Ni no Kuni Demo Disappoints

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was supposed to be my perfect game, yet I knew nearly nothing about it. The beautiful offspring between beloved Studio Ghibli of [insert every Ghibli production here] fame in the feature film world and proven Japanese game developer Level-5, I didn’t need extra information or exposure. With those attractive origins, anything else would be ancillary at best. It goes without saying that Ni no Kuni has long held the honorable position of my most anticipated game of 2013.

And after playing through the just-released PlayStation 3 demo, it’s a pity that’s no longer the case.

To provide a spoonful of context before being tossed into the very abbreviated downloadable trial, the demo opens with a short storybook explanation of the situation at hand. Oliver, a boy as immediately adorable as everything else Studio Ghibli has ever done, has recently lost his mother. By the means of nonsensical no-explanation-needed magical circumstances, though, his tears of longing bring his doll to life, revealing the creature to be Lord High Lord of the Fairies. Yes, dear reader, you did see the word Lord used twice in the same official title, and it certainly wasn’t a typo on anyone’s end. This blatant childhood silliness immediately brought a smile to my face, and the introduction to other kid-friendly names like the Ding Dong Dell and Deep Dark Wood made me believe that I had been correct all along in expecting perfection. In Oliver’s search in another world to save his mother from her tragic no-longer-final fate, my feelings toward Ni no Kuni would evolve from anticipation to delight, eventually culminating into an easy Game of the Year status.

But when I actually played it, everything changed.

I had barely begun to move around the carefully-crafted cartoony environment within the demo when I was confronted with a towering forest guardian. Being so early, I assumed this boss encounter would be a cakewalk and presumed to button-mash repeatedly. My mistake; I was dead in less than a matter of minutes. A fault of my own, for sure, but after retrying and exploring beyond this intimidating giant, I soon realized that I wasn’t enjoying even a second of my time. In a 25-minute demo, that straightforward fact is cause for alarm.

Having now experienced the thing in its entirely, consider myself alarmed.

To tighten in on the nitty-gritty, Ni no Kuni is a JRPG that takes advantage of a ton of traditional tropes characteristic of the genre. Traveling from location to important location, you’ll come across evil creatures to fight and helpful NPCs to speak to, all the while collecting items and leveling up. But Oliver isn’t the only one doing the leveling here. Rather, he acquires a team of little quirky-looking critters to beat the baddies for him. Think of the structure like Pokemon-lite, albeit with more active combat in fully-3D environments.

Emphasis on the “more” in that previous statement. You see, Ni no Kuni doesn’t incorporate truly active combat by the strict definition. Instead, it chooses the Final Fantasy XII-esque approach. Enemies inhabit the explored environment (although we might as well have random encounters, given my apparent impossibility at avoiding these buggers) and coming in contact with them transitions gameplay into a separate combat arena. Movement is completely free, yet all actions are dictated by shuffling through a limited list of options like “Attack”, “Defend”, or some special ability requiring MP. Pick whatever action is most appropriate for the situation at hand and the results are automated onscreen. If you’d like a repeat, wait a bit before that action is able to recharge.

Perhaps it’s entirely personal, but I didn’t like it in FFXII, and I don’t like it now.

My controlled character, be it a creature or Oliver himself, felt incredibly slow, and especially when considering the large, flat, and uninvolving battlescapes where you’re sent with every enemy encounter. As such, I had an incredibly hard time getting away from my attackers. With a combat system that requires strategy to some degree (see the aforementioned failed button-mashing from before for reference), this complaint is more than a minor note. When playing within the chunk of later-game content, I either accepted a reduced sliver or two of HP to overwhelm my adversaries with sword swipes or stayed stupidly far away from bosses for an absurd amount of time, always awaiting an opportune moment to safely engage. These moments rarely arrived, and I either ended up getting lucky or utterly destroyed.

Hey, at least it’s pretty, right? I mean, come on! Studio Ghibli! We’re talking Totoro and Spirited Away! Woo-hoo for the weird eye candy!

…Yeah, I guess it’s pretty. But not overly pretty. Not uniquely pretty, and surely not in that iconic Miyazaki way. I don’t even believe this disappointment is an issue on the design side, but an effect from the jump between entertainment media. In children’s film — even more so today with the rise of 3D animation — Studio Ghibli productions have always been distinctly different, always recognizable amongst other feature-length cartoons. Yet games like Dragon Quest (a few iterations of which, coincidentally, Ni no Kuni developer Level-5 also created) have been giving us goofy monsters for more years than I’ve been alive — literally! And I’m only naming one series in a sea of hundreds of others. Unlike the movie space, video games are no strangers to creatures with crazy appearances and varying designs, and Ni no Kuni will have some difficulty standing out as an extremely original sight to see.

But I still hold hope in my heart, and you should too.

Because a JRPG should never be viewed from a vertical slice. In these isolated instances, I have not nurtured my relationship with these characters. I cannot care about them or their cause. In other words, I’m unable to experience the core of every great game within the genre using only a quick demo. Additionally, I was roughly shoved into combat situations without any sort of tutorial and am likely lacking adequate knowledge to take advantage of every engaging battle aspect to devise a satisfying strategy. Still, impressions are impressions nonetheless, and this hour-or-so left enough of an impression on me to dethrone Ni no Kuni from its privileged position as my most anticipated title for 2013.

I wish to be wrong, to be pleasantly surprised when Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch lands stateside late next month. Until then, let’s set our expectations low to give the game ample opportunity to blow us all away.

Written by: Luke Frazier

Gaming industry addict. Twitter fiend. Unabashed lover of Kingdom Hearts. Other favorites include The Legend of Zelda, Portal, Bioshock, Journey, and peanut butter & banana sandwiches. Also, oatmeal. Let's be friends. @LukeAFrazier – Steam/PSN: GodAlliz

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  • Jay Curtis

    I’ve got to say, after playing the demo myself, I completely agree with you. The demo is just awful. I was also very disappointed. I probably won’t even rent it now.

  • chris

    I completely disagree with this article in every conceivable way. IMO the demo only strengthened my belief that the game will be amazing. I LIKED that it was challenging. Sorry to break it to ya, but maybe the author just isnt very good at video games. Yea, I died the first time I fought the forest guardian too. Then I actually used a bit of thought and careful consideration and found him beaten before I knew it. I actually really liked the slight cross between traditional turn based, menu driven combat and more action oriented combat engines like Tales of series.

    I found the game to be quite beautiful and just what I expected visually from both level 5 and ghibli as I have seen basically every one ghibli’s movies and played many of level 5’s games. IMO no one does JRPGs like Level 5 anymore. They are the best in the business. What squaresoft USED to be.

    Basically you had 2 complaints, the combat engine, and the graphics. The graphics, IMO are absolutely beautiful. Are they on par with some of studio ghiblis movies? Maybe not but this is a real time rendered video game. Those movies are PRErendered in 3d (if cgi is used, it snot always with ghibli) this allows for much prettier visuals.

    Also, its fully 3d, unlike Eternal Sonata (one of xbox’s prettiest RPG’s) wehre the backgrounds were prerendered and the camera was static and not rotatable. Very big difference in technologies there. With the prerendered backgrounds you can go very jam packed with little odds and ends that fill out the frame. Whereas full 3d you have to be a bit more sparse. I found that the characters and art style were IMMEDIATELY recognizable as ghibli work. Visuals did not dissapoint.

    The combat was actually a very nice surprise for me as well. i was expecting a very traditional turn based static menu driven engine. much like DQ8 (one of my fav rpg’s). But what was in its place was a surprisingly deep little semi action oriented engine that was actually a delight after playing around with it for a bit. I think it fit the game perfectly.

    IMO your judgement was a little too hasty and harsh based on a fairly poorly put together demo.

  • I felt like the combat should have just decided on whether or not it wanted to be action rpg style or turn based style, the hybrid stuff just seems too misguided for me. With that said The game looks awesome and the gameplay looks like it will work just fine for people with a bit more patience than me.

  • Joel

    you must be an awful gamer, if you got killed that much playing the demo. I found the difficulty level was easy to play through. I also found the game was exactly how I pictured it would be, and I loved it. The combat system, the visuals, everything was great. Can’t wait to play the full game.

    • I died once on each boss. I don’t claim to be the best player around, but I don’t believe two deaths is that unreasonable.

  • The combat is very simple. Set your little guy to attack, you run around collecting orbs. If you need to heal, call him back, use an item, then send him out again. Oliver is a terrible fighter early on, so it’s better to just let your pokemon do the fighting for you – this applies to the entire game. Oliver gets some slightly useful things later, but the monsters do it better.

    No need to mash, just hit the attack button once every few seconds.

    By the way, I struggled with it too early on, but I guess I had the advantage of having enemy fights to figure it out rather than being thrown into a boss fight.

    • Exactly why I included that final paragraph about the limitations of a demo. This experience threw me in so quickly that I never figured out the logical ebb and flow of the combat. Glad to hear there’s more to it.

      • chris

        No offense then, but dont you think your judgements and the title is a little premature? I mean, you have already conceded that you put too little thought into the combat which basically takes that off of your list of complaints. which leaves only the visuals. and im sorry.. but you are dead wrong about it not being THAT pretty. Its one of the prettier RPG’s of this gen IMO.

        • Previewing demos is always shaky territory…Sure, the game is in a more-or-less finished state very unlike a proper beta, but it’s such a small subsection of the experience. I tried to make that point clear for the get-go, making sure to state in the title that it’s the demo I’m disappointed with and not the game itself. Perhaps I’ll need to be more clear in the future.

  • I have to respectively disagrree with you and thought the game was beautfiul and engaging Also, not trying to sound rude, but if you start off a boss in a RPG and button mash, do you even play traditional RPGs that often? Saying that, I agree the Demo was not the greatest , but still really good. The Beautiful art direction, music, a potentially great and deep familiar/combat system and a glimpse into this fantastic world has me just as excited for this game as I was before the demo.

    • People seem to be really caught up on this button mashing bit. I didn’t stand still like a fool, literally mashing a button with regard for anything happening to me. No, I went in trying to play it like a straight-up action-RPG. When I realized it wasn’t, I changed strategies.

  • matty Gaffney

    not sure if it is the same demo or not, but i played a demo at NY comic con which had two segments (one story focused and one battle/exploration focused) and both completely blew me away and got me even more excited (and this had already been my most anticipated game for two years…)

    • Super glad you enjoyed it! I dunno, perhaps I’ve built this game up for too long and went into an abbreviated experience way too blind. Fingers crossed that the game’s a masterpiece.

      • matty Gaffney

        wow thanks for replying to my comment! yeah I guess my philosophy is that I try not to judge a game too much until i’ve played the full thing – because even though I loved the demo maybe i’ll hate the final product (or flipped with you maybe). sort of how i feel about movie trailers…ive seen some great trailers for some horrible movies and vice versa…who knows! i just tend to be on the optimistic side…

  • Daryl Hennsen

    Amateur “gamer” wannabe journalist “i was button mashing my way! but i didn’t win” writes on some bullshit blog and uses sensasionalist headline.

    • Playing a demo and voicing my opinions has nothing whatsoever to do with journalism in any sense of the word. Yes, to get a feel for the combat system I started button-mashing. And died. Lesson learned. Not a fault of the game, and I explicitly didn’t blame anyone but me for that early and expected death.

      Oh, and the Ni no Kuni demo disappointed me. Sorry that I thought this title was easier to understand than “Ni no Kuni Disappoints One Guy That Writes For A Website You’ve Never Heard Of.” What were you expecting?

    • Yes, why would a writer on a game blog be qualified to give opinions on gaming? Truly moronic.

      Also, sensationalist? No offense to the author, but it’s as dry as it could be. The Ni No Kuni Demo Disappoints. The interweb is strong with this one.

  • Andrew

    Just so you know, I think you’re right. Even if this is a good game at it’s core, it wasn’t a good demo at all. Maybe, I was way too hyped, but I was severely disappointed.

    • Thank you, friend! Demos really do end up making us judge a book by it’s cover…or, maybe, it’s cover and a random except from the middle of the story. It let me down, but let’s hope this isn’t akin to the entire experience.

  • Jay Curtis

    I haven’t played the demo yet, but I really want this game to be good.

  • thekingofkings

    keke… most demo disappoints…

    • Ha, so true, except for that Just Cause 2 spectacle.

  • Kris

    I disagree with your assessment. I found it a thrilling throwback to JRPGs of yore.

    • I didn’t know you could disagree with someone on the internet and not yell at them. You have restored my faith.

    • I wholeheartedly agree. Haven’t been this hyped for a JRPG since, I don’t even remember when.

    • Great! Too many people reading reviews, previews, and opinion pieces believe that the writer is expressing a new law for all to abide by and get angry if anyone disagrees. On the contrary, I want everyone to like every game. The most people having fun, the better.

  • This is super sad. I too wanted this game, but i simply cannot slog through another JRPG for a while. I HAVE A LIFE.

    Still, JRPG’s gonna JRPG. Cant fault it too much.

    • I should know better than to demo a story-driven game at this point. Avoid it if you can and wait for the full release.

  • Robert Betharen

    Go Troll elsewhere what a bullshit pathetic website, blacklisted

    • Blacklisted hahahahaha.

    • How is my opinion perceived as trolling? I didn’t like a demo, and listed evidence why. Clean cut, sir.

  • Parcelly

    I’m sorry but this is one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played. The beauty of the world map is unbelievable. Clouds casting shadows over the landscape and a detailed landscape as far as the eye can see. When your exploring the world The backgrounds are jammed packed with eye candy. Just like the backgrounds in the movies.

    The style of enemy encounter was great as you can spot enemies in the distance. Ive grown bored of random encounters but I found you could easily evade unwanted enemy attacks by allowing them to notice you (exclamation appears over their head) then when they dash in a straight line, you just loop around them.

    I like the fact that I failed a few times on the boss fights(bosses are traditionally meant to be a challenge, right?). Hopefully this game has a good difficulty level and this wasn’t just because I was getting used to the game play. Which I also enjoyed. I like the action RPG style akin to FFX and haven’t been able to go back to turn based since.

    My biggest gripe was the character drippy. He has the power fullest welsh accent I’ve ever heard and I’m Welsh! I actually found it a little offensive as most Welsh people don’t say “mun” and “tidy” every other word. Maybe when we are accentuating a point. So I’ll be playing with Japanese audio turned on, which i’m glad they included as I watch animes subbed by choice.

    • An opinion in a comments section, different from my own yet without any mean spirit. You have no idea how much I appreciate you.

      Yes, and Drippy’s accent…Goodness. I typically adore the English voicework in Studio Ghibli productions and JRPGs, even when it’s overly campy. But Drippy…Ugh.

      • Parcelly

        Lol. No worries mun 😉

  • I do understand what you mean. Sometimes the demos aren’t focused on the right scene(s), and it’s even harder to make a good demo for a J-RPG game. Like you said, there’s so much more about it than just combat. But since we’ve only had combat to try in the demo, let’s talk about it a little.

    I actually had a hard time defeating the forest boss until I understood all the combat mechanisms. For instance, using that summoned pet to drag the mob away, then switch back to Oliver to use some fireball spell, back again to that pet cause his defence is better, etc. Keep running around to grab those HP/MP bonuses dropped by that doll also helped.

    Then onto the second boss fight, I could notice you have several pets you can command, and if you switch between them properly, you’ll notice they’re more or less appropriate to the situation. You can also control the girl and her pets, define group strategies, a bit like in White Knight Chronicles (defend, give it all, heal etc)

    I was afraid that the game would be too childish and more like a Pokemon game with all these pet sending and ordering. But it seems better that I thought, and I’m probably going to give it a try.

    Oh and yes, the game really is pretty !

    • Wow, I didn’t get anywhere near that deep into the combat. As I mentioned, I knew I was missing the intricacies! Poor demo design, I guess, assuming the player will figure it all out in an instant. Expect it’s more fully explained throughout the actual game narrative.