Ni No Kuni: A Personal Reflection

Ni No Kuni is a JRPG.

That doesn’t quite do it justice.

Ni No Kuni is a JRPG: it’s all children going on adventures, capturing beasties to use as your own ULTRA-KAWAII slave army, and saving the world through the power that lies latent in your heart. It has a deep but somewhat obtuse battle system, shocking teammate AI, and does that annoying JRPG thing of continuing to add new mechanics tens of hours into the game.

It is, however, one of the most charming games I have ever played. It’s a collaboration between Level-5 (who you may know from the Professor Layton games) and Studio Ghibli (responsible for films such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind), two companies known for creating worlds and characters that are believable, relatable and memorable, who have teamed up to construct a delightful, exciting world that never fails to raise a smile. The game is a delight and its pastel colours, bustling cast and genre-defining score help to gloss over the slight mechanical wobbles the game suffers from, much like a good overcoat hides skinny legs.

I haven’t talked about the music yet. Listen to this:

Doesn’t that music make you want to leap out of your window, gather your friends and go on an adventure?

Within just a few moments of this main theme firing up, the game lays its cards on the table in front of you. This isn’t Final Fantasy VII; it’s not an introspective soul-search of a game that will make you consider whether you really are who you are, nor is it an art game in which every random battle is a fight against your own malaise, in which your magic abilities somehow represent the nameless Jewish refugees who perished in Concentration camps in World War Two.

Ni No Kuni is a game of seeing the world through enthusiastic, childlike eyes; of exploring, overcoming great odds, and saving the world. It’s JRPG pulp with an impeccably thick layer of fizzing, magical charm spread on the top like cream on an amazing cake. Its music is an enormous part of this. It’s grand, sweeping and majestic; it’s bombastic, it’s intricate, it’s… just listen.

That music plays every time you land on the world map. Fuck off, Cloud’s Theme. Ni No Kuni‘s music is, frankly, fucking boss.

But all of the above only goes partway toward explaining why I love this game so much. They’re all great things to have in a video game; don’t get me wrong, but all of these things are simply salad that go with the prawns and Marie Rose sauce in the wondrous Prawn Cocktail that is this game.

My grandfather died a little over three years ago.

He was my hero in many ways. Born on a farm, he joined the RAF as a boy entrant and spent twenty years being posted all over the world. He saw the Suez Crisis from Tripoli and worked on early radar systems before leaving the Air Force and working for various well-known aerospace manufacturers. His personal effects when he died included photographs of the Gemini shuttles in various states of build, as well as some phenomenal photos of them orbiting our planet.

The day I found out my Grandad was a part of that, no matter how tiny, it blew my mind.

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He is the reason I love comedy; he introduced me to Spike Milligan (and to the Goon show in particular), and he is the man who taught me the phrase “When I laughs I farts, and when I farts I shits I self”. For that last reason, and that last reason alone, I believe there’s an argument to be made that there has literally never been a greater man on the face of the planet than my Grandad. Christ, his insistence that I listen to orchestral music is probably part of the reason why I like the music in Ni No Kuni so much.

But what does my dead Grandad have to do with a Japanese RPG about a boy who visits a fairytale world, accompanied by a living stuffed toy with a lantern in his nose? Why does this game make me think about him so much?

My Grandad was born in Camarthen and he grew up in Pembroke. For those not in the know, these places are both in South Wales – and for those even less in the know, Mr Drippy (Ni No Kuni‘s protagonist’s guide and main friend) has a very Welsh accent. He also maintains a wonderful, chipper demeanour no matter what the world throws at him, and throughout the game’s forty-plus hours he constantly provides Oliver with advice about the strange world around him and backs him up in battles. He is a wonderful father figure for Oliver (whose dad does not appear in the game), much as my Grandad was a father figure for me, growing up as I did with a somewhat absent one.

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Which, eight hundred and fifty words in, brings me to my point. For me, playing Ni No Kuni feels like going on an adventure with my Grandad. Ni No Kuni is extra time to spend with a man who I still miss every day and was responsible for sculpting an idiot, directionless child into an idiot, directionless adult who knows some funny sayings.

The whole experience feels like the walks we used to go on when I was a child, through the fields near the house he and my Nana moved to after a heart attack forced him to retire. He’d impart knowledge on things growing in hedgerows, what life was like for a sixteen year old in the Armed Forces in a world still reeling from the second World War, and what life was likely to throw at a boy as he wanders towards becoming a man. Whenever Drippy explains some botanical or biological quirk about the land Oliver has found himself in, I’m immediately eight years old again, a fresh wad of gummy sputum spat out of a parental divorce that’s staring up at my Grandad picking nuts from a tree, looking for someone to tell him something amazing that will take his mind off all that other shit clawing at the edges of his mind – things he’s simply not equipped to deal with yet.

Ni No Kuni makes me feel like a child again. It reminds me of a time when things were a little bit better; a little happier. It reminds me of the years that came before time slowly began to sap my Grandfather’s health. Our walks became shorter and less frequent as we both grew older, partially due to the busy social calendar of a ten to fifteen year old (which ran the gamut from “going to see Batman and Robin” to “getting stoned in a tree” depending on my age), but also because of my Grandad’s ever weakening heart. The day we had to turn and head for home a mere ten minutes into our last ever walk in the countryside still resides lemon-sharp in my memory, mocking me simply by remaining there.

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I watched as the days and months sapped him of his energy and his spirit. I spoke at his funeral, then was forced to watch for almost three years as the woman that had loved him for almost sixty years sat in a chair and slowly died of a broken heart on Christmas Eve, 2012. My Grandad’s death shook my family intensely but it destroyed one of the supporting pillars of my Grandmother’s existence, and from February 2010 to December 2012 I don’t think she knew true happiness – and I witnessed the whole sorry thing.

Ni No Kuni lets me forget that. Every time I load up Ni No Kuni it’s a brand new sunny day. I’m at my Grandfather’s side and we’ve just left the house. We don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know how long we’ll be gone, but it doesn’t matter because we’re on an adventure. The fields are a breathtaking, aching ochre, the sky is as blue as the words my Grandfather can’t say around my Nana, and I feel simply excited.

Thank you, Steffan Rhodri. Without you realising it, your voice work gave me time with my Grandad I simply wouldn’t have had otherwise. Thank you, Level-5 and Studio Ghibli, for creating the game that made this happen.

And Timothy John Howell Raymond: thank you for being my Mr Drippy. Thank you for guiding and protecting me, and for throwing me little green orbs when things got tough. I couldn’t have done it without you.

I’m going to go now before I cry.