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March 24, 2014

On Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

I finally started playing Ni no Kuni in earnest.  Finally. 

The game has been out for more than a year, earned its fair share of praise, has been touted semi-recently for reaching the “1.1 million sold” milestone (1.7 with Japanese DS sales, but either way makes for a much more respectable number than the “we JUST started making a profit” Tomb Raider 2013), and manages to prove pretty handily that the JRPG is not only possible in the HD generation, but proves that the genre at large isn’t a broken model.  It’s just been proven by certain companies how easy it is to get it wrong.

For one reason or another, I’d only just started picking away at it in the past few months.  Blame DmC for that (I certainly will); it was my expectation that I could clear that game fairly quickly and get back to something good, but one thing led to another, and here we are -- with me lagging well behind the gaming populace.  That’s a mistake I’m willing to rectify, to the point where I’m about ready to REFUSE playing anything else -- barring the occasional multiplayer game -- before I finish it.  And while I don’t know how much farther/longer I have to go, I can say with plenty of confidence that there’s a reason this game has earned the praise it has -- and why I’m so very thankful it exists.

But it’s not for the reason you think.

All right, cards on the table.  Is Ni no Kuni a good game?  Hell yes.  It’s a great game, even.  Is it the best game ever?  No, because I can see the faults already.  Am I enjoying my time with it?  Yes, and I have every intention of finishing it, no matter when that may be (even if my brother says that the ending is outright horrible).  Is it the best RPG -- J or otherwise -- in years?  No, because Xenoblade beat it to the punch. 

As I’ve said before, I have no problems putting NnK in a Top 10 of 2013 list, even if that’s something done retroactively and in good faith.  In my eyes, it’s deserving of it.  And by extension, it’s an important game -- not just because it’s a JRPG, lest you think I’m playing favorites.  Nor is it because it’s a “blast from the past”, and hearkens back to the “good ol’ days” of gaming.  No, it’s important for a much bigger reason.

Simply put, NnK isn’t good because it’s a well-made JRPG.  It’s good because it encapsulates the best parts -- the very essence -- of what makes video games good.

I’m not even joking here.  NnK at large really does feel like a “back to basics” title; it’s got some complexity in its systems, yes, but the simplicity behind it is what lends it its quality.  Its character.  It goes beyond just avoiding the “pretty boys with big swords, crazy looks, and angst” stereotype that so many would tie to the genre (though that helps); there’s a level of focus and intent here that sets it apart from its peers, regardless of genre.  It knows what it wants to do, and what it NEEDS to do.  And it’s not willing to bank on modern conventions -- the safe bet -- to win favor.  It stays simple, and keeps it natural.  The way it should.

A part of me wonders if this is the Studio Ghibli affect.  Apparently, not too long ago Hayao Miyazaki gave his thoughts on the anime industry and the problems therein -- namely, that it’s “full of otaku”.  In a nutshell, his argument was that the people holding the reins are too obsessed with fictional ideas and concepts; it takes a certain level of willpower to deviate from reality and create stories, characters, and concepts, but the problem is that the industry heads are too willing to take out the humanity for the sake of ideals.  Tsundere, moe, waifu -- if any of those terms make sense to you, chances are you understand what Miyazaki was talking about, and the issues at hand.  If not, let me just leave this here and remind you that this is a thing that saw the light of day:

The same could be said for video games at large, albeit with some notable differences.  There’s an argument to be made that both game and anime bigwigs are just putting out what they think people want -- copies of what’s been successful in the past without A) a unique spin on them, B) missing the point of the genuine article, or C) both.  I can’t speak in terms of anime, but as for the games industry it seems like the stakes are getting too high to allow for anything else, at least on a regular basis. 

Granted that’s a problem the industry has partly-created for itself with its unrealistic expectations and poor budget control (“Hey guys!  Let’s advertise our game with big budget, live-action commercials that don’t show or tell you anything about the games besides the name!”), but it’s distressing all the same.  They do what they have to do so they can survive.  If that means compromising a vision -- more pandering and proselytizing -- then so be it.

I don’t get that feeling with NnK -- that is, it doesn’t feel like there was a single compromise that had to be made for the game to land in players’ hands.  I’d think that part of that has to do with the carte blanche and goodwill towards anything related to Studio Ghibli, but that’s all right.  I’m not opposed to individuals, groups, and organizations that have wealth and power. 

I AM opposed to individuals, groups, and organizations that have wealth and power, and proceed to take the piss out of the populace with one bad decision after another.  By default, the ones running the show are in the green with me; I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume -- as is the case with NnK -- that they’re using their power for a good cause.  Sometimes that trust is rewarded, deserved, and earned.  Not as often as I’d hope, but sometimes.  Every once in a while.

But I digress.

It should go without saying that I want to talk about NnK more.  Much more.  And indeed, it feels like there’s a lot to talk about -- if only as a way to make up for putting it on the backburner for so long.  More to the point, it feels like there are lessons that can be taken from it; there are examples of what games used to be, what they can do, and what they could be.  And indeed, the same goes for the story at large.  Based on what I’ve seen, I’d like to think that it’s not exactly rewriting the book on storytelling, but what’s here is plenty interesting.  (It’s also worth noting upfront that the main trio’s dynamics remind me of Sagi, Guillo, and Milly from Baten Kaitos Origins.  That’s a good dynamic to remind someone of.)

So you know what?  I’ve been thinking about doing something I haven’t done in a good, long while.  Last year I pretty much wrote a novella’s worth of complaints about Final Fantasy 13-2, so maybe it’s time for me to do that again, but with something that lends itself toward more positive thinking.  Maybe I can use this new…well, new to me game to make some statements.  Pull something from it, and teach myself some new tricks.  And teach others in kind, however tangentially.  Or accidentally.

I just might end up doing that over the coming weeks/months.  We’ll just have to see how it goes.

But for now?  Part of the reason I made this post is because I realized something: I can’t talk about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze without talking about something that NnK has reminded me of.  Something that’s been on the back of my mind, but thanks to my adventures in that brave new(ish) world, I’ve thought about it more directly.  It’s proof that the game brings back memories of the old days, and certainly in a good way.

One of the things that I appreciate about NnK is that it’s got a marker on the minimap that shows you where you’re supposed to go next.  That’s a handy function in a JRPG like this, given that the areas are sprawling and without them you’d run the risk of doing the old “talk to every NPC and hope an event triggers” shtick.  It’s true that you can turn off the marker whenever you want -- if you’re looking for a “pure” experience -- but in general you know exactly where to head next whenever you’re ready.  So like BioShock Infinite before it (even though NnK predated it by a few months), you have your path set, but you’re given more than enough wiggle room to see what else is lying around.  

In one instance, I’d just finished off a boss and got ready to head out to a new area on my ship -- but seeing as how said boss gave me a hell of a time, I figured I should take some time out to do a little grinding.  So I did, even if it meant going off the path and gallivanting from one edge of the island to the next.  As fate would have it, I ended up finding a little alcove -- a tiny cave whose presence wasn’t even pointed out on the map.  I half-expected it to be the entrance to some sort of secret dungeon, and that I’d have to walk right back out for fear of going up against Level 9999 beasties. 

My fears were unfounded.  It was just a small cave with some waterfalls, treasure chests, and some crabs you could talk to via magic.  That’s it.

You would think that that’s a letdown, in the sense that the area I found was a room on par in size with a room in Kingdom Hearts 1.  But it’s not.  Two reasons for that: first, it’s because the mere fact that I found anything on the map is something to appreciate in its own right, even if the tangible rewards don’t really exist.  Think of it like you’re going on a hike; when you venture out, you’re not in it to stumble upon buried treasure or accolades from a newly-formed band of followers.  There’s a quiet joy in being able to just know that you found something you didn’t know was out there.  That’s all you really need from time to time.

The second reason is because, even if I did find that cave -- and other areas like it, as I’m finding out over time -- disappointing, it’s not that big a deal.  So what if there aren’t massive side areas?  The main world itself is plenty exciting.  It’s full of surprises that make me want to explore, and venture on.  I have no idea what’s in store for me out there in its world, or my band of heroes.  And that’s awesome. 

So far I’ve braved desert sands to mend the heart of a queen the size of a barn, visited a town full of machines where its populace is forced to wear pig-faced masks (and later on gets banned from making eye contact), and fought a big stupid jellyfish in the womb of the mother of all fairies -- which just so happens to be a nursery rendered almost entirely in 2D.  And that adventure ended exactly as you think it would -- going out the way you’d snicker about to yourself, but do a spit-take once you realized that was the actual plan.

NnK isn’t the first game to get this right (and certainly not the last, doomsaying aside), but it knows what a game needs to do.  I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: games define and express themselves using their systems, and allow the players to do the same.  One of the primary ways that’s done is through the combat; resolving conflicts as they come is a part of the experience, and can be done in any number of ways.  But what’s VERY important -- what devs need to remember -- is that games can define themselves through more than just combat and conflict.  They can rely on something much bigger and better.

The power of discovery.

New worlds.  New adventures.  New experiences.  New scenarios.  New opportunities.  If a game is doing itself justice -- if it wants to make a strong case for itself -- then it has to give the player something to look forward to besides the next fight, no matter how frantic or stylish the combat may be.  It’s true that the combat in its own right can offer up some discoveries (cracking open The Wonderful 101’s systems was a true pleasure, without question), but much like a good story, the setting is a character that shouldn’t be ignored.  Making a world with style, flourishes, secrets, and just straight-up unique events can do so much for a game.  Indeed, it’s something games can do that no other medium can.  Or if not that, then other mediums don’t have the automatic potential to do it quite as well.

You just don’t get to see or hear the world, NnK, Tropical Freeze, or otherwise.  You get to experience it.  Live in it.  See what it has to offer, and be rewarded each time you turn it on and venture in.  You get to see the imagination for yourself, and enjoy what a dedicated team has offered to you.  And in exchange, you get to take those audiovisuals with you -- as memories of what you’ve been through, and what you can keep with you long after the final boss is just another notch on your belt.  As it should be.  Because that’s what it’s all about.  Spectacle done right.  Not for the sake of spectacle, or in mindless excess, or without a second thought.  It’s all for the sake of making a world, and a game, worth exploring -- so players can see for themselves something worth the journey.

And there you have it.  Man, NnK is a good game.

See, this is why I’d prefer talking about positive things instead of going all doom-and-gloom here.  It’s because if there’s something you really like, you can do more than just pinpoint why and explain it to others; you get to feel it all over again as you recall it, and have those lessons engraved in your heart.  I’m not about to go forgetting NnK anytime soon, and I’m certainly not about to drop it so suddenly that I forget it exists.  There’s still much more to discover.  And that’s exactly what I plan on doing.

But first, Donkey Kong.  Whenever that happens.  Another day, someday, one day.

Until then, that'll do it for now.  See you guys around.

...In the meantime, have a penguin.


  1. I picked this game up about a month and a half ago. It looks very much like a Studio Ghibli anime in the form of a game and I'm a huge fan of their work. That and the compositions of Joe Hisashi, who scored this game.

    I've fallen out of RPGs due to them being so time consuming but I'd really love to get back into them as they are one of my favorite genres. I suppose I was unconsciously searching for that RPG that would come along and make me say "Wow, this is INCREDIBLE!" and make me wish I had hoped back into the genre a lot sooner. But even if this title doesn't make me do that, I have this unshakable feeling that's it's a truly special game that I'm going to enjoy my time with whenever I get around to it.

  2. When it comes to video game reviews, I would prefer to be spoiled than to charge forward with a blindfold. I can't say I bought a game blind recently, but the biggest risks I made were on 'Shadow the Hedgehog' back when it was $50 new, Assassin's Creed, and Tales of Xillia. Of the three, I was most informed on Shadow and least informed on... Xillia. Turns out I liked Assassin's Creed the least of the three. Though Xillia was the only game I can say is good and not look like I'm high on drugs.

    Regardless, I strongly prefer guys on the Escapist, Blistered Thumbs, Youtube, etc. to get my info on a game. More likely than not, someone will point out major flaws in gameplay that others just ignore so they can look at "pretty" lack of colors an ultra-realism. And guns. Lots of guns. Plus I don't feel like I'm being treated as a brainless consumer with them. I may not agree with everything they say (Angry Joe sometimes gives too many mercy points on a generic game but unfairly penalizes expanded features that are decent improvements), but I sense that they are more down-to-earth than major reviewers in the industry. And I prefer a "no bullshit" approach to things that often involve purchasing and selling things. I don't get that feel from many major review sites overall, but I am sure there are some exceptions.

    That being said, reviewing can be hard. I tend to focus more on words than scores due to how much I disagree with the system. Unless you're in school and completing essays, a 5/10 or 50% is AVERAGE. look at a bell curve at tell me what's smack-dab in the middle: 2.5 (from 0-5), 5 (from 0-10), or 50 (from 0-100). It's simple algebra. 50% is not failing or pure shit, it's AVERAGE. But my opinionated rage aside, I still add a score in my reviews in case someone prefers numbers. That only means I make calculations of my praises and criticisms and use math formulas I try to avoid to satisfy those folk. It's not easy, and I don't love it. Putting a number on Persona 4 Golden wasn't what I dreaded the most in that three-month disaster of a project I forced upon myself, but it did not bring me joy. (Though I'm glad the 2.3 out of 5 did not cause a flood of butthurt and trollish rage... even numerically, it's still not a failure. Just average.)

    If anything, all reviews and discussions should be taken with a grain of salt. You don't know until you try, but having word of mouth get you so sidetracked that you can't see what's really there can be worrisome. And with games costing $60 unless you're a PC person, I'm in the camp that holds my money tightly and refuses to let go until I get both sides. And both sides need to be honest. No bullshit.

  3. There's some sort of balance between riding a hobby horse and being quotidian that I haven't been able to put into words yet.

    On the hobby horse angle, we have Mattie Brice, who's almost like a personal experiences dictator. God, is she a crusader. Her entire GDC talk (which, for the uninformed, was about how reviewers/critics should bring more of their personal biases into their work so that those form the foundation more than anything else) seemed predicated on the conviction that another Mattie Brice lies underneath the cool, "objective" exterior of most garmes jurnalizmologists. "Secretly they agree with everything I write," she says to herself, "so we must make their knee-jerk reactions law, must make them feel not alone! Vive la Revolution!" She forgets that a racist, transphobic diatribe is as much a likely result of that practice as a progressive, anti-capitalist one. If you want a legion of self-indulgent blog posts, her philosophy is best.

    On the other hand, we have the board game hobbyists. "These pieces are good quality." Well, how does the game play? What are the aesthetics of gameplay? How does it feel to play it, both in the moment and post-digestion? What is the taste, mastication, and aftertaste? That they can't answer. Harmless, but useless.

  4. I come back to the idea of the reader as a guest. You must pull up a chair and make them welcome, but you have to forward some scandalous, unorthodox opinions as part of a concerted effort to entertain. If it's a hard balance to maintain, it's because writing is hard. Not everyone can do it. Delicacy, tact, and charm go a long way. Not just honesty. Those qualities can take different forms: Jimothy Sterling and Angry Joe wink to the camera and the Escapist/Blistered Thumbs writers attack a game like fellow hobbyists down in the trench. If you ever feel like a rube, a target for shame, or an audience member standing in front of a pulpit, though, then you should probably run away.

  5. Well, that's a pretty good philosophy to have, when all's said and done. I'm pretty sure there's a saying out there that suggests the same thing -- something about fools and money and soon being parted...but I can't quite think of it right now.

    "I sense that they are more down-to-earth than major reviewers in the industry. And I prefer a "no bullshit" approach to things that often involve purchasing and selling things. I don't get that feel from many major review sites overall, but I am sure there are some exceptions."

    Well, that's part of the issue I have with the average game review. I read the words (like a heathen), but in a LOT of cases the reviews read more like an instruction manual or a highlight of the features instead of a straight-up report on the quality. It's really weird, because they're pretty much parroting info that's been in previews and coverage -- filling space with information that I'd wager more than half the readership already knows. Gonna need a little bit more info than that, guys.

    Still, I think the important thing is to stay informed. That's what reviews are for (ideally), but I'll gladly take some information over NO information.

  6. Well-said as usual. I'll admit that between the two camps, I take more issue with the board game hobbyists; if someone is going to tell people what to spend their money on and what to fire into the sun, I'd think that they'd make a better case besides naming features I've known about for months.

    But you're right. Charm and style make a huge difference; I mean, Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation fame has got his style down pat along with being one of the most critical voices that games deserve (even if that has the side effect of making some of his real opinions hard to judge or just "a joke"; I was under the impression that he didn't care for Metal Gear Rising, but imagine my surprise when it makes his Top 5 of 2013). So I guess in that sense, maybe the first step is going beyond review scores.

    Giving people words worth reading can make a pretty big difference. If nothing else, it can at least explain away the dreaded 8/10. Or just invite hell upon a poor, miserable soul.