For me, there’s a special feeling to the first few hours of a new JRPG. It’s a comfortable feeling, like sinking slowly into a hot bath, or curling up under a blanket in front a well-loved film. It’s anticipation of many adventures to come, and acclimatisation to a world you know you’re going to be spending many hours in.
These games always take me back to my childhood, recalling adolescent years spent with games like Final Fantasy VII and Skies of Arcadia. I guess a part of me pines for a time when I could spend entire days absorbed in a massive RPG, a part of me that’s strong enough that if I’m given half a chance, I’ll still spend entire days sitting in front a massive RPG.
It’s a mixture of familiarity and uncertainty. In a sense, you know exactly what you’re getting; monsters will be defeated, levels will be upped, bosses will transform into bigger bosses and Some Bad Guy will threaten to Destroy The World. There will be a desert level. There will be at least one magic sword. The world, ultimately, will be saved, but only after a three-part final boss fight set to a thunderous orchestral score.
But as much as all of these games are the same, each one is also unique. You never know who you’re going to meet before you start; you don’t even know who you’re going to to be. You don’t know who the villain is yet, you don’t know how they’re planning to Destroy The World, or why. You don’t know which bosses are going to be the toughest, what the strongest weapons are, which abilities can be exploited or where the best location for levelling up is. You don’t know how long you’ll have to play for before you reach the desert level.
A new JRPG is both comforting in its familiarity and exciting in its sense of possibility.
It helps when a game is as easy to like as Level 5’s Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. The touch of the animation masters at Studio Ghibli is obvious in the visuals, which pop vibrantly off the screen and lend an undeniable charm to the game’s every character and location. Both the english script and the voice acting are superlative. The score by Joe Hisaishi, performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, is soaring and triumphant. The tiniest details, down to the most obscure corners of the game’s menu, have been polished to a glittering shine.
There hasn’t been a JRPG with such a complete and confident production in, well, probably ever. It’s a really easy world to want to spend time in.
Some critics have complained at the game’s somewhat glacial pace, but I’m actually enjoying the laboriously measured way the game leads you in. Most modern games will hurriedly toss you through a tutorial level or two before handing you complete control and hurling you straight in at the ‘exciting’ end for fear of letting you stand still long enough to get bored. It’s more immediate, sure, but there’s something to be said for introducing a game’s elements one at time, letting a player experience and experiment with each one, before introducing the next. The slow build-up makes the eventual payoff feel more meaningful.
It’s that childhood thing again. The game’s babying me, and I’m happy to let it. It’s like a videogame comfort blanket. I know there’s going to be plenty of time for sidequests and equipment hoarding and obsessing over stat points later on, but right now I’m happy to be led slowly by the hand, being gently shown which bits of the game are just how I knew they would be and which bits are exciting and unexpected.
The Japanese RPG gets a lot of bad press for being a genre that’s stuck in its ways, stuck in the past, and the developers of these games are often criticised for an unwillingness to innovate. Ni No Kuni isn’t breaking any new ground, and some people might frown at it for that.
But here’s a thought: maybe we don’t have to innovate all of the time. There are plenty of games out there that are pushing the envelope, changing the very concept of what a game is. Industry stalwarts are falling over themselves to say that games need to ‘grow up’, ‘mature,’ open themselves up to new audiences. And that’s a great thing.
But in the same way that not every movie release is an avant-garde re-imagining of cinema, not every game needs to be sitting right on the bleeding edge of progress. Not every game has to take my breath away. Once in a while, I don’t actually want my breath taken away. Sometimes I like to keep my breath, in fact.
We absolutely should innovate within games. We should make games that are new and different and exciting. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also make games that are just like games we played when we were twelve, only new. Because if we can’t sometimes play games to indulge our inner child, then that’s not much fun, is it, really?