Friday, April 3, 2015

Ni no Kuni review

I've been noticing lately that all the places near me that sell used games have been reducing the shelf space dedicated to the Nintendo DS. This hasn't really translated into cheaper prices, but whatever games are still left are generally ones that no one wants any more, so there are a few that are in the 100-500 yen range ($1-$5 USD). Most of the games are unrelated to anime titles, and therefore aren't things I care about. However, the last time I went to Book-Off, I decided that I'd snap up cheap titles that caught my eye while I still had the chance. I grabbed 6 games for 2,000 yen total. There were a couple games priced around 950 yen each that I might get later if they're in the store when I go back, and I'm really hoping that Hell Girl gets severely discounted down from 2,500 yen so I can justify buying it. Right now, though, my decisions are based on whether something is really cheap, based on a popular anime, and would be fun to show to people in the U.S. once I go back.

Ni no Kuni (The Second Country: The Black Mage), came out for the Nintendo DS in 2010. There was a version for the PS3, Wrath of the White Witch, which came out in 2011, but because of various problems, the PS3 game was the only one to be released in the U.S.

It's kind of funny - I bought Lost Magic because the cover art looked like Miyazaki's Nausicaa, from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, but nothing in the game matched up with the cover art. Ni no Kuni, on the other hand is a collaboration by Studio Ghibli and Level 5, and all of the cut scenes look like Miyazaki's work. But I hadn't known that when I bought the game.

(Wandering the dungeons.)

Ni no Kuni is an RPG, which is a good thing. The story revolves around a young boy named Oliver. He lives with his mother in a 1950's U.S. city named Hotroit. He gets into an accident and almost drowns. His mother saves him but she dies as a result. He returns home and discovers a magic book that she'd hidden for him to find if anything happened to her. This book lets Oliver teleport to World 2 (ours is World 1), where everyone, including the animals, has a magical counterpart. This world, referred to as "ni no kuni", is in danger of being controlled by the Black Mage. And it just so happens that the Mage's greatest threat had been Oliver's mother, who had fled to our world to live undetected by the Mage. It now falls onto Oliver to master the magic of Ni no Kuni and defeat the Black Mage.

(In battle.)

Like Lost Magic, Ni no Kuni uses the touch screen and stylus to draw runes to use magic. Fortunately, though, once you successfully draw a rune it unlocks that spell and generally you don't ever have to redraw it again to cast it in battle (which automatically makes Ni no Kuni a superior game). Unfortunately, it still took me 5-10 minutes on certain runes to get the game to recognize them, which I hated. There are 51 runes total, and I still haven't needed (or been allowed) to use half of them. Several of the runes were only needed once within the story and I haven't needed them since then. Additionally, very little of the story takes place in World 1. It's pretty detailed and has many places to visit, but 95% of the action is in World 2. World 2 has close to 20 dungeons, and a full casino with slot machines, blackjack tables and a few other gambling games. On top of this are 100 side quests that unlock a few spells, give you treasures and provide a few benefits that improve game play a little (such as generating money as you walk around the maps, or being able to avoid a few random encounters on the main field map). You can kill a lot of time with this game, if you want to.

(The alchemy genie creates a healing potion.)

After finishing the main storyline, a couple optional dungeons get unlocked. One of these is 100 floors tall. Actually, there's a genie (based on the genie from the Disney Aladdin movie) that allows you to perform alchemy to create healing supplies, new weapons and armor, and accessories for Oliver. (Your party is made up of monsters you capture Pokemon-syle, 3 members in the party at a time. Oliver only uses accessories, the monsters use weapons and armor.) The 100-floor dungeon is created by the genie's parents from alchemy materials you find in battles or stores. And this highlights one of the flaws of the game. Certain dungeon floors require super-rare items that are only dropped by specific monsters, and it can take hours to steal or find just one of that item. This means that I'm stuck spending 5 minutes trying to steal something I need to make floor 22 of the dungeon, and when the Steal succeeds, what I end up stealing is a secondary, unnecessary item, rather than the rare one I need. So, I have to go through 5-6 more battles to locate the monster I need to try stealing the item I need, just to get stuck with the garbage item again. The is EXTREMELY frustrating and unfun.

(Party stats, and main menu screen.)

I really want to like Ni no Kuni. The hand-drawn animation scenes are beautiful, the parts with the genie are very funny, and the magic system is interesting. But, the game play doesn't quite live up to the animation. The rune recognition system is hit-or-miss, there's way too much churn in the dungeons, and a lot of the game is too dependent on finding rare items that can take an hour or more to obtain for just one.

(Some of the runes. These are what you're trying to hand-draw using the stylus in order to unlock them. Once unlocked, you usually don't have to redraw them.)

There's a Tamagotchi element, too. You can have up to 6 monsters in your main cage, another 9 in backup, and upwards of 300 in storage. The ones in the main cage receive experience and can level up, but you have to keep them entertained occasionally or they get frustrated and you have to spend money on buying "genki drops" for them to eat to become unfrustrated. Entertainment consists of being petted, chasing after a toy, being brushed and being fed. If you want to groom the monster for battle, then the feeding part is the most important. Most foods, which are item drops during battles, don't do anything. But, there are gum drops that improve the monster's stats, as long as the monster doesn't tire of eating them. The problem is that the gum drops are only available from completing a certain number of side quests, meaning that you get a limited quantity of them. Feeding them to every monster in your collection to prevent them from feeling ignored is a waste. On top of that, there's a limit to how many monsters you can have at one time, so the only real option is to put the ones you never use into permanent storage and get occasional replacements when you encounter something stronger. As it is, though, I only use three monsters consistently, and the others are for emergency backup if I get in over my head in a specific battle.

(World map.)

There are a few similarities with Lost Magic, beyond the rune system. One such is that both heroes are magic users and not fighters. They both have low defense and physical attack stats, but good magical attack stats. The difference is that Oliver doesn't have to be in the party, so losing him doesn't mean losing the fight, as it does in LM. For differences, when you finish the main story, you get a really powerful rune, which deals more damage than anything else I've seen in the game. There's also no immediate level cap. Oliver has gotten to floor 20 of the 100-floor tower, and is currently at level 60. I expect that he'll cap out at level 99, but he can keep recruiting more powerful monsters that will keep leveling up after being captured, so the constant mindless fighting won't be 100% pointless. (The limiting factor is in not being able to steal materials needed for generating each floor of the 100-floor dungeon.)

In summary, Ni no Kuni is a good game for the DS if you can find a Japanese copy. It's not great, but it's better than any of the tactical or strategic games I've played in the last few years. I just wish it was easier to get rare item drops.

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