Pickings are slim for JRPG fans this fall. Xenoblade and The Last Story have both come and gone, and while our handhelds are getting some Persona and Paper Mario action soon, there aren't a lot of big console JRPGs on the horizon in the near future.
Until January. That's when America will finally be able to get its paws on Ni no Kuni, a gorgeous animated JRPG developed by Level-5 and Studio Ghibli, the talented animation house behind films like Howl's Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro.
I played 20 minutes of Ni no Kuni at a Namco event in New York City yesterday. It's a gorgeous, charming game that looks to be one of the PlayStation 3's last great RPGs.
Here are 20 things you should know about it:
1) It's a traditional Japanese role-playing game. You walk around from place to place, helping people out and fighting through dungeons in pursuit of a larger goal (in this case: to save your mother). So this means...
2) ...there's a world map. You know how much I love world maps. It also means...
3) ...combat is turn-based. You can give orders to your characters or switch to their familiars, which are basically summonable monsters that can do all the dirty work for you. There are spells, items, hit points, magic points, and all that jazz. Standard stuff.
4) Unlike most JRPGs, Ni no Kuni promises to make you actually hit the defend button sometimes. If it looks like a baddie is about to cast some powerful spell or hammer you with a giant sword, you can switch to defend mode and absorb most of the damage.
5) You can also move around the battlefield, which is essential if you want to stay healthy. In the demo I played, my character had no healing spells and very few items. Fortunately, enemies drop green health orbs and blue magic orbs as you smack them around. You can't move while attacking, but you can switch between the two modes rather quickly.
6) Gold orbs will drop during boss fights. These will charge up your character and let him or her execute a special attack.
7) The boss I fought was a creature named the Guardian of Woods. He basically looked like a giant Bulbasaur. Nasty thing.
8) By the way, I was fighting this guardian on the orders of Old Father Oak, a giant tree with a duck mouth. The guardian was corrupted by an evil dude named Shadar or something like that. (He's the game's Big Bad, it appears.) So we had to go clear out the evil by whacking him a few times.
9) My companion, a strange doll-like creature named Mr. Drippy, seemed to have a bit of an attitude problem. He called Old Father Oak names like Barkface. It was adorably impudent.
10) I explored two areas: the Deep Dark Woods and the Whispering Waterfalls. Very linear paths; no random encounters. You'll see enemies on the screen as you explore. You can surprise them for a brief advantage in battle. If they hit you from behind, you'll be briefly stunned when you enter combat.
11) When we beat the boss and got back to ol' Treebeard, he thanked us and gave us a Telling Stone. A Telling Stone, in the world of Ni no Kuni, is a tablet with a face. It's basically a combination tutorial/collectors' compendium/monster guide.
12) Old Father Oak also gave us two spells: one called Take Heart and one called Give Heart. More on these in a bit.
13) Once we had said goodbye to the giant tree, we exited the woods and made our way to the world map. Again, I love world maps. That said...
14) ...this world map is nothing short of stunning. I stopped playing for a few minutes just to look around at all of the beautiful vistas. Sorry, people who were waiting behind me for a chance to play.
15) Anyway. Once my eyes had popped back into their sockets, I wandered over to my next destination: a city called—wait for it—Ding Dong Dell.
16) You should know that there is a city named Ding Dong Dell.
17) There was a crowd of people gathering around the gates of Ding Dong Dell. They couldn't get in. One of the guards was being a jerk or something. And his partner, who happened to be hopping around My companion Drippy pointed out that the guard on the left was all out of enthusiasm, and that the guard on the right was full of enthusiasm, so maybe I should find some way to transfer the enthusiasm from one guard to the other.
18) Since this is a JRPG, we clearly had to use the spells we just got by finishing that dungeon. So we cast Take Heart on the right guard, taking some of his enthusiasm, and we cast Give Heart on the left guard, passing that enthusiasm along to him.
19) Yes, the game puts a lot of emphasis on the word enthusiasm.
20) Occasional mawkishness aside, this game is gorgeous and dreamy and totally enticing. I want more. It's out for PlayStation 3 on January 22. Start counting down the days.