I was really excited to play Ni No Kuni DS for three reasons: 1) Studio Ghibli; 2) the book; 3) to improve my Japanese. And, when I started, I was happy for all reasons: the packaging was better than anything I’ve seen in decades, the Japanese in the manual and the game was at a level where I could figure out most of it without having to pull out a dictionary too often, and the visuals in the opening scenes were pure Ghibli.
They weren’t the only Ghibli touches, either: the initial music, while no where near as good as the best Ghibli music, did have that feel at times, as did the initial setup in the plot. Though the plot was a warning sign: one specific way in which the game reminded me of Ghibli was getting parents out of the way right in the start. And they did that in a particularly callous way: the father wasn’t there to begin with, and the mother died saving her son (the main character) right at the start. (With the hope of resurrection, giving her an extra utilitarian role as a motivator.) And I’m not comfortable with that instrumental use of women solely to provide motivation for the hero; Ghibli has more than enough of my respect (and more than enough fondness for female characters, the fact that the hero is male instead of female is unusual) for that not to be a deal breaker, but I also think that Ghibli at its best would have handled that plot aspect better.
Still: the visuals were pure Ghibli. And I was in love with the game for the first couple of hours: I felt like I was exploring the inside of a Ghibli movie. It wasn’t just the Ghibli aspects that I liked, either: I liked pulling out the book to figure out how to cast a spell, the dual world conceit worked well, and I hoped that the need to cast magic outside of battle was a sign that the game might have a Golden Sun feel.
After a couple of hours, I hit my first dungeon and started having to fight. It wasn’t too bad, though; standard JRPG stuff, but the battles were over quickly. Or rather, standard JRPG stuff with a bit of Pokemon influence: there are creatures called Imagines that help you, and while I’d only seen one or two at that point, the book made it clear that there were dozens more to come.
Then I hit the first city. (Or rather, the first city in the second world, the magical world.) That I enjoyed as well: another well-done world to explore, a requirement to go back to the first world to accomplish a task, a mechanic about restoring parts of people’s psyche. All good stuff. Yes, there were also people with random tasks to accomplish, and another dungeon to go to, but still, on the balance I was quite enjoying myself.
Unfortunately, the balance shifted. I spent less time in cities, more time in dungeons, and more time in the overworld; the latter two had respawning wandering monsters, which I do not enjoy at all. (Fortunately, they are visible, at least as long as you’re not traveling by ship.) The dungeons were okay, but not great; the cities started to be more routine, with more time spent on routine quests and less time traveling back to the first world or meeting new characters. (Some of that was probably my fault, too: I wasn’t spending as much time puzzling out the language by this point as I had been at the start of the game. But I’m fairly confident that the game’s plot isn’t deathless.)
We got a few more mechanics, but they weren’t ones I enjoyed: one mechanic was a way to capture wandering monsters (because what I really want out of RPGs is not to have to choose three of my eight party members to be active, I instead want to choose three out of a hundred?), and another was an item crafting mechanism. Great if you’re a completionist; not great if you’re, well, a Ghibli fan. Also, my hopes of a Golden Sun influence were dashed: you very rarely had opportunities to use magic outside of battle/healing, and in fact those opportunities were rare enough that I didn’t think of using magic when it might have been helpful.
I stuck with the game for more than twenty-five hours. But stopping was absolutely the right move: that session lasted for about an hour and a half, I’d only spent a couple of minutes of it reading Japanese, maybe five minutes enjoying thinking about a dungeon, and the rest either fighting battles that I didn’t enjoy or trying to avoid those same battles. Not good.
I’m sure that, if the game had been in English, I would have enjoyed it somewhat more; my guess is that I would have finished it, though I could be wrong about that, and I wouldn’t have felt great about finishing it. But for those of you looking for a Ghibli movie in game form: this is not that game, though it will seem like it at the start. And, to the extent that it’s like a Ghibli movie, it’s not like a good one: the movie that it reminds me most of is The Cat Returns, except without the wonderful theme song. I’m glad I bought it; I’m glad I stopped playing it; and I’m not planning to play the PS3 version when it comes out in the U.S.
This post has not been revised since publication.