As someone who reviewed 2013's Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, I can tell you it amounted to a tragic misuse of talent.
At first glance, this Level-5/Studio Ghibli collaboration looked like the stuff of dreams. The legendary animation studio had shied away from the medium for decades, no doubt thanks to its curmudgeonly founder, who's about as far away from "gamer" as you can get. (This is the guy, after all, who expressed dismay over kids staying inside to watch his movies ad nauseum.) After years of waiting, we'd finally have what amounted to a playable Ghibli movie, and on a console that could conceivably render the visual spectacle we associate with Hayao Miyazaki's brand. So how did it go wrong?
Well, it depends on who you ask: With my C+ review on 1UP.com, I was kind of the odd man out. Now, don't get me wrong; in a shocking display of nuance, I don't think Ni no Kuni is a terrible game. It's just that with the sheer amount of talent poured into its production, I expected a lot more than a warmed-over Pokemon clone. There's no denying it's a visually spectacular game, and possibly the best looking piece of software ever developed for the PlayStation 3—nearly three years ago, it inspired me to write, "Why are we so excited about upcoming consoles when current-gen games are just starting to look this good?" And, of course, its localization—led by the amazing Richard Honeywood—perfectly expressed the storybook world and the many eccentric characters residing within it. But, with so much attention applied to the tiniest of details, Level-5 neglected one thing: making Ni no Kuni fun to play.
It's funny, because now that I've sunk more than enough hours into Yo-Kai Watch, I can see Level-5 applied what they learned from Ni no Kuni to their other Pokemon-inspired RPG series—which still has its problems, mind you. But, years earlier, what could have been a fun, breezy RPG that evoked the Ghibli spirit quickly turned into an absolute slog which necessitated way too much grinding. There's a certain amount to be expected from a Japanese RPG that sets out to be somewhat traditional, of course, but, when playing Ni no Kuni, I couldn't help but imagine its director doing the "stretch it out" motion with his hands like some harried stage director. In essence, Ni no Kuni is a perfectly fine 25-hour RPG inappropriately mashed into a 50-hour mold. Each boss implicitly acts as an obstacle that can only be overcome once you outfit all twelve (yes, twelve) of your party members with the best possible equipment from the given area. And that's just one of the several ways Ni no Kuni wastes the player's time for the sake of being big rather than being good.
It's important to note the PlayStation 3 release of Ni no Kuni could have been much better had it not stuck so closely to the design of the 2010 DS game, which never made it to the United States. Grinding ends up being a lot more tolerable while playing on a portable system, seeing as you're not completely locked to a couch and can just snap your 3DS (or whatever) shut when you need a break. Yokai Watch is still pretty grindy, but grinding doesn't feel like as much as a commitment as it would on a console.
Ultimately, a certain feature adapted from Ni no Kuni's DS release underlines how much better the PS3 version could have been if it was developed as a wholly unique game. While said feature is most likely the main reason we never saw the portable game in the States, it's still impossibly cool: Ni no Kuni DS shipped with a book that the player would have to consult in order to solve puzzles. If a character in the game, say, needed a bridge built, you'd then have to flip through the book to find the appropriate symbol to draw on the screen. The PlayStation 3 version of this act amounts to choosing the most obvious spell from a drop-down menu on the screen. Granted, this choice alone didn't make the console version of Ni no Kuni subpar, but it speaks to how Level-5 didn't think hard enough about how to make the experience more appropriate for consoles.
Despite all of my griping about what came before, I do have much higher hopes for Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. For one, it won't contain any of the DS baggage its predecessor did, seeing as it's only being developed for the PlayStation 4. And I honestly think Level-5 has become a much better RPG developer over the past few years. Last year's Fantasy Life ended up being an intensely charming and playable pocket-size MMO, and this fall's Yo-Kai Watch cut the fat from Ni no Kuni's monster collecting, which resulted in an experience with much better pacing. Now, it's entirely possible Level-5 simply makes better portable games because the lack of spectacle allows them to concentrate on making better design choices over those you'd find in a big, bloated, and "epic" experience. But, having followed their work since the so-called (not by me) "Zelda killer" Dark Cloud, I've made an honest attempt to like each of Level-5's games, and it seems like they're really starting to hit their stride when it comes to RPGs. The 3DS still has about a year of life left, and I'm rooting for Yo-Kai Watch's sequels and spin-offs to make it to the States.
At the very least, this new Ni no Kuni will (hopefully) not provoke a wave of people to respond "The JRPG is back!" as they did with the 2013 release. Sure, we've had our dry periods, but at this point you'd probably need several lifetimes to work your way through everything from this genre currently available for the 3DS—and that's not even counting the big releases for 2016. Now that the hand-wringing had ended, it's clear we kinda have too many JRPGs on our hands; and, with any luck, Ni no Kuni II will be one of the good ones.