Ni No Kuni is a PS3 Japanese-style RPG by Level 5 (creators of the Professor Layton series, among others) and Studio Ghibli, a renowned Japanese animation studio. It blends the distinctive mature-yet-accessible stories and evocative animation of Ghibli’s work with the deep gameplay mechanics of Level 5’s other blockbuster games. It’s an excellent game, and well worth your investment in time and money. It’s also a very dense and complex game, so once again I find myself halfway through thinking “I wish I’d known this when I started…”
With that in mind, let’s cover the essential info you need to know in order to play this game without driving yourself crazy. I’ll try to keep anything spoilery to a minimum, but I will mention game mechanics, locations, and vague references to quests so that you can keep track of where you need to pay attention.
In addition to the main quest, whose objective is always highlighted on your map, you can take on many side quests while playing the game. In every town is a branch of Swift Solutions, and here you can view the currently available side quests and get details on how to start them. These quests break down into two categories:
In a bounty hunt, you’ve just got to go to the location specified in the quest, and tackle a somewhat harder than usual monster or group of monsters. While these aren’t as challenging as boss fights, they can still be tricky. Do note that the monster’s location is highlighted on your local map, so if you’re not sure precisely where you’re supposed to be going, check the map!
When you approach the bounty hunt location, you’ll have to interact with the monster in order to fight it. I highly suggest being well leveled, fully healed, and that you save before you start.
Notice Board Errands
The Notice Board is full of small quests you can take on for citizens of the towns you’ve visited. A lot of these boil down to finding a particular Piece of Heart and giving it to the person who is having issues. Some require that you fight certain enemies or make something with alchemy, or that you explore certain areas or recover a lost item. Most are pretty basic, and you can resolve these in a matter of minutes. People who are important to a sidequest will show up as blue dots on your minimap.
However, there’s one questgiver you will love to hate – Derwin. This guy will drive you insane. He always wants you to capture a set of creatures for him. The problem is, capture rates are abysmally low for many creatures. These quests can take hours of searching for just the right creature, fighting it repeatedly, and hoping each time that you can capture it. He’s also needlessly vague about what specific creatures he wants, and the Journal doesn’t keep track for you. There’s a list of all his quests on this page that you can refer to if you need to.
For finishing quests and bounty hunts, you get stamps, which fill your stamp cards. Stamp cards can then be redeemed for special upgrades at any Swift Solutions location. These upgrades are well worth the investment – some of these are neigh indispensable.
At the outset, you’ll only have access to a few of the rewards on the list, but once you earn all the rewards in a group, another one unlocks.
As you explore the world map, you’ll come across sparkly areas. These are collection points for certain resources. Most of the time, these are ingredients for your alchemy pot. It’s generally worth grabbing them, although I’m not a huge fan of the alchemy system, as we’ll cover later. These spots respawn after a certain amount of time has passed.
Every time you stay in an inn in a new town, the Wizard’s Companion will update with new pages containing the map of the area you’re in. These pages can tell you much about the surroundings, but there are a few icons that are worth noting. One is a black “keyhole” icon, which represents a secret chest. If you go to this area and press the X button, you’ll find a helpful item. These items can be quite useful and powerful, so I suggest seeking them out. It’s irritating to consult the Wizard’s Companion, though, so I suggest you use IGN’s Ni No Kuni map which shows all of the locations.
The other icon on the map pages of the Wizard’s Companion looks like a brown spade, and represents a location you can go into. Usually these are forests where natives dwell. Sometimes there are quests here, and usually there is at least one chest.
Speaking of chests, they come in four varieties:
- Red chests can be opened at any time
- Blue chests can be opened once you know the Spring Lock spell
- Green chests can only be opened once you have your third party member
- Purple chests can only be opened with Spring Lock after you complete a very long main story quest and gained a very powerful wand
A good ways into the game you’ll get a couple of spells, one that will show you chests on the minimap when you’re indoors, and another that will show secret chests out on the world map.
You will gain access to alchemy as part of the main quest, when you head to Castaway Cove. The alchemy pot can be used at any time in the menu to create items from other items and the ingredients you collect on the world map. You can also buy certain ingredients from shops.
There are recipes for the alchemy pot in the Wizard’s Companion, but the pot itself also has a recipe list. This list is filled in when you do certain side quests and talk to certain NPCs in the towns you visit. It pays to talk to everyone in each town at least once, just in case they know of a recipe and can teach it to you.
You don’t need to have the recipe in the pot’s list in order to make it, though. As long as you have the ingredients, you’re set. You could refer to the list in the Companion, but again, that’s awfully annoying. Again, IGN’s guide has a full list of the recipes.
Overall, I found the alchemy system to be confusing and underwhelming. You can make a lot of powerful familiar treats this way, and I suppose they could be more efficient than the lower level treats, but overall it’s not that exciting. Likewise, you can make slightly more powerful equipment for your characters, but again, it’s overly confusing and there’s just not enough benefit.
Most of the reviews I read for this game called out the combat as being overly challenging. I didn’t really think it was that bad, honestly. One thing that makes combat a bit harder is that you and your familiars share health. Unlike a game like Pokemon, where you can throw out a new monster and soak up some damage, every time you switch you’re taking HP and MP from the same pool for that character.
When you first approach the desert city of Al Mamoon early on, the combat ramps up kind of quickly, but then you end up gaining a lot of power not long afterwards. Now, granted, I did do all the quests, including the “grindy catch monsters” ones, so my level was probably a bit higher than someone who was reviewing the game.
I will admit, the boss battles are tough. My general strategy was:
- Toss out a high-defense familiar, and try to do some damage
- When HP or Stamina is low, pull the familiar back
- Have Oliver heal
- Drink Coffee of some sort if MP is running low
Repeat this and you should be okay in most fights. You can also rely on Oliver’s magic to do damage, but just be careful in the early game where he’s your primary source of healing. The alchemy pot can also craft some decent healing items, if you’re willing to invest in the required ingredients.
While in combat, your other party members will be controlled by an AI. These AI helpers are generally dumb as bricks. You can set a basic AI script for them in the Tactics menu while in combat. These boil down to things like “don’t waste your MP” or “WASTE YOUR MP, OMG WASTE IT NOW” and so on. Your AI companions will tend to throw out their first familiar whenever combat starts, so keep that in mind if you have a preference about who they’re using.
A bit after you’ve filled your party, you’ll also get the option to press a button and have them switch to “all out attack” or “all out defense” tactics on the fly. This can be handy in situations where you need them to heal you or do heavy damaging moves on your command.
The game’s tutorial would have you believe that timing is an important part of combat. Honestly, it’s not really, except for a few key situations. If you are fighting a boss and you know he’s about to do a powerful move that will hit everyone, you can defend and instruct your AI allies to do the same (via the “all out defense” button). This will negate the move to a large extent. It also gives you a very high percentage chance of dropping glims, which heal you, restore your MP, or even allow you to do a special move.
Familiars are your primary way of engaging in combat. They tend to break down into one of three types:
- Attack familiars have high attack but low defense and low magic stats
- Defense familiars have high defense but low attack and low magic stats
- Magic familiars have (you guessed it!) high magic, but low attack and low defense stats
Generally your familiar slots will be filled with one of each. Each character also has a set of preferred monster races, which will grant a familiar a 10% bonus to their stats if they’re used by a compatible character.
You’ll be able to capture familiars once you’ve made it a short way into the game and found your second party member. There is a small chance of capturing a familiar every time you do battle with monsters. This can be boosted somewhat by the Jack of Hearts reward from Swift Solutions, but otherwise, it’s down to luck.
I read a few guides to get some good suggestions, notably this one at GameFAQs. My go-to party was:
- Attack: Naja (Ding Dong Well)
- Defense: Little Bighorn (Old Smokey)
- Magic: Lagoon Naiad (free in the Temple of Trials or the islands south of the Summerlands)
- Party Member #2
- Attack: Hooray (ocean, south of the Summerlands)
- Defense: Lumberwood (No Longer Mine island, which is near the Fairygrounds)
- Magic: Drongo (starting familiar
- Party Member #3
- Attack: Bonehead (Desert near Al Mamoon)
- Defense: Tin-man (Pig Iron Plains, near Hamelin)
- Magic: Girlfiend (Tombstone Trail)
As the game progresses, you can also get the Dinoceros from the plateaus around Al Mamoon, which is more powerful than the Little Bighorn in the late game.
If you capture these early, and level them throughout the game, combat won’t be that bad. One thing to note is that the magic familiars are really quite terrible for much of the game. They only really come into their own when they’re fully powered up. The Drongo is about the only one that was really useful from the start.
Familiars level up, but they can also be fed treats in the Creature Cage. When a familiar reaches a certain level, it can be fed a gem and morphed into a more powerful version that starts over at level 1 again. It is best to morph your familiars when they are at the maximum level! Otherwise, their stats will be considerably weaker.
To be honest, most of the time Oliver was using his Little Bighorn, and the other two were using their attack familiars. The AI tends to prioritize attacking whatever character you’re controlling, so often I found myself kiting enemies as Oliver while the other two took free shots at them.
You shouldn’t really need to grind much through the first half of the game, but you can make thing easier at one point by farming high XP enemies from the “Toko” family. The first ones you encounter live on an island north of the Summerlands, and you can fight them once you can travel the seas freely. However, the best time to level comes somewhat later.
When you get past the town of Perdida, if you’ve been following the “Horace” sidequest (which starts at a grave in an out-of-the-way spot in Ding Dong Dell, and continues throughout each town you visit), he’ll give you a spell called Veil. With this spell, you can efficiently farm Tokotokos in the area outside Perdida.
Travel to Perdida, and then cast Veil. Navigate the valley outside Perdida, looking for the Tokotokos. They’re small, green, and carry a brownish staff. If you kill these guys, they’re worth thousands of XP each. Even just an hour or two of grinding can easily power your familiars up to their final form, and teach them most or all of their most powerful tricks.
With Veil on, you can always surprise these guys and avoid the other fights in this area. These guys run away quickly, but if you surprise them you can usually power through them by casting your most powerful spells right from the start of the fight. It also helps to set your ally tactics up so that they are using their most powerful tricks.
About midway through the game you unlock the Casino. Much like the casinos in Dragon Quest games, you trade money for chips, which you then use to gamble in a variety of games. One game in particular is easy to exploit, though.
The game is called Platoon, and the rules are at first somewhat complex. I’ll try to explain.
You and your opponent both get a set of 10 cards, which you must make into 5 piles. A pile must contain at least one card, but can contain as many as you want (so long as you make five piles – you can’t put all 10 in one :P). The cards are standard playing cards, 2-10, J, Q, K, A, and Joker.
Once you’ve made your piles, you get to select one pile that you’re pretty sure will win, which gives you a bonus if you predicted correctly. You then take turns with your opponent, picking one of your piles to do battle with one of theirs.
Battles are decided by what cards are in your and your opponent’s piles. The basic rule is that whoever has the highest total wins, but there are a few special cards:
- If a pile has a King, it wins, regardless of the point total of the pile it is in. If both piles have Kings, then highest point total wins instead.
- If a pile has an Ace (Bishop), it loses, regardless of the point totals, unless both piles have Bishops. However, if the other pile has a King, the Bishop wins, regardless of the point totals.
- If a pile has a Joker (Wizard), the two piles swap – what was yours is your opponent’s, and what was your opponent’s was yours.
If you win 3 battles, you win the hand. You can then deal again for double-or-nothing, up to 6 times.
While some of this boils down to luck, there are a couple of interesting quirks in the AI. For one, it prioritizes it’s cards such that all special cards are towards the left, and all number cards are towards the right. This means that if you see a pile of two cards on the right hand side, it’s highly likely to be two number cards, and the maximum it could be is 20 points.
With this in mind, you want to arrange your piles like so:
- Match your bishops and your wizards, if you have any. This is always going to be a win if you go up against number cards.
- Leave your Kings by themselves. Again, this is always a win against number cards.
- Stack your number cards so that the piles are around 20 points each. Ideally you want to be around 20 or 21, but 19 or 22 is also OK. Go over rather than under if you have a choice.
These are your “win” piles, and you want to match these against the piles on the right hand side of the opponent’s piles.
Now stack the remaining cards:
- Bishops should stand alone
- Any leftover number cards can be in a pile
These are your “lose” piles. Ideally you want two or fewer of these.
Now, when you’re playing the game, what you want to do is match your “win” piles with the piles of theirs towards the right. If they’ve got 1 or 2 cards in a pile, match it with one of your “near 20” piles. If they have three or more, use a King or a Wizard/Bishop combo.
If you get punked by some special cards, or they beat you due to sheer luck, you can throw your “loser piles” against their leftmost piles – sometimes you’ll get lucky and they’ll have a Wizard who will switch with you, or you’ll kill a King with your Bishop. This is where the luck aspect comes in.
If you follow this strategy, you can generally win more than half the time – I’d say closer to 60-75%. If you can get one run where you win 6 in a row, you’ll be set for chips. In the meantime, I’d suggest ending a few rounds early so that you build up a stock of 10-20k chips you can use while you’re waiting for your “hot streak.”