Ni no Kuni is a new PS3 RPG from Level-5 and Studio Ghibli that came out in Japan last year and is scheduled to come out at the end of January next year in the US. They put up a demo for the game on the PSN this week and so like any good fan of RPGs, I went ahead and downloaded it.
RPGs have a long history of having really bad demos and sadly, Ni no Kuni doesn’t entirely break that trend. The actual content of the demo is fine but if you pick the first scenario, then the game expects you to beat a boss before giving you the option to read any of the tutorials. Since combat is a bit unusual, not telling the player how to play right off the bat was a horrible mistake but by experimenting I was able to figure out the basics. Alternatively, you could try starting the second scenario, reading the tutorials (since they’re unlocked there from the start), and then quitting and doing the 1st scenario (the second scenario is more difficult). Combat is like a mix between Xenoblade & Pokemon. Like Xenoblade, you freely control one character and can run around the battle map while entering commands in various menus to perform attacks and use spells. Like Pokemon, you can control various monsters (or the monster tamer) and switch between them in mid-battle. It seems like it’ll make for a decent battle system although it’s hard to gauge its depth from the limited amount of time included in the demo. And it looks like there’s a good amount of character customization options between abilities, equipment, monster transformations, and the ability to feed your monsters stuff.
The demo is split into two scenarios which combined do a pretty good job of showing off the game. The first scenario places you in a forest where you fight a giant tree boss that isn’t too hard once you figure out that you can move around the battlefield to dodge his attacks, and switch between the hero (who can use magic) and his monster (which is a decent physical fighter) by using the D-Pad. After beating the boss, there’s a cutscene, and then you walk out of the forest and onto the world map. The whole game is gorgeous (as you would expect from something by Level-5 & Studio Ghibli) but I thought the world map is especially breathtaking. After a little travelling (and probably a fight or two), you make your way to the walls of a city, solve a simple puzzle using magic, and then that part of the demo ends.
The second scenario starts you off in a volcano dungeon. You have a much larger party this time around – in addition to more summonable monsters, you also have another human character who can summon her own monsters. Normally, she does her own thing but you can switch between her & the hero mid-battle if you want. From the look of the menus, you’ll get another human at some point in the game, meaning that you’ll have a maximum of 3 characters fighting on your team at a time (plus 9 monsters you can switch between). The scenario is pretty straightforward – you climb up to the top of the volcano (while fighting a few battles), trigger a cutscene, and then fight a fire boss who is much harder than the boss in the other scenario but should still be very doable if you’ve figured out the basics.
Learning curve aside, I greatly enjoyed the demo. The combat setup wasn’t quite what I was hoping for but it seems like it’ll probably work well over the course of an entire game. And well, with most Japanese-style RPGs coming out these days being either portable games or indie titles, console RPGs with big AAA blockbuster production values are in short supply – I’ll take what I can get.