The DigestVideo

Games Of January 2013: Ni No Kuni

The Level-5/Studio Ghibli collaboration sure looks great, but is slow pacing its downfall?

By John Teti • February 12, 2013

Now that video games are coming out again, so is The Digest, our monthly look back at games of note—with snacks! All your friends are back: Steve Heisler, the blue Pac-Man ghost, and even Vaguely Unsettling Cardboard Santa. And there’s an exciting development on the comestibles front in this edition: We’re eating our first reader-submitted snacks. They’re homemade marshmallows made by loyal reader stakkalee, in chocolate, cherry, and blueberry flavors. Steve and I sampled the chocolate-flavored variety today; you’ll have to watch to see what we thought.

Then it’s on to the game at hand, and today that’s Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch. Steve reviewed Ni No Kuni last month, and I’m providing a different point of view insofar as I’ve “only” played the game for 15 hours or so—long enough to understand the complex battle system but not long enough to feel like the game is really opening itself up to me. Steve thinks this is less of a problem than I do.

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  • Effigy_Power

    Hey Stak. Erm.. large coffee, two sugars. Apple Pie… yeah, put some whipped cream on there. How’s your sandwich today? Tuna? Nah… I’ll have some tomato cream soup instead. Yeah, that’s to go. Thanks.

    Incidentally, this Digest comic (I know I missed the last one) ought to be a no-brainer.

    • HobbesMkii

       I was really worried. Nearly every person on the Digest has ripped on the Digestible they’ve been fed. It could have gone terribly.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      EFF TO SANDWICH: NI NO TUNI

      • Effigy_Power

        In George Lipton’s voice: “The wit … remains.”

    • stakkalee

      I could make you some tomato marshmallows if you’d like.

      • Effigy_Power

        I don’t like marshmallows. How about just tomatoes?

        • PaganPoet

          yeah, homemade tomatoes!

        • stakkalee

          I can’t make tomatoes! I’m out of salient green.

        • Effigy_Power

          Well… then I want NOTHING!
          -cries-

  • Citric

    Haven’t watched the video because I’m (procrastinating at) work, but to me NnK is a lot like Dragon Quest VIII, another game that took its sweet time letting you do anything (and was developed by the same dudes). I think both do slow pacing well, letting the player get into a groove before introducing new elements and layers of complication. I think it speaks well of it that I was surprised to see my game clock had broke 16 hours, I didn’t think I had played it that long.

    Incidentally, while we’re on the subject, where the hell is the last pigeon in Al-Mamoon?

    • indy2003

      I must have spent 30 minutes looking for that damn pigeon and I couldn’t find him, either. I guess I could look it up, but I’m stubborn. I’ve even found myself running up to pigeons in other cities in the hopes that maybe that last pigeon is a long way from home.

    • Carlton_Hungus

      In one of the stores the item store I believe, on the window sill

    • Mike Ferraro

      I think they make sure to say he’s in the city walls, not to venture out.  Don’t just check the streets, look indoors too.

  • indy2003

    Some interesting thoughts, guys. I’ve really enjoyed the relaxed, relatively slow pace of the game for the most part. One criticism I definitely agree with: most of the puzzles presented throughout the game have solutions so ridiculously obvious that they can’t really be called puzzles. It doesn’t help that the dialogue which often accompanies these makes Oliver look like a complete idiot. It’s usually something along these lines:

    Oliver: “Oh no! We can’t get across! What are we going to do?”
    Drippy: “Are you blinking serious right now? Use one of them spells you’ve learned, mun!”

    My main frustration with the combat is that your teammates’ AI is pretty terrible. They tend to use up all of their MP on large spells rather quickly, leaving them depleted and vulnerable after a few skirmishes. I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I have to handle every boss fight on my own, since my comrades are usually passed out on the floor by the halfway point of a major battle.

    It does bug me a little that a certain amount of grinding is basically necessary to continue along the main storyline at a certain point. I don’t have a problem with doing the bulk of the side quests to gain various boosts, as those tend to be diverse enough to remain consistently engaging (and the boosts are really worthwhile). However, those moments when I realize that I need to spend an hour or so wandering through a dungeon and leveling up a bit more are tedious. I’m at level 45 and pretty close to the end of the game, but it seems as if I’ve been just barely strong enough to handle each new boss as I’ve proceeded.

    Still, so much of the game is so charming and so enjoyable that one can’t help but forgive the occasional weaknesses.

    • Citric

      It’s got a bizarre stepped difficulty curve where it gets really difficult, then easy, then all the monsters run away from you, and then really hard again.

      I’ll cop to switching it to easy mode for that jellyfish in Mr. Drippy’s mom because I was just sick of it.

      • indy2003

        I definitely lost quite a bit of money by choosing “Continue” rather than going back to my last save point – keeping whatever experience I had gained for a price seemed far more appealing that going out and grinding some more until I felt capable of plowing through a dungeon.

        That Jellyfish and Porco Grosso (heh) are the two which really gave me fits.

  • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

    I’m just so so happy to see Wise & Otherwise on John’s shelf. Many a dinner party have crossed the line from “great” to “fantastic” over that deck of cards.

  • Jackbert322

    Soupy definitely provides the best assessment of Ni No Kuni at the end.

    • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

      No way for you to know this, but it’s actually Soupy’s less frequently seen brother, Nipsey. He decided to act as guest host while I was getting a drink of water.

      • PaganPoet

        Poor brave Nipsey, always in Soupy’s shadow. He’s the Hayley Duff to Soupy’s Hillary Duff.

        • Effigy_Power

          Hopefully with enough common sense to not appear in Napoleon Dynamite 2.

        • PaganPoet

          @Effigy_Power:disqus If it helps him pay for his crippling catnip addiction, he’ll do it.

        • HobbesMkii

           He could be like Elizabeth Olsen, though, and be a superior actor in comparison.

      • Jackbert322

        Ah, I see. He prefers to remain hidden, pulling strings in the shadows. Our two dogs are like that; one trawls for attention like a slobbery Lohan, one aloofly curls up under the bed and is pretty much a very large kitty.

      • George_Liquor

        Dude–are all your pets named after panelists on The Match Game?

        ’cause that would be damned fantastic!

        • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

          They’re named after Pyramid guest stars, but same thing. Nipsey Russell certainly made many appearances on the ’70s Match Game, too.

        • George_Liquor

          Still fantastic. Though I was hoping you had a raspy-voiced schnauzer named Rayburn.

          Does Nipsey ever break out in rhyme?

      • Citric

        I seem to recall Nipsey being the cat Michael Kors. Is the ear twitch cat for “disco mother of the bride”?

    • Enkidum

      The way he does the head turn + ear twitch in response to the question is awesome. 

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before, but I now LOVE the phrase “Chat & Chew.” Also, the word “chat” is French for “kitty cat.” SOUPY SYNERGY.

      …”Chat & Chou,” however, means “Cat & Cabbage,” which…un…Soupy makes for an awesome cat, and cabbage makes for an awesome soup? SOUPY SYNERGY? 

  • rvb1023

    The pacing hasn’t really hit me yet. The game takes a few hours to get interesting but once it does I was more interested in raising familiars than the story for the time being. Then again I am used to the grind of JRPG’s.

  • PaganPoet

    Where do I mail some of my famous spinach empanadas, GS staff?

    • Fluka

      Seriously, I’ve got a box full of jars of homemade mayonnaise all ready to ship here!  It may also contain cat hair.

      • Effigy_Power

        Must be eaten at room temperature.
        With gravy.

      • Electric Dragon

        <marquee>…lot BREAKING: Internet commenter arrested in suspected bioterror plot. BREAKI… </marquee>

      • djsubversive

        No, no. You gotta talk up that cat hair bit.

        “Some lucky consumers will get free cat hair in addition to their homemade mayonnaise! Do you have a cat? Make it jealous! Don’t have a cat? Fool your friends and neighbors!”

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      To me, obvs.

  • dmikester

     I ended up stopping about 10 hours in so that I could finish Mass Effect 2 (not Ni no Kuni’s fault, just the siren call of ME 2 being too strong) , so I’m roughly where John is, but I actually kind of love the pacing and the combat system.  It’s one of the more frantic and at times strategically complex systems I can remember playing (Final Fantasy XII’s system comes to mind here too with Gambits), and I think they do a very nice job of introducing the elements step by step, even if it feels very slow paced. 

    But to me, what really works, better than almost any RPG I can think of, is how the story and motivation to go through the adventure gets introduced, namely with (Spoiler for anyone who hasn’t played the game at all) Oliver’s mother dying. (End Spoiler)  It’s done in that beautiful melancholy Studio Ghibli way, and it sure got my attention and made me want to keep going.  It’s strange, because I care more about the situation than I do about Oliver himself, who’s sweet but kind of annoying at the same time.

  • dantebk

    I’m not a huge RPG guy and the pacing has been a big problem for me. I just finished the section where I found out the little manhole covers weren’t going to be fast travel points but rather a hotel to store up to 400 familiars. The very idea of needing storage space for that many familiars has pushed me away from the game for about a week now. I’m sure I’ll play some more at some point, but I’d put the odds of me actually finishing it at close to zero. I particularly have trouble with the notion of grinding in games, and it sounds like that definitely becomes an issue later on.

    • Citric

      Keep in mind that the game is filled with stuff you can do but don’t have to. The familiars are there for people who want to get obsessive, but you can do fine just having a decent core group.

      • dantebk

         Sure, but I just found even having that many choices to be overwhelming, particularly when new familiars start at level 1.

        Last night I metamorphosed two of my familiars and went to level 1, which I get, but their stats also went down so much that after doing combat for an hour straight neither was yet as high as they were originally. A lot of the systems in the game seem designed for people with more patience than I have.

    • jessec829

      Also — MINOR SPOILER I GUESS — You do eventually get the ability to fast travel. I was getting a little weary of the game at that point, but the new travel options (boat, flight capacity, and a straight-up fast travel spell) have refreshed it for me.

      • dantebk

        I don’t know if I can wait that long! I am 9 hours in and ready to move on.

  • ToddG

    I agree with John at the end; you need to start them wanting some, and after about five hours of playing, I want none.  The storytelling and visual elements are definitely well-executed and gorgeous, respectively, but actually playing the game feels like a chore to me at best.

    • RidleyFGJ

      This has been one of the biggest problems with Level 5 in their long and storied career; they care so much about the visuals and the presentation that they end up being everything they hope that gamers will focus on, rather than their typically anemic gameplay. Now, I haven’t played Ni no Kuni, but I have played a great deal of their other games, and it’s a complaint that’s been holding true since the first Dark Cloud.

    • jessec829

      I found it to be a bit of a drag at first too, but it picks up. I’d encourage you to stick with it.

  • http://kotaku.com/ Reposted_Kotaku_Comments

    iDontPronunceMyTs
    this game looks fucking awful… do adults actually play this.

    • Effigy_Power

      “do aduls acually play his”?
      (he doesn’t pronounce his Ts)

      I’ll show myself out.

      • George_Liquor

         What a silly bunt.

        • Effigy_Power

          It was more of a ball way outside that hit the bat by accident.

        • George_Liquor

          Well, actually this.

      • djsubversive

        iDonPronounceMys

    • djsubversive

      Hey, Kotaku commenters are just kids, with special needs, and it’s not nice to mock them for it.

      It is, however, hilarious.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        AHEM, this one is obviously a big boy. Uh. Adult. I mean adult

        • djsubversive

          Pretend that I made a joke about “big-boy underwear” and “adult undergarments” here. It seems appropriate, but I can’t think of a way to make it work.

          Probably because it means thinking about Kotaku commenters’ underwear situation, and eugh. Okay, ignore this whole thing. It was a bad idea.

  • http://twitter.com/ebbv Dave Matteson

    It’s a JRPG. Of course it has slow pacing. If you didn’t expect that going into it you’re crazy.

    Now, is the slow pacing of JRPGs preferable? For me personally, I wouldn’t mind if the game was a bit shorter and had a bit less grinding. But I still loved it.

    • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

      Question: Why is it crazy when I express my opinion of the game’s slow pacing but not when you do it two sentences later?

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      This is a problem I’ve always had with jrpgs, though. It’s definitely something that’s up for criticism. I realize some people like having a single game that’s 100 hours long or whatever, but when so much of that time is padding and grinding and boring, what’s the point?

      • Captain Internet

        Are you saying you don’t like watching numbers getting higher?

      • ComradePig

        That’s pretty much what burnt me out pretty early on with FF13.

         I only spent $20 on it so it wasn’t a big deal and the game looks great but it’s kind of unbearable when you realize you’ve played a game for numerous hours and it still hasn’t moved beyond the tutorial phase. That sort of pacing is really only acceptable in an in depth-simulation game that requires it out of necessity.

        I’m a pretty patient player but there on limits on how long I’m going to wait before a game starts dishing out the ostensible good stuff.

        Well, that and the writing…

    • Effigy_Power

      “If you didn’t expect that going into it you’re crazy.”

      That only works if you know what you’re getting into. With every game being a potential entry-level game, especially one that is so universally lauded, you likely can’t just expect people to know these things.

  • http://twitter.com/HttpLovecraft Http Lovecraft

    So, I feel like Steve didn’t entirely answer the question, but does the game ever stop holding your hand?  I’m in a similar situation that I’m 8 hours in and falling asleep outside of battles.  The ‘Drippy tells you exactly what spell to cast here’ thing is SO SO old already, and I’m just DYING to get the training wheels off so I can catch my own familiars.

    The main thing keeping me in the game (besides the pretty pictures) is Drippy being funny/goofing on how dumb Oliver is.

    • indy2003

       It kinda does keep holding your hand to some extent all the way through. Not in every situation, mind you, but enough to make it feel like the game is nervous about fully handing over the reins. Midway through boss fights, Drippy tends to pop in with advice – “Hey, this guy’s tough, but he’s vulnerable to fire magic – why don’t you heat things up, Ollie-boy!”

      • The Guilty Party

        So it’s Clippy the RPG?

        • indy2003

          That would explain why my party members keep asking me if I’ve heard that I can copy text by hitting Ctrl + C…

    • feisto

      Oh, man…and I was so hopeful when I heard about being able to turn off hints (what does that actually do, anyway?).

      • Carlton_Hungus

        There’s always a star on your map that points you to the next story objective, that can be turned off and you can rely only on the copious verbal hints from Mr. Drippy et al.

  • naturalbornbastard

    I love games that take their time; sometimes is a good thing to put story and character development before gameplay, it makes you feel more involved in the game. Besides, classic JRPGS have always been this way, why criticize the formula now?

    • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

      Why not?

      • Jackbert322

        Why maybe?

        Why good?

        Why bad?

        Why life?

      • indy2003

        It’s just against the natural order of things, Teti. Now stop asking questions and keep your fancy opinions out of your reviews.

      • Effigy_Power

        Obey. Consume. Play.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          Hey, it’s the right time of year to share the pretty great They Live Valentine card io9 posted a few years back.

          If I weren’t too much of a mirthless cynical fucker to give a toss about Valentine’s Day, that’s the valentine I would give (assuming I was still mirthless and cynical enough to find that card appropriate and hilarious).

    • The Guilty Party

      Counterpoint: Xenosaga.

    • http://twitter.com/HttpLovecraft Http Lovecraft

      I don’t mind a story that slowly gathers steam, the problem is the permanent tutorial in effect here.  It’s nice that game developers account for the fact that every RPG could be somebody’s first RPG, but even the dumbest kid can figure out to cast the bridge spell when the bridge is out.

      The tutorials stop about 2-3 hours into the classic SNES Square titles, which are the last JRPGs I enjoyed.

      • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

        Square was great at putting minimalist (and usually optional) tutorials in its games back in the 90s. 

        • http://twitter.com/HttpLovecraft Http Lovecraft

          I Heart the School in Narshe

  • caspiancomic

    I’m going to be starting Ni No Kuni in the very near future, and I’m super amped. I think the glacial pacing is a typical weakness of JRPGs, and a lifetime of playing them has left me with something of a resistance to it, but I’m increasingly aware of the sort of padding I would have immediately forgiven as a kid. And handholding is beginning to drive me mental the more I notice it in games, but hey. This is Studio Ghibli we’re talking about. I’d watch a 90 minute xenophobic hate crime from Ghibli if it was scored by Joe Hisaishi.

  • jessec829

    I’m really enjoying Ni No Kuni, but I completely agree that the game doesn’t require you to figure anything out for yourself, which is annoying. Even if you turn off the guide star and hints, you’ve still got Drippy telling you exactly what spell to cast when you hit an obstacle, even when you could so easily figure it out for yourself (“Oh I need to use a spell to talk to animals in order to . . . talk to this animal? Thanks for the tip!”). Or, if not Drippy, then the solution is usually right there next to you (“Oh, this guy needs some confidence; oh hey, this other guy two feet away has some confidence to spare!”). That’s been the biggest flaw for me (I don’t love the battle system, but I can deal with it). 

    It helps to remember the game is 10+, so it really does need to be conducive to children. That said, I think of a game like Link to the Past or even the NES Zeldas, and those games didn’t tell you shit. At best you might get some obscure hint like “grumble grumble.” I’d like a little more of that challenge in Ni No Kuni.

    On a random final note, I’m obsessed with the Platoon game in the casino. I haven’t advanced the story in a few days; I just want to keep playing Platoon. I think I have a problem. Can one go to Gamblers Anonymous to confess an addiction to an imaginary game?

    • hcduvall

      I feel like John Teti’s right, but my experience has mostly been like Steve Heisler’s, where I’ve forgiven the game mostly everything and have been astonished at the number of hours I’ve put into it. The other thing about the wide age range target of this game is that every character is dead earnest and helpful, and I find that really refreshing, considering the missteps that are taken in so many games for “adultness”. It’s gone down smooth is what I’m saying.

      I may have just leveled too much though, as fights on the surface have gotten too easy, and that’s cramping my enjoyment.

      Alright, topics covered. This is why I’m replying: I beat Platoon 5 times in a row and it was one of the grandest moments ever. It’s kind of the only game in the casino that seems really in my control though.

      • jessec829

        You’re braver than I am! I always swear I’m going to go a full 6 rounds of Platoon re-upping my stake, but the number starts to get so high at around 4 wins in a row that I just can’t help but quit so I don’t risk losing it. 

        I’ve noticed that the AI almost never puts “special” cards in the last two piles, though, and that’s made the game less of a challenge. I do like to flaunt my victory in her smug face, though, so that’s some compensation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/calnholt Calvin Holt

    My Girlfriend, “Who’s that on the left?”

    Me, “John Teti.”

    My Girlfriend, “Why is he so negative?”

    Me, “Because he’s John Teti.”

    • Cinedouche

       Me: “Is that John Hodgman?”

      Me: “I’m annoyed by how similar he is to John Hodgman while also being completely distinct and having opinions I respect.”

      Me: “I’m actually quite similar to them both, too. Maybe we could all be friends?”

      Me: “No, I think we actually have to fight to the death.”

  • http://twitter.com/djbeema beema

    I can’t actually watch this since the video player crashes as soon as it starts playing. But I did watch the Zero Punctuation on NNK, so I will assume that’s good enough.

    • http://twitter.com/roundthewheel RTW

      That happens to me a lot too. Usually I just click on the time bar at the point where it glitched out and the rest of the video plays just fine.

  • http://www.backloggery.com/colliewest Colliewest

    Serious question – do you think you could play this in Japanese with no subtitles? 

    • jessec829

      I’m assuming you don’t speak Japanese? Hmmm . . . 

      Maybe. Obviously you’d miss most of the story, but the game doesn’t really let you do the wrong thing (e.g., if you need to cast a spell, it will only let you cast the correct spell), and if you kept the guide-star on so you knew where to go next without instructions . . . yeah, you could probably swing it.

  • Lord Autumn-Bottom

    Wowzers, this video fucked my shit up bad when I clicked play, resulting in the blue screen of death.  I’m afraid to try it again.  But I’ll assume that it was charming and magical and full of joy.

  • D3ADP0OL

    Not sure if it’s a matter of pacing, but the active battle system is challenging to master.  Having a tutorial that focuses more on strategy then button mapping would have helped.  But once you get the hang of it the rest of the game goes more smoothly.

  • Crusty Old Dean

    I’m just gonna vent in this old thread even though no-one will probably see it: like 20 hours into the game they go “oh, and you can use the square button to defend”.

    WELL GEE THANKS A LOT. THAT WOULD HAVE ACTUALLY COME IN HANDY EARLIER.

    Very strange decision. Well other than that, I’m mostly loving it.