Ni no Kuni is not going to be a massive hit. It is not going to redefine gaming, nor will it be appearing in the collections of most casual gamers. It is a title that will either find a niche audience or die in the attempt. But it already has a big head start.
While the name may not be familiar to most, the Ni no Kuni brand is one that gamers with their eye on the Japanese gaming scene know well. Even before people knew a thing about the game itself, the title was making a name for itself primarily because of a relatively massive print book that came along with the original game, which was first released on the Nintendo DS in December of 2010.
This weighty tome was mixed with the gameplay, and it contained several spells that were activated using the DS’ stylus. It was a representation of a vital magic book in the game itself, and was necessary to play. This could easily have rendered the game to the corners where other gimmick-filled games go to die, but Ni no Kuni had something else going for it: it was good. It was very good, and sold over 500,000 units in Japan alone. In fact it is still considered one of the best DS games made, and that is saying something for a system that sold well over 150 million systems and ranks as the second best-selling gaming system of all-time.
In fact it was so good that fans that follow import games began to clamor for a North American and/or European release in one form or another. The DS version such was a hit in Japan that it merited a ported version on the PS3 with and updated battle system, higher resolution graphics, and slightly different content, which was released in November of 2011. That PS3 version will receive one more overhaul as it heads to North America with a Winter 2012 release date.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch stars a young boy named Oliver, who loses his mother after she rescues him from drowning. While this may be a slightly dark intro for a story about a boy that fights monsters in a magical land, not all is as its seems. Oliver’s tears manage to free a fairy named Shizuku, which had been imprisoned as a doll, a doll that Oliver’s mother gave him.
Convinced that his mother is still alive, Oliver follows Shizuku into Ni no Kuni, which translates to “Second Country” to save her. While there he meets several other inhabitants that are altered reflections of people and animals he knows in the real world. Hijinks ensue.
The game looks like an movie, with a touch of cell shading saturating an art design taken directly from an anime style. The facial movements, colors, and designs would be right at home in any animated Japanese film, and that alone makes this game worthy of the attention of any Japanophiles.
Ni no Kuni is a beautiful and rich looking game with a slightly cartoony visage that fits with the alternative world that Oliver finds himself, and helps to offset the otherwise melancholy tale of an orphan boy looking for his dead mother.
At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking that the game is developed and designed for kids, but it is more than that, and should appeal to a wider audience—as long as that audience enjoys the traditional Japanese style of RPG combat.
The game is a traditional JRPG in every sense. The combat will be turn-based and features combat that freezes as select your attacks. There is still much to be revealed about the details of the combat system, but it will feature human characters (or what appear to be human characters that join Oliver) who can summon creatures to act as allies in combat. Each of these unusual (and typically cute) monsters will have their own attack or attacks you can use, or you can instead opt to use the human character’s magic, abilities, or physical attacks.
Some characters will also have unique powers that may be used offensively or defensively—if you have played any of the older Final Fantasy games or games in the same genre, then you know the way it plays out. The combat will also be encounter-based and initiated when an enemy in the world map touches the main character, sending it into the separate combat screen.
The world is a traditional JRPG setting as well, with an overhead view of the world leading you to sections that you enter and explore, places like towns and dungeons.
Ni no Kuni is a game that will appeal to the hardcore fans of the genre and win over those that love the idea of playing out an anime. The mainstream crowds probably won’t get as much out of it, but it isn’t made for them. There is still a lot of time until we can expect the North American version of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch to hit stores, but for fans of the style, and those that have been wondering why the Japanese gamers were having all the fun, keep an ear and an eye peeled for more info during E3.