We make our way through the first five hours of the upcoming Studio Ghibli and Level 5 role-playing game.
While fending off enemies was a variable challenge that got easier once we were familiar with our surroundings, fighting the bosses was a whole other ball game. Throughout our playthrough, we clashed with a forest elemental, a giant rat that cast fireballs and paralysis spells using its tail, a fiery demon with a shield and sword, and a spectre that possessed Oliver's friend's father in the real world. All of these fights required us to defend ourselves whenever they sized up for a full-screen attack--the bosses would usually do a specific animation as a telltale sign for us to get ready.
Oliver can also use his spells outside of combat. In some instances in Ni no Kuni, he has to absorb the essence of a particular person using a magic bottle and a spell, and then use that essence on a person who seems depressed and unmotivated. In one of the early dungeons (and a cat-themed one at that), we had to use his fire spell to light up three braziers placed in each corner of a pathway to open up the gateway to a room. The catch was that we had to be quick about it since each brazier's fire would extinguish after a few seconds. The solution to this puzzle was to plot out the quickest way to reach all three braziers in one go.
Another puzzle in the Desert Palace had us arranging four statues in a certain order to open up a door. The only way to lift them up is to use Oliver's levitation spell. Of course, there are some puzzles that require reflexes rather than brainpower and spellcasting. In the same area, we had to control Oliver and Marle using the left and right analog sticks, respectively, to navigate through a disappearing and reappearing pathway. Navigating the maze got trickier when buttons that activate the pathway for the other maze came into play. This good balance of puzzles kept us entertained as well as made us take a breather from combat.
The standout aspect of Ni no Kuni is how beautiful it looks. To say that it plays like the gaming equivalent of any Hayao Miyazaki feature may be stretching it, but this is as close as we can get. With its combination of 2D animated scenes, cel-shaded graphics, and colourful backgrounds to match the bright-coloured style of the aforementioned features, anyone who says this game isn't beautiful is, frankly, out of their mind. This combination is accompanied by the score of Joe Hisaishi, because you just cannot find a Studio Ghibli project without him being involved in its audio aspect.
One caveat is the game's overreliance on putting markers for objectives to move the story along. While it may help non-Japanese speakers navigate the game just fine via the import copy, we fear that the game may be easy when localized in English, aforementioned puzzles notwithstanding. Still, the game is tailored for all ages, which explains why it leads you from point A to point B without much hassle.
Based on our early playthrough, Ni no Kuni is shaping up to be a beautiful and enjoyable RPG, provided that the aforementioned hand-holding does not bother you. While the game is available in Japan and parts of Asia, the English version will be out "early next year" and will be published by Namco Bandai for North American and European audiences.
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