At this point, I've spent about an equal amount of time with games Persona 4 and Ni No Kuni. Both Japanese, both RPG's, both with extraordinarily long build-ups to something (presumably) greater, but only one has truly impressed me thus far.
If you recognize my mustachioed avatar and/or uninspired username and were recently interested in Ni No Kuni at all, you might remember that I did a blog on my first impressions of it. With deep sadness, I thoroughly felt like it wasted my time with an initially drab story on top of incredibly mixed voice acting, uninteresting dialogue and constant interruption. Adding to that were a number of other smaller gripes, although it still managed to hold my interest.
However, it barely held my interest. A most fashionably late rescue it was. Had it not been for the awesome combat coming in when it did, I would have given up and written the game off as total wasted potential. The visuals and the lovable Drippy aside, there just wasn't enough outside the actual playing of it that made me stay and the actual playing of it was still far too infrequent even once the game started to open up with more interesting characters, sidequests and a now semi-explorable open world.
With me nearing the 1 hour: 30 minute mark and only just scratching the surface of the game's numerous mechanics and exciting battles, I realized this was going to be a long haul.
So, I decided to put Ni No Kuni down for a while.
Now, a little over a month later, I've realized how wrong I was to not have already played a Persona game. Now, Ni No Kuni's issues are all the more glaring as Persona 4: Golden does almost exactly what it does, only astronomically better.
As much as you cynical types probably still like to think that I am only out looking for instant gratification, Bay/Bruckheimer-styled action, that couldn't be further from the truth. While I am no JRPG veteran, I'm also no stranger to non-conventional, non-super actiony gameplay. I fucking love Flower, for one thing. Same goes for Journey, The Walking Dead and Dear Esther, with a lesser extent towards games like Proteus, Thirty Flights of Loving and Home.
A good number of those games have a very high focus on story and to successfully focus a game on it's story at any point, it has to be, if nothing else, told well enough. An otherwise generic story can be saved by great or even decent presentation. My favorite example of this for a while has been the motion picture Avatar. While essentially a sci-fi Pocahontas, it was presented with great camerawork, action, dialogue, etc. that made it seem more interesting than it actually was.
And that's really all I ask for.
In the case of Ni No Kuni, starting out, what you have is a by-the-books story about a goody two-shoes being convinced to rebel against his usual morals for the sake of some quick fun. Naturally, it leads to trouble and he learns a lesson. YAWN!
But, as I've said, this YAWN can easily be rectified with a solid presentation. A solid presentation which Ni No Kuni does not have. Instead, you have dialogue no more intricate than casual conversation outside one or two chuckles, voice acting so inconsistent that it's hard to keep track of which character you dislike the least, artificial deliverance of anime scenes on top of a variety of in-game cutscenes which are also delivered with little sense of regularity, and, most offensively, an annoyingly constant interruption for said boring dialogue and numerous tutorials.
Granted, I do sometimes lack a certain amount of patience, but that can only be blamed to such a small degree. This game just plain starts out horribly.
In stark contrast to all that nonsense, Persona 4's story is far from uninteresting. Beginning with a dream-like sequence headed by one Igor, a G-Man sort of character, who speaks of an upcoming "contract" you shall take on and a non-specific danger that awaits you somewhere in the future.
In the beginning of Ni No Kuni, the protagonist's future is even more vaguely hinted at by an entity we arguably know even less about. But, in Persona 4 the idea of an impending series of events more effectively sticks with you as not only is this Igor always keeping eye contact with the player, but is always in plain sight and speaking directly towards the player. Topping it all off is some excellent and infectious voice acting from this multidimensional Mr. Burns.
After this is an anime scene setting up the start of your journey with all the following means of story presentation coming up at a generally predictable rate. Non-spoken dialogue during class participation segments, spoken dialogue everywhere else and anime scenes used sparingly and highlighting story climaxes.
It's almost as if... some actual thought went into presenting the game's story. WEIRD.
More than a few laughs have been had as well at the expense of the clumsy Yosuke or the young, playful, sharp humor of Chie. Even the adorable Nanako, convincingly a young child rather than often obviously an adult with a bad idea of what a child should sound like, makes me chuckle at her innocent love for the Junes slogan during even the darkest of moments.
The best part is, I feel that Persona 4 actually somewhat respects my intelligence.
Instead of repeating information and drip-feeding me tutorials to make it seem as if the developers think I'm about as smart as a rock, there have hardly been much of any tutorials at all. While Persona 4 is a considerably less complicated game than Ni No Kuni, there were more than several opportunities to shove an overly long-winded tutorial into my face.
Example: Your first combat scenario. I wasn't given a no-shit "PRESS X ON THE ATTACK SELECTION TO START YOUR ATTACK!" prompt. Rather, the developers assumed that I had played a videogame before and could quickly wrap my head around a task as "daunting" as selecting my attack.
Whenever repeated information and tutorials do come up, I'm already flipping through story dialogue so it doesn't feel anywhere near as intrusive whereas Ni No Kuni doesn't care about your enjoyment. They let you play about with your avatar for about 3-25 seconds and then suddenly pull you put of the experience.
These sort of games aren't exactly the most casual. Your audience is mainly going to be gamers of at least average intelligence and above average experience with games. So WHY IN THE HELL does there need to be so many tutorials?! WHY?! What logic went into Ni No Kuni's design? The "because we can" logic that results in such things as always-online single player and multiple retailer-exclusive pre-order incentives?
Persona 4 gets it. It shows the world how a good JRPG is done and the fact that it's caught on like it has makes me happy.
If you're going to start me off with little to no actual "gameplay", then have the common decency to not waste my time with a generic story, uninteresting characters and sloppy presentation. Don't you dare think that just because your game is longer means that it's not padded out, not a victim of quantity over quality.
You may be able to ignore the fluff and see those greener pastures over the horizon, but I can't. In it's first 10 minutes, Persona 4 manages to enthrall me way more than Ni No Kuni did in it's first hour. I have other games to play, so if you don't have a good story to tell from the get-go, either get to the fucking point or get out of my way.