I love grinding. I really do. There's something inherently pleasing about gradually getting stronger and more adept in battle, about seeing those stats edge further and further towards godliness. Many JRPGs require grinding, but Ni no Kuni turns it into a chore, a thankless slog that kills your momentum. Ni no Kuni clings ferociously to every worn-out JRPG trope it can possibly think of - excessive grinding, slow pace, idiotic heroes - and then wraps it all in truly beautiful artwork and character design. Hardcore JRPG fans will love Ni no Kuni despite its clunky quirks, and the game has just enough going for it that almost anyone will enjoy playing for a little while.
Our young hero is Oliver, a brainless gorp of a child who lacks the deductive reasoning skill of your average sandwich bag. Nevertheless, Oliver is the foretold Pure-Hearted One, destined to save the world from which his fairy guide, Mr. Drippy, hails. Oliver has personal reasons for wanting to come to the rescue - if he saves the day; he may also just save his mom, who died rescuing Oliver from the river after a boyish prank went awry. Oliver has the makings of a fine wizard, but first he'll need to fill his sadly vacant spellbook with plenty of hocus pocus before he has any chance of taking on the bad guys, so off he treks to find the Great Sages and pick their brains for magical know-how.
Oliver and his companions will travel far and wide on their adventures, and get into lots and lots of random fights along the way. If you don't enjoy wandering around in circles, doggedly leveling up before entering a new location, then you will face insurmountable frustration as you play through Ni no Kuni. You'll do a fair bit of natural grinding simply traveling from one location to another, but that won't nearly be sufficient to prevent you from dying swift and frequent deaths. You might take down an enormous boss, only to have your next random encounter crush you like a tiny bug. Ni no Kuni's fluctuating difficulty is a giant middle finger thrust in your direction, laughing at your frustration and drinking your delicious tears. Save frequently, and grind until you're so powerful the monsters run away from you, or suffer the consequences.
Your tolerance for the mindless grinding will be directly proportional to your enjoyment of Ni no Kuni's unusual combat system. Armed with a team of up to three creatures called "familiars," you have the option to fight or send them into the fray for you, where they can use magic or muscle, depending on their specialty. Familiars tire out after being in combat for a certain amount of time, forcing you to swap them in and out during longer encounters. The interesting wrinkle is that you and your familiars all share one pool of hit points and magic points - if one takes a hit, you all feel the damage . Combat takes place in real time, though the action pauses when you're switching familiars or taking control of one of Oliver's companions.
The familiars are the real stars of the show, and once you eventually (there's a lot of "eventually" in this game, more on that later) gain the ability to recruit them, collecting a wide variety of critters is part of what makes Ni no Kuni a guilty pleasure. Mixing and matching a team that serves several different strengths adds a layer of personally-tuned strategy to the fighting, but trying to make everyone's team of familiars execute your strategy perfectly is finger-twistingly complicated and unfun. You can give basic instructions to your companions - stuff like "don't do anything" or "go all out" - but they inevitably make stupid choices in the heat of combat. You can take control of them, but the AI is just as dumb when it's controlling Oliver, so it rarely makes sense to ever give him up. I appreciate Ni no Kuni for trying to freshen up the traditional JRPG approach of turn-based combat, and if you can work around the stupid AI you can design some effective strategies, but the combat just never becomes satisfying enough to make you look forward to it.
Ni no Kuni's story is pretty thin, and its combat isn't quite as addictive as it could be, but the bigger problem with the game is its crushingly slow pace. You have to play for hours just to unlock new options in the menu. I'm not talking about fancy stuff like alchemy, either, which shows up much later. No, I mean just being able to look at the map or check your inventory. The speed at which you actually accomplish anything is positively glacial, especially if you also take on the many optional side quests and bounty hunts. All of that said, this is a game you start playing and then suddenly realize that the sun has gone down. It is very, very easy to drop an entire day on Ni no Kuni, grinding, doing side quests, reading through your Wizard's Companion, or collecting familiars.
Given that the game comes from Level 5 and Studio Ghibli, it should come as no surprise that Ni no Kuni is stunning to behold and a lot of fun to listen to. Everything is an enchanting shade of whimsical, charmingly odd without relying on that particular kind of "wacky" that plagues lesser JRPGs and so often feels forced. The soundtrack is a delight, the kind of orchestral pomp that makes you feel heroic simply for picking up the controller. I wish the characters didn't need to explain things to each other three times before they finally understood what was going on, but at least they sound good while they're doing it.
Bottom Line: What Ni no Kuni lacks in finesse it more than makes up for in quantity and packaging - there's tons to do and every single moment in the game is a visual delight. It can be extremely frustrating and makes some choices that don't quite work, but offers enough charm to ultimately win you over.
Recommendation: If you're ok with extraneous grinding, slow pacing, and shockingly stupid heroes, then you'll come to love Ni no Kuni.
Game: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Developer: Level 5, Studio Ghibli
Publisher: Namco Bandai