Level 5's Ni No Kuni was one of those no-brainers when considering whether to buy it or not. A game that is equipped with Studio Ghibli animations, japanese vocals and a jrpg system sums up as a definite yes in my books. I bought it at some point when it was on sale in PS Network and left it to simmer until I finished some other games I wanted to play first. I started it after I finished with the Tales series, as I often like to have at least one jrpg that I play regularly. (Currently, I actually have four*, but who's counting?) I haven't quite finished the story yet, but I'm nearing the final boss every hour.
The story of Ni No Kuni takes part in two worlds - a "real" world and a magical one. Our "real" world is represented by a town called Motorville, where our main character Oliver lives and from where he sets on his journey across Ni no kuni (the second world); a land of magic, fairies and wonders. The story progresses relatively straight forwardly through the towns, deserts and snowy plains of Ni no kuni, and every once in a while Oliver is required to return to Motorville, in order to solve a problem in Ni no kuni. This is because the worlds are linked so that each person living in the first world has a soul mate in the other - and problems affecting the one person will have an effect also on the other.
After a while you gain control of a ship, which allows you to travel across the seas of Ni no kuni, giving you some opportunities to explore the map - and a little further from this, you befriend a dragon, which allows even more movement across the word. Also, the general running around is slightly lessened by a Travel spell, which you gain at some point, which allows you to teleport into any place you've visited earlier. I felt that most of these came available relatively early on in the game. Maybe I'm accustomed to first playing the game by running through the tube and then getting the chance to explore in post-game or in time-before-the-final-boss. It is nice to be able to balance the game between the main quest and the numerous side quests with all the travel options you have. It should also be mentioned, that in some cases it is not possible to advance the main story if you don't use the dragon, for instance, to get to the place you need to go next - so it is not always possible for you to just run forward.
You get altogether three members to your party. Oliver is joined on his quest by Esther and Swaine, who both have the same ability as Oliver to control familiars to use in battle. Each character can use either their own abilities or the abilities of three different familiars in battle - so basically you have the option of fighting with twelve different characters. In reality you only control one character and his familiars and the others are on autopilot. There's also Drippy, your friendly neighbourhood Lord High Lord of the Fairies, who helps a little during battles, too, every now and again.
Your familiars and characters both gain xp and levels at the same pace, although only those three familiars you've picked for your characters gain the xp. There are many more available, of course. The familiars and characters can both also be equipped with different sort of things to enchance their stats and/or abilities and it depends on the character or familiar what sort of things it is possible to equip for them. Moreover, you can feed your familiars candy to raise their stats.
The battles are in real time, meaning that once you've chosen who you're controlling, all of the friendly and enemy actions happen according to who is the fastest to declare them. Some skills are accompanied by animations and so prevent enemies or friendlies acting at the same time and all friendly actions apart from attack function have a cooldown time before you can use them again. It is also possible to change the familiar or character you are playing with during battle. Notable is, that only the three main characters can use items - the familiars are only restricted to those tricks they've learned and which have been picked into their trick slots by the player. The amount of tricks are familiar knows increases over time as they learn them through gaining xp as does the amount of trick slots they have available.
Apart from the battles, the game also has other sorts content. At some point in the game it becomes possible to practise alchemy - namely, use items to create other items. You can also do sidequests and earn rewards and stamps from those completed - the stamp cards can be exchanged to nifty rewards when enough - as well as take on bounty hunts to battle some of the more exotic monsters of Ni no kuni. Many of the sidequests deal with people having had their hearts broken and missing pieces from it, which then requires you to find a piece like it from someone else and giving it to the person in need. This is all accomplished through the spells Take and Give Heart and a locket which glows whenever an extra sliver of heart is nearby and stores them for later use.
In addition to the actual what-to-do content, the game is also very pretty, has nice music and good voice acting and is propelled along by a good story, which does manage to surprise you a few times at least, too. All in all, the gameplay gets a little repetitive sometimes, so to counter getting bored it might be a good idea to play something else for a change every now and again. The game mechanics are not too difficult to learn and not easily forgotten, so even a long break didn't break the rhythm, at least in my case. And although the main characters are children (apart from one), the game can be an entertaining experience for adults, too, as you travel around with Oliver and friends. Some of things would be, after all, far too scary, weird, or magical for adults to handle on their own. Having a child to guide on his journey, on the other hand, gives us both the excuse and the reason to explore the magic of Ni no kuni for ourselves.
* In addition to Ni No Kuni, my unfinished jrpgs include FFX on PS3 and Persona 3 and Valkyria Profile 2: Silmeria on my PS2