Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-03-28 08:47:04
Ni No Kuni and World Maps
Most JRPGs have some semblance of a world map. Typical progression usually goes as follows: walk on foot; eventually get a boat; end up with a flying mount. This is to ensure that you don't go exploring the entire world from the very start of the game, drip-feeding locations to you at a steady pace. Traversing the world map in Ni No Kuni (PS3) is no different to this, but the world map itself is a cut above the norm.
There are some JRPGs that boast a serviceable world map, such as the Tales of series. Other games, such as Persona 4, do away with a traditional world map in favour of the click-and-go method. Golden Sun had a great map, full of interesting locations to explore. In all of these cases, though, the world map itself is just a glorified way of getting from point A to point B. There haven't been many world maps in JRPGs where you get to really take in your surroundings and see what might be out there. Ni No Kuni, however, allows the player to do just that.
The map in Ni No Kuni is consistently interesting. Not only is it peppered with a colourful variety of cities and dungeons, but there are all sorts of things on the map to interact with. Whether it's finding secret chests, harvesting item spawn points or hunting bounties, the map is used to the best of the developer's abilities. Level-5 have made maps in their games before, but none so vast and interesting as the one found in Ni No Kuni. An optional side-mission in itself is navigating the wilds acquiring all of the collectables. Just clearing out an area of all of its hidden chests can take nearly an hour. The game rewards players who do explore by offering up interesting rewards, from equipables to rare materials, that can be used in the game's optional alchemy minigame.
It helps that these areas are engaging. While there are typical places to explore such as forests, icy regions and deserts, there are also plenty of smaller islands to explore, each with distinct personalities. When you're just using the ship, the game adopts an almost Wind Waker-esque style of exploratory gameplay, offering a varied topography to traverse. These islands are home to all sorts of creatures great and small, and there is always an incentive to learn the layout of the land as a result. It's a big world, after all, with the first continent alone housing multiple dungeons and towns. You still visit the first continent right up until the end of the game, which marks a change from usual JRPG tradition where you rarely want to revisit old locations.
These areas are brought to life through impressive visuals and dynamic colours. There are all sorts of interesting archipelagos and rocky outcrops to land on once you get access to the game's flying mount, and although many of them are there for show only, there are plenty that contain hidden treasures. You can still discover new things on Ni No Kuni's world map sixty hours into the game, and while some areas are generic at a first glance, such as Skull Mountain, there are others, such as the Fairy Island, which remain unique in that Studio Ghibli sort of way.
With JRPGs shuffling along with a loyal fanbase, Ni No Kuni as a video game remains rooted in tradition. There isn't anything game-changing about Ni No Kuni, but what the game does accomplish that many other JRPGs fail to do is in making an engaging and exciting world full of personality. Towns with such whimsical names as Ding Dong Dell, or with puns within names, like Al Mamoon (emphasis on the 'moo', as the town's authority is the 'cowlipha'), are appreciated within a genre that often falls back into stale realms of predictability. Ni No Kuni's world is one well worth exploring, just to see what future visual feast or imaginative location will reveal itself over the next hill.