"Tidy" Is The New "Shiny"

Oliver's Off On His Big Adventure in Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a Japanese RPG with a serious pedigree. Studio Ghibli, who has brought us classics such as "Spirited Away" and "My Neighbor Totoro" worked with Level 5, who made the Dragon Quest and Professor Layton series, to bring us a new story, set in a whole new world. Both companies brought out their big guns for this project, and it shows in every pixel.

It's been a while since a game has grabbed me by the tripes like this, and I'm really happy. But I don't feel comfortable getting down into the nitty-gritty about the game proper right now. I've only just gotten all the grayed-out areas in the main menu unlocked, and 1/4 of the way through isn't enough to take all the game's mechanics out for a good spin. But here are a few things to go on with.

I'm of two minds about the whole experience so far:

- I'm blissfully happy with just about every aspect of it. It is great!
- I'm only about a quarter of the way through it. Aaaaauuuggghhhhh!

The characterizations are what bring this sort of game to life. Ghibli's reputation for quirky stories and visual depth is deserved, and you see it plainly the first time Oliver walks down a flight of stairs. Or just watch Mr. Drippy in the background of the various conversation screens.

The environments have all been lavished with that same level of attention. The first bit goes from a fire-belching volcano on the scale of Mt. Doom, to sweeping desert grandeur, to quaint towns, to magical forests, and everything in between. Each has its own charm and its own surprises, and I can't wait to see the next.

One of my favorite non-spoiler things about the game is the way it handles the team's interactions with NPC's and the rest of that world. This isn't Zelda, where you stalk through every village and town, chopping down the vegetation and breaking other people's stuff to get the things you need. We're all very civilized here. The specific jars and chests you can pick stuff out of are very clearly marked, and you don't break them to get it. You don't just go into people's houses, and you can't even run in the stores.

The sticking point in my conversation with you is I'm afraid it's going to be a while before I'm finished. The pace I've been plowing through at is simply not sustainable on top of the rest of my life. I've spent the equivalent of a week's worth of working hours on this game in the nine days I've had it. This is on top of my Daily Planet job, while still holding up my obligations to my gaming group playing Borderlands and Civilization V and working around my daughter's work schedule (she'll keelhaul me if I get too far ahead of her in the story). My twin daughters' birthday is today. I've got two weddings to plan, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it. I'm swamped!

This isn't a new or unexpected problem. I've been shoehorning games into the cracks in my life for years, and it's not just the RPG genre. It took me about a month by the calendar to finish my first playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 4, and that was with a 19 hour play-time. Length of the game isn't really the issue; it's life. I've had to chop and change in the middle of a Plants vs. Zombies level when duty called in the real world.

Even without life kicking in the jambs I tend to play more slowly than others. This is for several reasons. Completionism is a terrible monkey for your back, especially when it combines, Voltron-like, with the sort of elitist pride that doesn't allow for using a guide on the first play-through. I get terribly lost, and open-world RPG's are the worst for that. And with my gaming time coming in tiny chunks, an appreciable part of the beginning of each session is spent trying to remember where I am, what I'm trying to do, and just how to play this flippin' thing.

The big sites have their reviews up, and I have read a few of them over the last several days, mostly out of curiosity and to help me get through the work day while the game burns a hole in my desk. The longer I've played, the more bewildering these articles are. I don't know how long their guys have had their hands on the code, but reading them after getting as far as I have, I have to wonder how their experience of playing the game as their job affects their take on the game.

I'm not talking about specific points they've made (though in a couple cases I could). I'm talking about general approach. If I could sit down for eight hours a day and power through, with the game as the base focus of my life, how different would my comments be on the pacing? What if I was playing the game during the day, when I was most awake and aware, rather than trying to prop my eyelids open long enough to get to the next save-point?

I've had similar conversations before and have been told I should find a reviewer whose take on things is similar to mine and take their advice, but how many of the gang who get paid to do this are in the sort of life-position I am? It seems to me it would be like asking a speed-reader his opinion of the length of a book. If he finishes it in an hour, but I have to slog through it for three days, is his impression really going to be that helpful to me?

There's no easy answer. I don't expect the games media to start constricting their already demanding schedules to try to put themselves under the same sort of pressures my life puts me under. And I'm not exempt; I'm just as set in my own context. I've been playing this type of game for a very long time, so some aspects of the gameplay and general structure are already familiar to me in a way they may not be to someone who hasn't played a lot of this genre. You may not want my opinion, either.

In the case of this game, I don't know what to tell you. I can assure you that it definitely contains what it says on the tin. The story, art, sound, and gamplay have been brought together and blended into a gold-standard Japanese RPG. I think it's awesome. Whether or not that's what you like is a another thing entirely, and I'm not sure whose advice you should be listening to about it.

Comments

If you are a fan of "tidy", get hold of the UK sitcom "Gavin and Stacy". More mad Welsh people than could possibly be good for you.

I wish JRPGs would drop the trope of having to grind in order to obtain a minimal 60 hour playthrough. I would really love to pick up this game because I love studio ghibli (see my avatar), but I know I'm not going to have time or the patience to level up all my creatures. I applaud the recent trend to shorter but tighter games, or at least the option to bias for narrative vs gameplay like Mass Effect 3 had. I re-started Persona 4 on "Very Easy" because I want to see where the story goes. I know I'm not going to get a deep appreciation of the nuances of the combat and Persona system, and I'm ok with that.

I've been shoehorning games into the cracks in my life for years, and it's not just the RPG genre. It took me about a month by the calendar to finish my first playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 4, and that was with a 19 hour play-time. Length of the game isn't really the issue; it's life. I've had to chop and change in the middle of a Plants vs. Zombies level when duty called in the real world.

I can identify with this. Between work and spending time with my family, it took me nearly a month for my 11-hour playthrough of Epic Mickey and just over a year for my 55-hour playthrough of Dragon Quest IX. It's a little baffling to talk to friends or see posts on GWJ and hear about people putting 3, 4, 5 hours into a game in a single evening. It's even more baffling to think about when I did that, myself.

These days, I don't mind at all the family time replacing what used to be gaming time. I'd rather spend an hour playing with my son or watching Downton Abbey with my wife than whacking away at The Last Story. But it certainly provides a different context for criticism than others, and certainly professional reviewers, have.

If I could sit down for eight hours a day and power through, with the game as the base focus of my life, how different would my comments be on the pacing? What if I was playing the game during the day, when I was most awake and aware, rather than trying to prop my eyelids open long enough to get to the next save-point?

I've thought about this a lot when reading reviews. My time with games is fragmented and scattered in ways a reviewer's time simply isn't. I may go days between isolated, 30 minute late night sessions with a game, or I may play a handheld game broken up across a day into any number of 3 minute sessions here and there. That's nothing like the 12-hour crunch mode a reviewer faces where they're hard-pressed to reach the game's end, summarize their thoughts on it, and get it out the door so they can do it all again.

I can take time to adjust to strange controls, to reflect at length on a game's story or mechanics, or to otherwise change my mind about something. Anyone's who's been reading my Wii thread can tell you that my first impressions of a game don't always quite match up with my final thoughts.

But the time it takes me to play a game can also affect my perception of its pacing. A story that takes awhile to get going, or one that requires a bit of grinding, is no big deal on my handheld, because I'm picking it up constantly throughout the day. Conversely, those things can negatively impact my experience on the Wii because my gaming sessions are fewer and further between.

It's left me with a sense that reviewer's opinions might work well for some but don't match well with my tastes or my lifestyle. Anymore, I put a lot of stock into the opinions of a handful of friends but am, above all, more willing than ever to disregard critical opinion and simply try out whatever looks interesting to me.

It's also possible that they haven't actually finished the game. I doubt they have time to finish every huge JRPG they play.

Even when I have lots of free time, I just can't marathon through games like I could in my teens.

For example: Dragon Quest 8 was the most time-consuming game I've played since... well, probably college. I put just north of 100 hours into that game, and played it obsessively - by my standards. That means around 5-8 hours per week over the course of around 4 months. That was a hell of a lot of time for me to stick into a single-player game that consistently.

But because that was my version of marathoning the game, I never felt like it dragged. The pacing was perfect; there were awesome, page-turner story bits, and there were many sessions of simply enjoying leisurely exploration of the game's world, poking around in every little corner I could find as I searched for treasure and unique monsters.

Ni No Kuni is, so far, completely matching the pacing of that experience. I've put around 11-12 hours in now, over the span of a week and a half, and that's a LOT for me to put into a single game in such a short time.

I don't doubt that this is a significant part of where the complaints from reviewers regarding the pacing originate: they have a much more compressed timeframe in which to play through the game and get a review up by launch. I have never actually wanted to be a "professional" game reviewer for this reason.

More than ever, reviewing games is a very different experience than playing games.

By the same token, I agree with your point about the difficulty in playing a game like this in the cracks of your life, Colleen. Frankly, unless I know I can sit down and play for a solid 1-2 hours, I'm not likely to play a game like Ni No Kuni. I need time to reorient myself in the game, and keep a feel of what and where I am and what I'm doing. Then, I need to be able to be attentive and relaxed about how I play during that session, rather than "ok, 20 minutes to get from point A to point B so I can save and shut it down." Playing it that way would give me a much different experience than playing it in movie-length chunks (or even hour-long-tv-show chunks).

You're further along than I am.

I don't mind taking ages to finish a long game. Persona 4 Golden took me 2 months to finish and that was a quick finish for me. I'm pretty good at remembering the story though so I can go back to old games pretty much any time and pick up from where I left off. I've had games that took me nearly a decade to finish. (Breath of Fire 3, Zelda: Wind Waker...)

One thing that's slowed me down on Ni No is that I've been trying to only play it when my 4 yr old son is watching. He's a big Ghibli fan.

Great game, and I'm having a similar obsessive experience. I've had it 5 days and have sunk about 10 hours into it, using the hardcover guide along the way to satisfy my completionist demons (only to find all the chests and get unstuck on side missions - never to know fight/main quest strats beforehand).

It really is a beautiful, whimsical game, which appears to be doing a great job of not tipping its hand all at once, but layering on dimensions of tactics, things to do, and extras alongside the story.

indy wrote:

I applaud the recent trend to shorter but tighter games, or at least the option to bias for narrative vs gameplay like Mass Effect 3 had. I re-started Persona 4 on "Very Easy" because I want to see where the story goes.

If it helps, there is an "Easy" setting for the game with the actual description that this setting it for audiences that just want to experience the story.

I'm playing on normal, and if you do the side quests I don't find that there is much grinding. At least not to the level of Persona 4.

This game is an addictive time sink, I say this as I'm about to get out of bed early on a Saturday after pulling a night shift. I have gripes with the game, I think everyone should (provided they can look at a project involving Ghibli without rose coloured glasses), but the overwhelming sense I get from this game is childish wonder. I keep saying this, but it's just so well crafted.

I do agree that I like how they cut out some of the normal JRPG fluff. Now every town has 4 stores and you know what to expect there, the npc's worth interacting with, in terms of quests, are highlighted, the towns in general aren't very big, and if you want side quests, go to one place to get them all.

I'm about 25 hours in and I don't find it to be very grindy. I haven't had to grind yet. However, I am taking my time and doing the side quests, which sort of disguise grinding by giving you a little reward. If you were just going for the main story, you would likely have to grind some. I have used a walkthrough on a few of the sidequests, just because I couldn't find where I was supposed to go or find the bounty. Besides that, I haven't found I need for help.

I actually exchanged a few tweets with Phil Kollar, who did the review at Polygon, about how having to push through a game like this in less than a week, is kind of sad and also could affect the review. I think they try to account for it, but it's impossible. You never know how that will change your experience. But with media there are so many variables in review, that is just one more.

I actually put a lot of thought into this question when Dragon's Dogma came out (link drop). When I sat down and played it I didn't think a lot of the supposed "problems" were actually problems. At the same time, however, I didn't get the game a few days before hitting store shelves with a deadline. In fact, I still haven't beaten the game, much to my dismay!

I think it is one of the reasons I've stopped reading reviews, as I'm not interested in consumer advice. I'd much rather follow a game critique, which tries to dig into a game's nitty gritty. Then again, I already know what I'm going to buy and why.

In this day and age, it's tough to be a games reviewer. You have to put time into a game in such a way most others won't, most game reviewers have no education in things like usability, and you have to deal with everyone telling you you're wrong.

demonicmurry wrote:

If it helps, there is an "Easy" setting for the game with the actual description that this setting it for audiences that just want to experience the story.

I was hoping you'd read this, after our discussion the other day.

I'm playing Ni no Kuni on easy. I've said here before about how I don't really value challenge in games, and when I saw that the option was labeled "for people who just want to experience the story" I knew it was for me. I wish more games had options like that, since I'm usually playing games when I'm tired or frustrated from work and don't really want to spend ten tries slogging through a super hard boss battle. (Probably Ni no Kuni isn't THAT hard, but you know what I mean.)

Man, if Zelda had a mode to make boss battles easier I'd be so happy. So happy.

Games like this take me a long time to play anyway, since my distaste for difficult battles is far exceeded by my love of sidequests, collecting, and exploring every little nook.

You make good points about how reviewers approach games. It kills me when some reviewer complains that a twenty hour game is too short and not worth it. A twenty hour game might take me a month to play, depending on how much time I have!

Still waiting on this one due to the pile. When backloggery tells me I have 70 unplayed games (although a few are bundle or gift stuff that I might never get to, but there's still probably 50 real games on that list), adding another RPG to the pile that will require 30 hours or more is not going to help.

I've never really played a JRPG, but have played plenty of "western" RPGs. For some reason, this one has attracted my interest. Maybe it's the animated feel to it. Are the JRPG elements that have kept me away from the genre problematic? I'm thinking about the grind, mostly.

Louis

This is why I would never want to be a games reviewer. I think I would hate any game that I had to play in a damned hurry to meet a deadline. I used to review books but stopped doing it simply for the same reason. Games and reading are pleasures to me, and what time I have with them are precious. To rush that just feels criminal.

The need for Day One reviews of games isn't that important to me. Once a game comes out, I just watch the comments here or on Gaf on what people are thinking. Within a week or two, I have enough opinions to help me decide.

My wife and I made a deal that I get from whenever our youngest goes to bed (its my responsibility to get him there) to 9:30 to play games, it is usually 1 to 1.5 hours a day. Seems to work for us.

After 9:30 it is time to fold clothes whatch TV together or talk.

For you Downton Abby fans:

IMAGE(http://www.fabafterfifty.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/ubpfattach/downton-abbey-maggie-smith.jpg)

Another fan here of Ghibli studios. I might have to jump on this game in the near future. But just like everyone here my gaming time slots are extremely scattered. I've worked out the same schedule as most, basically 9:00 pm gaming after the kid goes to sleep. But with a 5:15 am wake up time I can barely stay up past 8:30pm. I've been on track with Assassins Creed 2 now for the past 2 years. Although I did put it down to play Mass Effect 3 and Diablo 3, which took up my entire year. What I have noticed a lot lately was my formulation of a depressive slump after playing a good game. After it took me 3 months to finish ME3 I purchased Diablo 3 but I did not play it right away. I was still sulking over ME3 and whining to my wife that I miss planet scouting. I've been doing this since I was a teenager with books. I would read a great book, sulk for about a month and force my way to another book. But not with games; as a kid I remember finishing Resident Evil 1 and jumping right into Final Fantasy 7 all in the same day. So with that in mind, I guess I will wait out the 3 months to play this game after my hangover of Guild Wars 2 is over.