Skip to content

Ni No Kuni: Totally Worth It

2014 February 9

I rate Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for Playstation a 9.6/10.

I don't play many video games, but if there are many more of this quality, then perhaps I should

Alternate rating: “OMFG.”

Beyond that, where to begin…

It has been just one week shy of a year since I declared my interest in this game, and intent to play it some day. About… five weeks since I received my secondhand PS3 and began playing. And about one week since I began the final stage of the game. Which was an absolutely shocking spike in difficulty compared with the other 95% of the game.

I have no idea how this game ranks in terms of a challenge by any kind of “objective” measure, if such exists. I was never an especially skilled gamer even when I played regularly—which was in the 8-bit era—so I played the “easy” setting. In that context, most of Ni No Kuni seemed reasonably easy, in that I had to work for it but mostly progressed through the game without being killed and having to go through sections all over again too often, which was my goal.

Perhaps two-thirds of the way through the game, I began feeling like I really had things under control, which, arguably, seemed like it should be the case for a skilled wizard, but I did eventually entertain some thoughts that maybe I was chewing things up a bit too easily. The false climax of the game, in which I completed the main quests that had occupied the protagonists up to that point, honestly seemed like a bit of a walk. Then things got a little harder… and then suddenly, I stepped into the Ivory Tower, and things got a lot harder.

This is really my only serious criticism of Ni No Kuni, and I’m really undecided whether or to what extent it’s a genuine flaw. I know little about gaming and less about game design, but I have to imagine that game difficulty is, itself, an incredibly difficult problem to get right. Even just for myself, I cannot decide what to think about the wall I ran into near the end of the game.

On one hand, it really did suck the fun out of the game for five or six days. I really don’t like fighting that much, and while this game made it interesting enough in general, my interest in a given fight quickly tapered off after one time. A lot of little fights were repetitive, but these were at least short; the boss fight at the end of the game is a marathon. I played it five times—after having gone through a previous section of the same stage three times—and it got really, really old. It ate at me, too. After dying at the exact same point in that fight for the third time, yesterday, I tossed and turned much of last night. Sleep is not normally a problem for me, either. But I had invested so much in this game by that point, and suddenly getting completely stuck for the first time was a real blow. To some extent if felt like I had been misled.

On the other hand, finally winning on this morning’s second try was so rewarding. I really don’t know how I would have felt had I completed that last stage in just a day or so; in general I still would have considered this game a wonderful experience. But I’m certain that it would not have compared with the rush of getting past an obstacle that loomed so much larger. It feels like I really, really earned the win. After getting through almost the entire story with the combat skills of a hamster, I was forced to up my game significantly. I had to develop a whole new awareness of the battle mechanics, to start paying attention to things I had ignored, and ultimately to push myself until I pushed the right damn buttons in the right situations faster than before.

So… was this a bug or a feature? At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s a significant flaw. I gave the game 9.6. But most of the reason I hold back 4% is because of how the difficulty was handled. I felt blindsided, and then frustrated, and I think both of these could have been reduced without taking away much of the challenge. If nothing else, some way of skipping through the lengthy cut scenes involved in getting from the last possible save point to the moment where I was actually struggling would have helped enormously. As it is, I reached the point where I put the TV on mute and walked away to wash some dishes or something. I think this seems like a real game design flaw.

A little bit more preparedness for what I was heading into would have helped, too, and to some extent this is connected to one minor flaw of the game as a whole. It seems to have this gap between the way it all but holds your hand through significant portions of the game, but here and there drops you completely on your own without warning. Again, I’m sure this is very hard to get right, especially when the audience will include enormous disparities in skill and experience. So, I think there was some room for improvement here, but the only no-brainer issue I can see is the cut scenes, for which I’ve marked the game down a little but only a little.

Because, overall: so fantastically astonishingly worth it. Part of my awe is, I’m sure, a consequence of the fact that hey, video games have come a long way since Tecmo Bowl, Skate or Die and even Castlevania III. This I recognize. But I’ve got to believe (and I’m not alone; the game has won a number of awards) that Ni No Kuni is exceptional even by that standard. I wasn’t just playing this game for five weeks, I was immersed in it. The fact that it kept me up last night long after I had turned off the PS3 is partly a measure of how intensely I was living in this game. Dazzling production values do not by themselves an immersive game make, either. One of the few other games I’ve played that was this absorbing was Escape Velocity Nova, and large parts of that were practically a text adventure welded to a mildly advanced version of Asteroids from Atari. The story and the world it created in my imagination made me want to lose myself in it.

Same with Ni No Kuni. I wanted to go on and on exploring the places in that game, and its characters became like real people whom I am going to miss. (Fortunately, even if I never play through the rest of the game again, they provide some bonus missions to indulge in after the credits finish rolling.) The story was compelling and wonderfully rich, both in terms of plot intricacy and thematic depth. The cosmology it rests on has a few inconsistencies if you think about it long enough, I’ve got to say, but the game’s creators really did a phenomenal job fitting together so many elements. This was an epic.

I’m pretty sure that part of this is due to the involvement of Studio Ghibli, which was always the game’s main draw for me; happily, as a last note, I can say that this not only did not disappoint but actually surpassed my expectations. I have no idea whether Hayao Miyazaki had much if any direct involvement with developing this game, but for a fan his influence is recognizable again and again. To wonderful effect. Someone involved in this game certainly spent a great deal of time not only studying the master’s films and their design style, but also dwelling on the powerful themes and questions that Miyazaki-sensei has spent an entire career exploring.

In summation, it’s really hard for me to speak to the general audience for video games, but coming from where I did I am certainly thrilled with this one. For anyone who has enjoyed Miyazaki’s work, meanwhile, I’m just going to declare that you owe it to yourself to give Ni No Kuni a look, at least, even if you are a total outsider to video games.

It’s totally worth it.

2 Responses
  1. February 10, 2014

    Wow, haven’t thought about Escape Velocity in a while. I think you were the one who originally turned me on to that, too! 🙂

    • Matt permalink
      February 10, 2014

      I didn’t get around to linking it, but I have preached the gospel of the Escape Velocity series at least once.

      I’m definitely of two minds about how much I want to look into other titles for the PS3. I don’t play games all that much, but when I find a good one it really can be just like crystal methamphetamine… I found the ending of Ni No Kuni extra delightful for its ambiguous message; they invite you to enjoy some extra missions and other features after you win, but it’s difficult for me to imagine that a possible alternate interpretation of “enjoy all this world has to offer” was entirely accidental. 😉

Comments are closed.