The story begins in the small but busy town of Motorville, where we meet 13 year-old Oliver. Oliver and his friend Philip have been working on a small car for months, and it's finally ready for a test drive. They're too excited to delay so they agree to sneak out that next night to test it. No sooner has the test drive begun than things go wrong and Oliver ends up in a river. His mother, having discovered Oliver's empty bed and started looking for him, sees Oliver drive into the river and jumps in to save him.
All seems well when Oliver and his mother make it safely back to shore, but Oliver's mum has a weak heart, and all that swimming has strained it to breaking point – she dies then and there. Oliver is understandably devastated, and spends the next few days locked away in his room, crying over his mother's passing. In the midst of his crying, some of Oliver's tears land on Mr. Drippy, his favourite toy. Somehow Oliver's tears bring Mr. Drippy to life and he tells Oliver there may be a way to save his mother by traveling to Mr. Drippy's world. Oliver is understandably excited by the prospect, and with that the adventure begins.
Combat is part real-time and part turn-based. Initially you get to execute a command such as an attack or a spell, which your character will perform for you. Once this is finished, you're free to run around the small battle area, staying clear of attacks or positioning yourself for better attacks, before executing anther command when it's your turn again. You'll get used to the ebb and flow of combat in no time, but things do get more complicated soon.
Before long you'll gather some companions who join you in battle, and you'll also earn ‘familiars', which are tamed enemies who will go into battle for you. Oliver has two human companions, and all three humans have up to three familiars they can call on at any time during battle. You only control one character at a time, with AI controlling the other two. You can set tactics up for each of the characters, things like ‘go for it', ‘provide backup' and ‘don't use abilities', as well as whether they target the same or different enemies.
Familiars can also be fed treats to improve specific attributes, like attack or defence, outside of battle. There are limits to how much you can improve a familiar this way, but if you give them their favourite food they'll start to like you more, and will be able to improve further.
Familiars and enemies all have affinities – sun, star and moon – which have a paper, scissors, rock-style relationship. Sun is strong against moon, moon is strong against star, and star is strong against sun. Then there's the planet affinity, which seems to rule them all, but is never really explained. Picking familiars that can exploit enemy affinities is a useful battle tactic, especially early on.
Outside of battle you'll see a mini-map in the top-right corner with a star-shaped marker showing you where to go next. There are no shortage of towns and other places of interest (i.e. dungeon-like areas where enemies lurk) on the map, and entering one transports you inside them.
Later in the game you unlock the Alchemy ability, which allows you to combine items in the hope of creating something better or stronger than its parts. To help with this some residents will give you alchemy formulas that you can follow directly, so it's worth your while talking to NPCs in town. You're also free to mix any objects you like, but without a formula to follow (or an internet FAQ) your strike rate won't be too flash.
A sense of humour permeates Ni No Kuni, with Mr. Drippy leading the way. Mr. Drippy is the Lord High Lord of the Fairies but his accent (Welsh?) is awesome, and he has a series of funny things to say throughout the game. It's hard to list specific examples, but suffice to say that listening to him is one of the highlights of the game. Humour resides in other places too; in one town where a cat is king he is referred to as “Your Meowjesty”, and a large queen is similarly referred to as “Her Moojesty”. The crow that runs the weapons shop is not a quartermaster but a “Cawtermaster” and so on.
The trip to Mr. Drippy's hometown, The Fairyground, has a series of funny events, culminating in being shot, via cannon, into the mouth of Mr. Drippy's mum, who only opened her mouth wide enough for you to enter after listening to the comedy routine of a couple of fairies, is great fun. The only way out is through rebirth, which doesn't impress at least one of Oliver's companions, but does provide a few more laughs.
Another issue is the worryingly ineffective AI of your companions, despite being able to give them basic instructions. If you don't specifically tell them not to use abilities they'll power through all of their limited MP in just a couple of fights, and they'll often use spells inefficiently or unnecessarily, like a magic ward cast when you're facing a physical attacker. Plenty of times, including some of the last battles in the game, I found it easier to win fights when my two companions died and I didn't have to worry about keeping their health in check, or stopping them from walking into enemy attacks.
The last issue I had was that familiar development is never properly explained or visible in the game. It turns out that some familiars are best early on, while others don't really become useful until much later in the game. There's no way to tell which is which though, so you can put hours and hours into a certain familiar, only to find they're no longer useful no matter what you do. If you had an idea of when a familiar would reach their peak it would allow you to plan better, and get more satisfaction out of their development.
Much of the music is handled by Joe Hisiashi, who has worked on over one-hundred movie scores, including many Studio Ghibli movies. His sweeping orchestral songs will evoke feeling from even the most stoic of explorers. Far from being sugary sweet as the visuals might lead you to believe, most of the tunes carry with them a feeling of tension and hidden danger. The only knock on the orchestral score is that the songs can be a little short, and thus repeat a little too often. Mr. Drippy is the highlight of the voice acting, bringing such exuberance and a unique manner of speech as you'll find in a game. The rest of the cast does a credible job, but to be honest Mr. Drippy is the star of the show.
There is a lot to like about Ni No Kuni, and it's fantastic to see a game like this released in the west. At its best Ni No Kuni provides depth and entertainment that belies its cute visuals; a game that players of all ages can enjoy. It's not without faults, but most of them will be forgiven quickly. If you're a fan of RPGs (and especially if you're a younger fan) Ni No Kuni comes highly recommended.
Review By: Mike Allison