In my review of Ni no Kuni I wrote that its style was its substance, and I figured I’d expand on that idea here.
Ni no Kuni tells a very classic kind of fairy tale adventure. It speaks in archetypes: the pure, unshakable hero, the corrupted villain, the comic sidekick, the seedy yet trustworthy rouge, who bickers with the kind-hearted female companion, and so on.
This kind of adventure should evoke a certain set emotions. Awe, curiosity, anxiousness, and excitement are some important ones. You should be inspired by the game. It should provide moments that impress and surprise. You should have a desire to see more of what awes you and to ignore the objective marker in favor of exploring the world even though it’ll probably get you killed. Our curiosity should push us into dangerous places, evoking the fear of death and failure, and when we succeed, either through some narrative win or simply by not dying, we should feel elated and jump right into the next encounter.
This is how I felt when playing Ni no Kuni, but it took me a long time to understand why this is how I felt. For the first dozen hours or so I was focused on what I didn’t like about the game (the constant narrative diversions and the rather bland combat), so I was surprised when I first got hold of a boat and instead of sailing to my objective, I veered off in the opposite direction.
I sailed around the world. I landed on lonely islands. I got my ass kicked by monsters that were far stronger than me. But I just kept on sailing. I found an island surrounded by mist that I couldn’t land on and made a mental note to return here when I inevitably got my hands on a flying machine. Eventually I did continue the story, but over the course of those hours of aimless exploration, I kept asking myself, “Why?”: Why am I doing this? Why am I subjecting myself to more “random” battles? If I don’t like the combat, what is driving me to do this?
It took several more hours before I realized the answer: I wanted to see the world. More specifically, I wanted to see Studio Ghibli’s interpretation of JRPG clichés. I was actually disappointed when I ran into a ghost ship on the ocean, and it wasn’t a whole dungeon, just a boss fight. I wanted more Ghibli ghosts (and I did get my wish as there’s a ghost casino) and dragons and yetis. I wanted to see how they animated snow and fire, all those little things.
In my head I kept comparing Ni no Kuni to Xenoblade Chronicles (since I think the latter game represents the new gold standard of JRPGs), but they evoke their sense of adventure in two very different ways. The way that Ni no Kuni uses its world rather than its story to evoke adventure (accidentally I should add) means it actually has more in common with Skyrim than a JRPG. For me at least.
In Xenoblade Chronicles, I’m driven by the plot. There are no distractions and no fluff to the story. Stuff is always happening. My understanding of the world is constantly being expanded as old mysteries are answered and new mysteries are introduced. It’s a 100-hour game that never feels like it’s wasting my time. The world is interesting, but more so, because of the scale than the art style. It’s so big it makes my jaw drop, but it doesn’t look all that interesting. My interest in the world is more intellectual than practical: I want to progress the story so that I can learn the history of this place, but I don’t really want to see every nook and cranny of it.
Skyrim and Ni no Kuni work for the opposite reasons. These games are at their best when nothing is happening, when I’m just left to my own devices within the world. There is a story, but it represents something to do once the wonder of the world has worn off. Most of the time I don’t get anything out of my exploration (these are not loot games after all), but the experience is reward enough: that simple knowledge that I’ve seen something new.
That’s a personal adventure every bit as grand as the epic story of Xenoblade Chronicles. The main difference between Skyrim and Ni no Kuni is that I can ignore the story in Skyrim, but in Ni no Kuni, the story is the only conduit to the world, so I have to play along with it. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that the story wastes my time as much as it does. Thankfully, though, my personal story of exploration makes up for it.