It is always a shame when one of our favorite gaming franchises either dies or is reduced to a shadow of its former self. Not long ago, Hatm0nster published a post on how he was finally done with the Paper Mario franchise (as am I), due to the sad fact that the series has lost everything that once made it so great. I was reminded of another beloved franchise that I’ve had no choice but to abandon when I recently saw a trailer for Ni no Kuni: Cross Worlds.
Now, the game I just mentioned is some sort of mobile game that will soon be available in Japan. And as I watched the trailer out of idle curiosity, I could safely say that I was completely unmoved, nor was I disappointed that this was not a game I’d likely be able to play (nor would I want to, as I’m not a fan of mobile games). Just as one of the major things that made Paper Mario so good were the charming characters, so, too, was the case of the original Ni no Kuni, something that has been painfully lacking ever since the first game.
Back when I wrote my review for Ni no Kuni 2, I hadn’t played the original game in a few years. Although I could definitely say with confidence that the first game was much better, I couldn’t get too terribly specific because the game wasn’t super fresh in my mind. Well, as I write this post, I’m currently in the middle of replaying the original Ni no Kuni, and my reasons for loving this game have since come flooding back to me.
I think I’ve heard a lot of people describe this game in much the same way. If I could use but one word to describe why the first Ni no Kuni is better than the first, then the word would be “personal”. If I could describe what made me dislike the second, the word I would use is “generic”. For example, I’d like to cite the higgledies in the second game versus the familiars in the first. When my Ni no Kuni 2 review was first written, I had kind of forgotten how much the familiars added to the first game. So I claimed that the higgledies were “fine”. A glowing review if there ever was one.
Well, now I’m remembering quite vividly that the higgledies are anything but fine. They’re utterly generic little buggers that all look largely the same, while familiars came in dozens of unique varieties, from pirate cats to banana monsters (‘scuse me, babana) to derpy spiders to sasquatches. And each had four variations, a second version they could metamorphose into after their initial form, followed by the option to choose between two final forms, giving the player a lot more customizability, coupled with the fact that every playthrough is bound to be just a bit different depending on which familiars you catch and which you choose to level up.
And then the second game gave us higgledies, and I might as well just curl up into a ball and die.
Exaggeration aside, the most egregious sin and deviation from what made the first game so “personal” and the second so very bland was the stories and characters. The first game was just so relatable, and to better describe that, there will be some story/character spoilers coming up as I compare Oliver and Evan, followed by Swaine and Roland.
Starting with the first game’s main protagonist, Oliver begins the game with the loss of his mother. Thanks to his tears, his doll comes to life in the form of the fairy Mr. Drippy, who tells Oliver that he might be able to save his mother if he travels to the alternate world from which Mr. Drippy hails and saves the Great Sage Alicia, the soul mate of Oliver’s recently departed mother. Yes, I will admit that the circumstances are not exactly relatable, what with dolls coming to life and alternate worlds and soul mates. Nevertheless, Oliver’s motivations are very real and understandable. In the five stages of grief, one of them is bargaining, and who hasn’t wished there was something, anything, they could do to bring back a loved one? Oliver’s main goal isn’t initially to defeat the evil wizard Shadar. It’s to save his mother.
And then we’ve got our little half-human, half-kitty prince Evan, whose father has been killed and his kingdom has been stolen by the evil Mausinger. Do you know what Evan’s goal is, hmm? Get this, he wants to build his own kingdom and unite every other kingdom in the world. Who else here can relate to Evan’s surprisingly peaceful plans for world domination? Don’t get me wrong, Evan was an adorable and sweet little dude, but I just couldn’t relate to him as well as I could Oliver, despite their personalities being fairly similar. Warning: major Ni no Kuni 1 spoiler in the next paragraph.
When Oliver discovers that he cannot save his mother, after all, I was really sad for him, though this revelation only served to enforce the theme of grief I had noticed when the game first started. By the end, Oliver has no choice but to accept that his mother is never coming back, which is the fifth and final stage of grief. It’s sad, to be sure, but it serves to make the game just that much more relatable. Oliver didn’t fulfill some fantasy we all wished we could share in the form of bringing back a lost loved one. He had to accept, just as we all do, that sometimes bad things happen in our lives that are beyond our power to change, and we just have to move forward.
The original Ni no Kuni could be overly sweet sometimes. But Oliver’s failure to save his mother versus Evan’s complete success at uniting every kingdom of the world makes it clear which game is more unrealistically saccharine.
Now let’s move on to my last comparison, Swaine and Roland. Let’s start with Roland from the second game, shall we? Like Oliver, Roland hails from our world. But that’s where any sense of relatability ends. You see, he’s actually the president of some unnamed nation, who ends up transported to the other world due to a nuclear explosion. Upon meeting Evan, whose kingdom is being overtaken by Mausinger’s mouse army, he completely accepts what just happened to him and helps Evan escape, even going on to assist Evan in building his new kingdom. As one YouTube commenter for the original Ni no Kuni’s Switch trailer so eloquently put it after summarizing the plots for both games, “You know, I feel that we skipped several steps here.”
Yeah, don’t question how you got to another world, Roland. Don’t worry about the nuclear blast that might have annihilated your nation. Heck, forget your apparently ailing son. He’ll be fine. Who cares about him? This little prince with cat ears needs your help! Ignore all those human-sized mouse people that are totally not native to Earth! Don’t question anything like a normal human would! (Just imagine right now that I’m flailing my arms wildly over my head.)
I compare Oliver and Evan because they’re both the sweet and naïve protagonists. I compare Esther and Tani because they’re both…I dunno, the sassy girls. And I kind of compare Swaine and Roland because…I mean…they both fight with guns, and they’re both former “royalty”, in a sense? But just as Lofty is a sad, sad replacement for Mr. Drippy, so, too, does Roland’s existence make me cry tears of emotional pain if he’s really to be our replacement for my favorite cynical prince-turned-thief Swaine.
Roland’s motivations make no sense. And excuse me if, once again, I can’t really relate to a president whose country just got nuked. I’m just a humble duck. My troubles consist of thinking my TV is dead, until I realize it’s just the batteries in the remote that need changing.
Swaine, on the other hand, was a very relatable character indeed. Sure, Swaine actually had a similar background to Roland…sort of. Swaine was originally the elder prince of Hamelin who went by the name of Gascon. He ran away from home when he was in his teens to find some way of making his very harsh and very intimidating emperor of a father proud, as he felt he had no role to play now that his younger brother, Marcassin, was the heir to the throne due to his magical abilities.
On the surface, you might be saying, gee, Duck, you’re being very unfair to Roland, aren’t you? How is Swaine a relatable character, but Roland’s not? Well, my dear imaginary questioners, Swaine is not relatable because he was a prince. He is not relatable because his lack of magic meant he was no longer the heir to the throne.
The reason Swaine is a relatable character is because of his motivations and his relationship with his family. Forget for a moment that Swaine and Marcassin are princes and that their father was the Emperor of Hamelin. Just strip away these lofty titles, and you have two brothers who care deeply for each other. Swaine (formerly Gascon) was protective of his little brother and wanted him to reach his potential (even if encouraging Marcassin’s magical abilities was not exactly in Gascon’s best interest). Marcassin, on the other hand, would purposely pretend that he was terrible at magic because he didn’t want to replace his brother. Pair that with Gascon’s firm belief that his father favored Marcassin and couldn’t care less about what happened to his rebellious elder son, and you have a character whose position may not be so relatable, but his struggles are.
Of course, after Gascon runs away from home, he clearly doesn’t fare too well and becomes the thief named Swaine whom we come to know so well during the events of the game. Swaine couldn’t be more ordinary despite his background and, for me, he was actually the most relatable and realistic character in the game because of his cynical, snarky attitude towards many of the silly events that take place throughout your adventure. His motivation for joining Oliver, Esther, and Drippy on their quest makes a whole lot of sense, too. He wants to reunite with Marcassin, who seems to be struggling with ruling an empire in his older brother’s absence. After that, he becomes just as invested as the other members of the team in defeating the evil Shadar, as the Dark Djinn also happens to be the very person who killed Swaine’s father, with whom the former prince had finally made peace.
What this very long post boils down to is…the Ni no Kuni franchise has utterly lost sight of what made the original so special. I won’t ever buy another game in the series again, unless there is very strong evidence to suggest that Level-5 is going to bring the series back to its roots. But there seems to be as much hope of that happening as there is that Paper Mario will once again embrace what made people fall in love with the series all the way back on the Nintendo 64. For those of you out there who prefer the newer entries in these two series, then that’s great. But this is where I must say good bye. In the end, that doesn’t change the fact that the first three Paper Mario games and the original Ni no Kuni are still among my most cherished games, and I will forever be grateful to have them in my life.
Screenshot from Flickr User: Games Weasel