The Ni No Kuni series has always been beautiful. With its Studio Ghibli-esque styling, imaginative character designs and amazing music made by the legend that is Joe Hisaishi, its world is a true joy to immerse yourself in. It’s why I’m ultimately so disappointed by Cross Worlds. Netmarble has taken this pure, effervescent fantasy dream land and pushed it off the monkeybars into a steaming pile of gacha mechanics and crypto currencies.
To be fair, it’s not all bad. Some of it is great even, but I’ve jumped between loving and hating so many different bits over my last week with the PC beta that ultimately I’m just sad. There’s a wonderful glimpse of something amazing that just never materialises as the mirk of mobile-based gameplay is just too thick to get through.
Cross Worlds has a strong start and foundation. You play as someone who is checking out a game called Soul Divers - a full virtual reality MMO that sees you plonked in a giant test tube to experience the game world fully… But, gasp, it’s not a game world, it’s a real one and you can’t log out! It’s up to you to rebuild a broken kingdom and uncover why both worlds have become intertwined before both face destruction. You pick one of five different classes to customise that are all equally flashy as each other, and soon you’re off on bright adventure full of magic royalty and intrigue while guided by a grumpy bat-pig called Cluu.
It’s set in the kingdom of Evermore - the same one that you helped set up with Evan Pettiwhisker in Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, but hundreds of years later, so aside from a few shared locations it’s very much a standalone adventure. Unlike other entries in the series, Cross Worlds is a free-to-play MMO-like game filled with gacha mechanics a bit like Genshin Impact.
While you control one main character you also have a team of cute or frighteningly feisty familiars to back you up. They come in all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes like floating otters and angry twigs, and many will probably be familiar to you if you played Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch Remastered. You’ll meet and hatch a lot as you go, but you can also use in-game currencies to roll for rarer monsters, gear and costumes at a real-world price. The main gacha elements don’t feel too intrusive, but every time you hit any kind of big milestone you get advertised some kind of currency pack that will help you develop that part of the game at a cost. The way it pops up and has a timer on it feels like a sale you might miss out on and can be weirdly pressuring.
Cross Worlds is very much designed with mobile in mind, and as a result the playstyle is incredibly shallow to facilitate ease of use. Autoplay is turned on by default and will see your character run between quests and fight monsters with zero input from you - great if you’re swiping in for ten minutes on the train, but terrible for immersion. You can turn these things off (which I’d recommend doing, at least so you can explore the environments), but it then becomes much harder to play as well as the AI does when it comes to fights.
All you do is watch your character run between gorgeous vistas dealing with fetch quests and lists of monsters to kill.
Combat is very flashy, but is more about managing your team of familiars and weapon loadout to make the best of elemental advantages. It’s not too bad as there are a lot of little things to upgrade and tinker with in menus so you’ll always be busy… but that’s all it is. Busywork in a cute wrapper. All you do is watch your character run between gorgeous vistas dealing with fetch quests and lists of monsters to kill while you occasionally switch out weapons or poke about in the menus upgrading things to make you fighty numbers go up. There’s very little depth here and I hate it. An amazing world full of imagination that’s right there in front of you, and you can’t interact with it in any meaningful way.
The PC port is also terrible - it’s literally just the mobile version made vaguely playable with keybindings. There’s no controller functionality and you can’t even exit the game easily because it’s been designed to be swiped away like you would on a phone. You’ll also need to set up an account in the mobile version to link it to a PC and play it there, but, to be fair, once your account is linked, jumping between the two platforms and resuming your progress is seamless. There is one bonus to playing on PC too - being able to see just how gorgeous the world is without being cramped in by UI elements like on mobile.
I haven’t had the chance to dive too deeply into the social features yet, but I really like what I’ve seen so far. You can join or run your own kingdom (which is essentially like a guild) that you can recruit other players to and slowly build up with amenities to aid you on your journey, or eventually band together to take on monsters or other kingdoms. It’s still too early on in the game’s lifecycle to see how this competitive element will shake out, but the simple passive co-operative elements of checking into your kingdom and helping out with quests feels like I’m working towards something bigger than myself.
I'm utterly in love with the world and setting, which is why I’m ultimately so disappointed by the game itself. I adored running around on the back of a giant cat, its tongue lolling in the wind as I galloped around the countryside discovering ancient ruins and strange monsters. But the lavish landscape is buried under so much disappointing gameplay that it’s impossible to get lost in in the way you’d want to - not to mention the general feeling of ickiness knowing that it’s also being set up for NFTs in the future. It feels like they’re taking advantage of people’s love for what was supposed to be a pure place. I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to feel okay playing Cross Worlds knowing what it's ultimately contributing to, especially when there’s no real hook to the gameplay to see me through.
I so desperately wanted to love this and ignore its flaws to frolic in its amazing fantasy world, but it’s impossible to interact with it in any meaningful way. The shallow gameplay might be fine on mobile, but when I’m at my PC I want to be able to immerse myself in it and that’s just not possible. I think I’m going to go back to replay Ni No Kuni II instead to cleanse myself of this disappointing mess.