Do yourself a favor. As soon as you start playing Ni No Kuni, go into the options menu and turn off the little indicator that tells you where to go next. Turn off the hints, too. And while you’re at it, you might want to have this role-playing game, ported over from Japan, speak to you in its native tongue with English subtitles instead of the soap opera-emotive overdubbing. Ni No Kuni wants to whisk you away into the unfamiliar. You’ll visit a sepia-toned, post-industrial metropolis where everyone wears pig costumes because their leader lost his ability to see beauty. Or, minutes later, a casino run by the undead, deep within a graveyard that is itself deep within a narrow mountain path. It’s a magical game that slowly extends its hand. Take it.
The game first grazes your fingertips like a stranger on a plane about to go down, grabbing across the aisle for any human contact. Oliver, a 13-year-old boy who lives in Motorville (in other words, Anytown, U.S.A.) is joyriding in his friend’s go-kart when it plummets into a stream. His mom rushes to the rescue—he’s all she has, and vice versa—but dies saving him. Oliver cries, gripping a relic of his mother’s life, a hand-stitched doll with a big schnoz.
The first of many surprises slaps you across the face. The doll springs to life, invigorated by Oliver’s seemingly miraculous tears. This is Drippy, a resident of a parallel universe where wizards are real, and Oliver just may be the strongest wizard yet— the “Pure-Hearted One,” capable of restoring peace. Drippy offers Oliver a second chance in this mysterious place. Everyone has a double in his world of Ni No Kuni, Drippy explains, even dear mum—worshipped there as the great sage Alicia. Perhaps if he joins Drippy, he will feel his mother’s embrace again.
The game is gorgeous. Studio Ghibli, notable for anime films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, developed the look of the game—bright at times and brooding at others, with shades of purple and gray lifted from many a Rhode Island School Of Design admissions portfolio. But everything pops. Oliver, Drippy, and the rest of the gang resemble characters from a children’s picture book, sharply drawn, while the lush backgrounds shift and fade like a chameleon. A desert oasis is crowded and dusty; when you end up inside a stadium-sized fairy, the innards look like a nursery mural. The evil villainess who watches Oliver from afar captures the overall visual aesthetic perfectly: She’s drawn with clean lines and pale shades, and the inside of her long cloak contains all the swirling planets of the infinite universe.
Curiosity is a prerequisite. The map sprawls as you scamper along—you’re a speck on a stretch of abandoned railroad tracks or in a ritzy oceanside fishing town. There are glimpses movement in the distance—monsters prone to similar wanderlust, who attack on sight or scamper away in fear. And whether you travel by foot or by sea, Drippy is your constant companion, egging you on in his Viking-like burr and encouraging you to search every nook and cranny for those who need Oliver’s help. It’s not a mandate, though. Drippy knows that ultimately this is Oliver’s decision. You were kind enough to trust the game by locking hands, and Ni No Kuni honors that bond.
This sense of “there are no wrong answers” becomes important when it’s time to navigate the game’s complicated fighting system. Thrown onto the battlefield, Oliver finds himself in command of three “familiars”—former enemies coerced into fighting on your side. There are hundreds of different enemies who can serve as familiars, each with their own strengths. Maybe you’ll recruit floating gear with a gear-face. Or a chicken with a huge mohawk. Or a bushel of bananas with arms, holding two bananas in his hands, like he’s a grocery store gunslinger. Or the sun. Collect them all!
Later, two allies join your quest, and each of them is capable of commanding three familiars of their own. It’s like trying to coach three basketball games at once. You can leave your computer-controlled allies to manage their own teams, or you can micromanage every little decision: Do you burn through lightning spells with your obese pheasant or spank the monsters repeatedly with your monkey (not a euphemism)? Even the downtime matters—familiars travel with you, and you build up their strength with companionship and by feeding them the occasional treat.
It sounds overwhelming, but Ni No Kuni doles out new wrinkles with a deliberate pace. Drippy teaches you how to operate one familiar before giving you two, for instance. Meanwhile, Oliver carries around a mammoth tome called the Wizard’s Companion, which provides spells and background facts about various familiars. Many pages are missing, and your travels dictate how the book gets filled in. You never feel like you’re flailing. Ni No Kuni has your hand the entire time, gently tugging you forward until you’re a veritable champion.
When you’re not laying on the hurt with a robo-rabbit or admiring the immaculate scenery of an autumnal forest, you march around towns, restoring warm feelings to citizens who are “broken-hearted”—those who have had their essence stolen by the evil witch’s rag-doll henchman Shadar. Many of the stories are almost as sad as Oliver’s: One little girl back in Motorville is in pain every time her parents fight. Oliver discovers it’s because her dad’s been corrupted by a nightmarish specter. On his way to getting that precious hug from his mom, Oliver wants to touch others as well—he knows the healing power of human contact. It’s at moments like these that I would glance at the clock and realize that I’d been playing for five hours, or longer. When I wasn’t paying attention, the game inched its hand over my shoulder and wrapped both arms around me. I didn’t want this big banana-hand hug to end.