Ni No Kuni
4th Apr 2011 | 18:30
With a good instruction manual, a game begins the second you leave the store. Many a bus trip back home from the shops has been made more palatable by bundled literature. A mind buzzing with anticipation could be soothed with button maps, character biographies and adverts for extortionate tips hotlines.
Seen the flimsy pamphlets that pass for manuals today? Wit and whimsy are the first victims of a recession. The noble tradition requires a champion.
Ni no Kuni: Sikkoku no Madoshi doesn't come with an instruction manual. It's an instruction manual that comes with a game. The Magic Master is a genuine work of art; luxurious hardback covers cocooning 365 faux-aged pages of ornate illustrations and magical gubbins.
Written off by some as a novelty pre-order bonus, it proves to be much more - a chunk of Level-5's universe torn from the very code. Bestiaries, recipes, fairytales and runes belong in the written word. So they are.
The codex serves as puzzle solver, novelty strategy guide and world embiggener. Meet a new beast in combat and a page-thumbing reveals its elemental vulnerabilities. Enter a new land and it becomes the Rough Guide, only with fewer grotty B&Bs and more cat people. All tucked behind dense Japanese, naturally. It's like a secret wizards' code. Oh, apart from the bits actually written in secret wizards' code. Yep: double codes. We only recommend importing if you're the Enigma machine.
THE CAT'S WHISKERS
Headaches come with the heartache of being unable to appreciate the lore and detail. Yes, tiny devils are poking us up the bum with pitchforks, but what is their motivation? And how did a big fat tabby cat become king? And why do the manhole covers talk? Years of Studio Ghibli films (the acclaimed animation house collaborate here with Level-5) have taught us to roll with it - well, if you can accept the Catbus, you can accept pretty much anything.
The Magic Master's single vital purpose is to provide spell runes. Contrary to early buzz, you can't simply dip into the 50 spells as and when you see fit. If you could, you'd warp to the end boss and pummel him with dark magic. Instead, you have to be initiated into a spell by support characters at pre-set story points.
Thankfully, the spell name is often given, so it's only a case of scanning the contents page for the right combination of squiggly characters. Spells are a mixed bunch. A few get used a lot. Our hero Oliver regularly passes between his world and the Second World (a rough translation of Ni no Kuni) with a magical gate.
Another spell transplants a character trait - courage, creativity, love - from one mind to another, key to many side quests. Combative spells, once learned, are added to Oliver's battle options. A few hours in you gain magics to woo and catch some Imagines - Level-5's take on Pokémon - to fight by your side.
But considering Level-5 put a spell book in our hands, magic is strangely regulated outside of battle. Enter an unnecessary spell and the game bleeps angrily at you. Worse, the best sounding spells aren't used. Maybe we missed a side mission - or have yet to receive one in DLC form - but we were saddened by the lack of time travel and weather tinkering. Come on, a bread-making spell goes unused. Think of the power you'd exert over anyone on the Atkins diet. You'd be unstoppable.
Close the book and what remains is a fine, if soft RPG. Combat is elementally flavoured, though nowhere to the degree of Pokémon. The most novel idea is placing combatants on a three-by-three grid, trying to hide weaklings behind burlier souls and find formations to avoid incoming attack patterns. Successfully dodge and block and you power up uber moves, but these only ever come into play in boss battles - other fights are simply too short to amass enough power.
COULD IT BE MAGIC?
While Level-5's taste for scale remains - there are over 300 Imagines to collect, 100 side quests, Wi-Fi battling and a tag mode - Studio Ghibli curb their meaner tendencies. This isn't the same Level-5 who made us cry in Dragon Quest IX's hidden dungeons. Sure, Ghibli are a family outfit and want every customer to see the fiction through to completion.
But what we demand from films and games, in accessibility terms, is very different, and the contention bubbles up here. But this upset is more down to form than an ideological split. Their methods are different, but both aim for the same goal. Both are master world builders, holding their work to the highest technical standards.
Characters are a brave stab at translating 2D designs into 3D form and brim with tics and quirks. The way aardvark sidekick Shizuku stumbles behind is adorable, and the 2D backgrounds could be cels from Ghibli's reels. Oh, and Joe Hisaishi's epic score practically is a film soundtrack.
And there's that book: the fantasy vision of Ghibli married to the playful ambitions of Level-5. It blurs the real and the digital in a way few games can. It's about as portable as a fridge, but since when has magic been neat and cosy? Ni no Kuni may not be the best RPG on DS, but it is certainly one of the best experiences on DS. Where others coast by on automatic, Level-5 embrace the joy of manual. In every sense of the word.