
Putting that behind us, combat is otherwise a pleasure. The game challenges you in well-judged increments – adding another familiar or party member here and there, making enemies that bit tougher in each area so that when you arrive you’ll be lucky to survive the encounter, but after an hour enemies literally flee from you in terror. Complexity is there if you want it – you can fiddle around with each party member’s role and have one on healing duty while the other only deals magic attacks – but it’s much lighter on menus than most of its ilk, and seems much more interested in keeping you entertained than obsessing over stats. There were a few moments – boss battles specifically – that slayed me when I first tried them, prompting a trip back out into the wilds to grind out a few levels and return stronger, but that has its own appeal. Coming back to a previously insurmountable boss with new weapons and armour and beating it is pure, sweet RPG nectar.
So do me a favour, and tap that guy behind you on the shoulder. Let him know that JRPGs aren’t just for singletons in Neo trenchcoats who count their steps to work. Tell him that the Ding Dong Dell isn’t a special needs school. In fact, just get him in a room with Ni No Kuni, and let its bewitching visuals, accessibility and Mr Drippy do the rest.