In a rare and brilliant move, Akihiro Hino (president of Japanese game developer Level-5) somehow convinced Studio Ghibli – Japan's most respected animation studio – to collaborate on a new video game. Even if Studio Ghibli's Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki has been a vocal critic of the medium (nixing the possibility of his films being adapted to game consoles), and was not directly involved with Level-5's Ni no Kuni, it seems some of his magic still managed to rub off on it.
At its core Ni no Kuni, published by Namco-Bandai, is a traditional Japanese RPG with all the trimmings. It clearly benefits from Level-5's work on Dragon Quest VIII (2005, PlayStation 2) and Dragon Quest IX (2010, Nintendo DS), borrowing several elements from these games, from the basic game structure to specific gimmicks (like the Alchemy pot, which allows you to mix items to fabricate new gear, and the optional side quests that can be completed for rewards).
Ni no Kuni (which translates to "Another World") follows a young boy named Oliver coping with his mother's sudden and tragic death. The game begins when his childhood toy springs to life, explaining that there is another world – different to but interconnected with his own (an idealized version of 1950s Detroit) – where his mother's soul mate has been trapped by an evil sorcerer known as Shadar. By rescuing her soul mate in that world, he might be able to bring his mother back in his own.
As Oliver, you'll traverse a large world in search of the Great Sages who might help to overthrow Shadar, recruiting help along the way. You'll take to the land, seas, and skies of an expansive world map – a delightful throwback to RPGs of yesteryear that have largely been abandoned by modern RPGs – dotted with incredibly detailed towns and hidden secrets. Each town is vastly different from the one before it, with specific cultural cues expressed in the music, architecture, and fashions of the inhabitants.
Unlike most turn-based Japanese RPGs, the battles in Ni no Kuni are quite lively. The player only takes control of one character at a time, with the rest acting automatically (based on the tactical priority you assign them). Additionally, each party member has access to up to three familiars – friendly monsters that fight in their place – which can be active one at a time. The focus is really on the familiars, and unfortunately this system significantly devalues Oliver's companions compared to other RPGs, since you'll rarely switch to them and only in very specific circumstances.
Like Pokemon, virtually any monster you encounter can be randomly won over to your side with a little luck and patience. Then it can be leveled up like any other character, equipped with items to boost its fighting ability, and even fed snacks to eventually evolve into more powerful forms. Furthermore, each monster has elemental affinities (earth, wind, water, fire, etc) that can determine its effectiveness against others. It all sounds a bit more complicated than it really is, and frankly most battles are quickly won without much effort.
This follows the user-friendly formula found in the Dragon Quest series, where the vast majority of battles are easily won with a little grinding (even using automatic tactics), with the exception of the bosses which require complete attention and strategy. The game offers players two difficulty settings, so if you find the bosses are a bit too much to handle (and they can be) you can always switch to the easier setting.
And, like Dragon Quest IX, there are no random encounters: enemies appear on screen and will either chase you or run for their lives, depending on your current experience levels. If you catch a monster from behind, you'll gain the advantage in the ensuing battle, and vice-versa.
This is not the first time Studio Ghibli has worked with a game developer – it contributed artwork to Taito's Magic Pengel, which was released in 2002 on the PlayStation 2. However, this is the first time it has produced animation for a game title, and while these sequences are short (and tend to taper off soon after the game's introduction), they're a welcome addition.
More importantly, the game's art direction more or less successfully captures the look and feel of the studio's cel animation and painted backgrounds, which is no small feat. While playing, you'll come across moments here and there in-game that though fleeting, could pass for scenes from an actual Studio Ghibli film.
Of course, it helps that the visuals are accompanied by Joe Hisaishi's music. He has scored all of Miyazaki's films over the past 30-odd years, and can be considered the rival of Hollywood fixture John Williams. There isn't as much variety on offer here as one is accustomed to in most RPGs, but what's there is top-notch (all of the in-game music was performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra).
There are two main issues with the game's presentation. The first, as mentioned, is that the traditional animation is in short supply and even the more sophisticated in-game animations are kept to a minimum. Secondly, only the most important story scenes are properly voice acted, with the majority of scenes playing out in silence as the characters mime to text boxes. It's unfortunate that there are so few cinematic sequences, and that the player's attention is consistently diverted in order to read what is being said, especially considering the voice acting is actually quite good.
Like Nintendo's Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the cartoony graphics will no doubt age more gracefully than the surplus of titles currently chasing photorealism.
By building on its experience with Dragon Quest and adopting Studio Ghibli's aesthetics, Level-5 has ensured that Ni no Kuni is a charming affair from start to finish. Initially I wasn't sure if the battle system, which focuses so much on the familiars, was going to be much fun but it worked out very well. It's just too bad that the main cast, aside from Oliver and his pal Drippy (Lord High Lord of the Fairies no less), aren't as well developed or as essential to the game play as they could have been.
The lavish attention to detail, which speaks volumes of the game's quality, reaches absurd levels in the Wizard's Companion. It's a 340-page magic book that Oliver discovers at the start of his quest, with missing pages scattered across the world. It details every aspect of the game, its creatures, spells, items, and alchemy recipes, and even includes several original (and quite well-written) fairy tales. Those who pre-ordered the special edition got an actual physical copy of this book with their game, while the rest of us can ply its pages in the game itself.
Many were disappointed by the quality (or lack thereof) of Japanese role-playing games on the PlayStation 3, especially given the classics that they enjoyed on earlier models. New entries in long-running franchises like Final Fantasy received less than stellar receptions, while others like Dragon Quest failed to materialize at all. Even Level-5's own White Knight Chronicles wasn't up to snuff. With the PlayStation 4 looming on the horizon, Level-5's Ni no Kuni may be a late comer to the party, but it does an exemplary job of reminding us why we play these sorts of games to begin with. It's not a perfect game. Even if this generation had been kinder to RPG players, it would still stand out amongst the best the genre has to offer.
It follows the game Ni no Kuni: The Jet-Black Mage, released exclusively in Japan on the Nintendo DS in 2010.
The game trailer can be seen below.
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