Ni No Kuni - Almost Excellent
If you do not enjoy the older school approach of traditional RPGs that require a large amount of heavy grinding in order to win, you may be disappointed. Also, if you need an excellent combat system to carry you through the tedious grinding, you probably won't find it here.
What you will find is a game that gives you enough significant rewards for your efforts through its merit system thus giving you the desire to continue the grind--again, if you like grinding. As you turn in merit cards from completing quests to collect your bounties, you really get the sense of progression and accomplishment. This is truly a completionist's home turf.
With that said, let's talk about the categories of gamers who will be affected most by playing Ni No Kuni.
Story-wise I felt Oliver's mother's death was a bit abrupt and awkward. But it rebounds well and becomes very endearing. I love how they set up the incentive for Oliver to help Drippy and save his world. His reluctance to be the "hero" was very practical and well handled.
Much of the story is delivered by making you the player read text. This was a huge let down for me given the very vibrant and often humorous banter between the well crafted characters. This game seriously needed more voice acting. This does not take away from the story as a whole, but it does hamper its delivery. Overall you'll probably find the plot fairly predictable and decide to focus on the interactions of the characters more than the storyline itself.
Ni No Kuni strikes an excellent balance between a large open world and dungeons that are short and to-the-point--save for the obligatory final dungeon that is ridiculously long and riddled with multiple boss fights. The world is open enough to allow plenty of exploration without being overwhelming.
Level 5 attempted to create a hybrid combat system combining standard turn-based battle with the free roaming movement of games like Star Ocean and the Tales Series. What they ended up with is a clumsy mashup that wasn't really necessary.
The real-time battle elements do more to complicate the system than they do to innovate it or make it enjoyable. I know western-style fast-paced action is all the rage and navigating static menus in RPGs is now a taboo with developers. However, those of us who were willing to seek out Ni No Kuni would clearly not have scoffed at a more traditional system. That's not to say that combat is bad. It is fast-paced and fun at times. It's just more clunky than it needs to be because I believe the devs tried to do too much with it.
An example of this hybrid system in action is the game requiring you to use a defend feature in combat. These situations - which happen very often - are little more than timed button mashing that becomes more annoying than tactically satisfying.
Ni No Kuni has been touted as a difficult game. Unfortunately, the difficulty is artificial. Instead of providing a satisfyingly tactical combat system, they simply handicap your characters by limiting MP to make battles tougher to survive, thus forcing you to become a micromanager with recovery items. Level-grinding does solve this problem, but it shouldn't be a problem in the first place.
Builders will most likely be turned off a bit by Ni No Kuni. There is no character skill tree to speak of. All of the human characters and pokemon-style familiars learn skills when they reach specific levels. You can augment these familiars using treats to help boost their traits for combat, but that's not much of a consolation for players who will want more control over their character development.
There is an alchemy system that's pretty cool, but not really enough to fill the void left by the very basic character development system.
Achievers will find plenty to satisfy their completionist ways in Ni No Kuni. From filling out merit cards by doing sidequests, to completing monster bounties, to collecting that final platinum trophy - there is plenty to keep you occupied and satisfied here.
Overall visuals are a mixed bag. The art style is absolutely gorgeous, but much of the texturing looks blurred and muted in many locations.
I really wish they would have had the game fully voice acted. One, Because the voice actors are excellent. And two because characters like drippy and others speak in a way that's not as fun to read in text. Aside from that, the musical score is very classical. It's beautiful, but very different from most JRPGs I've played. If you go in not expecting FF6 or Star Ocean-style sound, you'll be good to go.
Save Points really need to be a thing of the past. I understand they are a staple of traditional RPGs, but they add zero utility.
Much of Ni No Kuni relies too heavily on outdated mechanics and JRPG cliches. Save Points and a bare-bones leveling system stand out the most. On the positive side, there is the typical 'keep playing after the ending' where you are treated to more secrets and stronger spells.
Ni No Kuni is a very solid JRPG. However, whether or not you should run out and buy it really depends on your tastes. If you don't like the more grind-happy JRPGs of the good-ole-days, you probably will lose interest in Ni No Kuni before the final credits roll. I'm an old school completionist, so I actually dug the game quite a bit. It wasn't good enough to knock Tales of Vesperia of its 'best of this generation' pedestal that I've placed it on, but it was definitely worth my $40.