By Michael Quartly–Kelly
When it was announced that Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, creators of the critically acclaimed Spirited Away and the much loved My Neighbour Tortoro, would be teaming up with popular game producers Level-5 to make a brand new Japanese style roleplaying game, it was all I could do not to explode with wide-eyed delight.
Although their narratives occupy the world of fantasy, Ghibli are known for eschewing the usual explosive slapstick of Japanese anime and creating emotionally complex stories around realistic characters. Adding this to Level-5's experience with epic adventure, having piloted the latter Dragon Quest games and the amazingly underrated Rogue Galaxy, is nothing short of a match made in heaven. What we have here is a genre classic that will appeal to entrenched anime fans and hardcore JRPGers alike.
The story's protagonist is a young boy named Oliver who loses his mother in a terrible accident. His tears of grief awaken a fairy from another world called Mr Drippy and Oli is offered a chance at bringing his mum back, if he can prove himself as the Pure-Hearted Champion of prophecy and rescue Drippy's world from the evil influence of The Dark Djinn.
No sooner are introductions made than the boy gets his hands on some basic wizarding equipment, a wand and a mysterious book. His fairy companion teaches him his first spells, allowing him to open a gateway to the other world and the adventure begins.
What’s instantly noticeable in Ni no Kuni’s opening cut scene is Studio Ghibli's distinctive animation aesthetic. Characters are economically detailed in matte colours, the pallet reserved in favour of more vibrant and sumptuous backdrops. Although the flat, somewhat textureless shading may seem a bit simplistic at first, this is soon overwhelmed by the humanistic details employed in character motion and reactions.
Ghibli are masters of capturing child-like wonder in all their works, and watching Oliver discover all the eccentric majesty of the other world definitely taps into the trademark nostalgia they are known for. There's plenty to see as Drippy leads you from city to castle to cave in his quest to get you ready for the showdown with The Dark Djinn. From rolling hillsides to desert sands, from poisonous marshes and haunted mountain tops - everything is gloriously realized and intricate. You will make friends along the way and some of these will join your quest or offer help in less direct ways. You can sail a ship across the ocean to discover new continents and you can even get your own flying mount to access cliff locked islands or hidden peaks.
There are magical forests and ancient temples to explore and dungeons to delve. You can of course rest up and replenish your equipment in cities and towns all across the world in classic RPG style.
Level-5 puts all of this in an easy to use framework, familiar to anyone who has popped a potion for health or used a feather to revive a fallen companion, but even if you have never touched a Japanese RPG before, the step-by-step instructions are really foolproof, to the point of being exhaustingly detailed.
During combat you have a party of up to three characters to control. Each character also has up to three familiars, made up of creatures you have collected and trained along the way. This gives a lot of variety in battle as each character can, and usually will, substitute in a familiar to do the bulk of the combat grunt work. These familiars will last for a set period of time based on their stamina levels and then will need to be given a short rest to recover.
Switching back to the character allows you to use provisions to heal wounds or cure ailments and also gives you access to spell casting and other special abilities. This may sound complicated - but it’s all very intuitive and combat is gratifyingly fast. Defeating monsters nets you treasure and experience allowing you to level up your characters and familiars. You also have a chance to tame creatures during combat to be used as familiars in future fights.
The basic menu system allows you to assign familiars and give them special treats to help them grow, look through your bottomless bag of collected items, check your journal of current quests and peruse your magic book - the source of much lore and legend regarding the other world and the basis for all your wizard knowledge. It is through this tome that Oli is tutored in the magical arts and it is a load of fun to read and explore at your own leisure, as it provides you with information about monsters, equipment, local regions and alchemical recipes.
Although not available from the start Alchemy is a skill that is picked up along the way that allows you to craft weapons and items by combining ingredients in a special cauldron. Some particularly powerful weapons are only available via alchemy, so keeping your recipes up to date and ingredient levels high is a good idea.
The journey is long and convoluted, but your direction is never in doubt as a large star on your in-game map will almost always point out where to go. It is this obvious quest path and some of the hand-holding provided by Mr Drippy that lets the game down a fraction.
Too often you are given explicit instructions on when and where to cast a particular spell. It can dull the adventurous edge a little to have the game hand feed you the answers.
This is not to say that there are no challenges, there are a number of sidequests and riddles that are a delight to work through, but having no real control over the main quest-line makes it less interesting than everything else in the game.
This is a small gripe however, considering the scale and beauty of the game itself. The low difficulty level also makes it more accessible to younger, newer players out there.
All I can say is that I hope that one day we see another team up from Studio Ghibli and Level-5 and that they can raise the difficulty bar a little for their many long time fans.
Four and a half stars.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
:: Publisher: Namco Bandai
:: Developer: Level-5
:: Format: PlayStation 3
:: Rating: PG