Recapturing the feeling of childhood is like trapping lightning in a bottle. Overshoot the mark and a game or film can feel juvenile and simplistic, ripe for derision from the most cynical players. Try and add a few nods and winks for older folks and you lose the innocent wonder, leaving a string of adult jokes dressed up in primary colours. Only two movie companies arguably sit comfortably between either extreme: Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Pixar properties have been translated into games since the first Toy Story, something to be expected given Disney’s approach to merchandise. However, there’s a logical jump between a computer-animated movie and a game - characters are already based in a fully-modelled, 3D world and the films all feature set-pieces and themes that fit well within gaming tenets. In completely the opposite direction, Studio Ghibli not only have a commitment to hand-drawn animation but have also notoriously distanced themselves from computer games, with Hayao Miyazaki going so far as to call gaming ‘masturbation’ and nothing more. It was therefore a surprise when Level-5 and Studio Ghibli announced a partnership to create a game based on an original property. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, released in Japan over a year ago, finally reaches Western shores, retaining the magic and wonder that makes Studio Ghibli films internationally adored.
Combining sumptuous animated cutscenes with the best cel-shaded graphics since Valkyria Chronicles hand-sketched aesthetic, Ni No Kuni is instantly recognisable as a Ghibli production. If you’ve ever wanted to truly inhabit one of the many worlds from Ghibli masterpieces, then you’ll be astounded by the detail inherent in Ni No Kuni. The story involves Oliver, a young boy from Motorville, a small town in fifties America. When tragedy strikes he’s visited by Mr. Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies, who whisks Oliver away to a magical land ruled by the White Witch and the evil sorcerer Shadar. Oliver is tasked with saving the world, thereby righting events in his own life. It’s not the most original story to come from Ghibli but the charm and personality found in the characters makes any exposition a doddle.
Ni No Kuni is a JRPG through and through, complete with all of the random battles, grinding, slow-paced story and party management that those four letters entail. JRPGs are usually a niche offering, appealing to those with extreme patience, a masochistic streak or those simply looking for something different. Without reservation, Ni No Kuni is one of the most accessible JRPGs to grace the PlayStation 3 and is something that should be considered by all. Any worries about complicated, interlinking game mechanics are certainly valid but the game drip-feeds you each system over the course of hours, rather than requiring a manual to read before picking up the disc. That’s not to say there isn’t a manual - in fact, it’s one of the weightiest, most in-depth manuals to ever come with a game... and it’s glorious. Presented within the game menus and as a physical tome in the special edition, the Wizard’s Companion is a book filled with gameplay tips, stories, Easter Eggs and more. Some of it is necessary to further your progress in-game, some is simply there to enrich the world but it is an astounding creation in days when games strive towards streamlined simplicity.
It is this attention to detail that lends Ni No Kuni the depth of personality that makes it so charming. Upon reaching the ‘other world’, Oliver’s quest alternates between exploration and battles, both extremely necessary to progress the story although its family-friendly visuals belie a difficulty that will test even seasoned gamers. Unlike other JRPGs where the grind can reduce the most hardened veteran to boredom, random battles are a constant pleasure in Ni No Kuni. Whether it’s the inventive enemy designs, their equally cheeky names or the intricate battle system, you’ll often find yourself running at the nearest foe just for the fun of it.
Without delving any further into the story, it’s safe to say that you’ll encounter all manner of jaw-dropping environments and left-field events. With these new areas come new enemies and, a little way into the game, the ability to tame every creature. Like Pokemon, Ni No Kuni allows Oliver to catch defeated enemies, assign them to your party and level them up through fighting and feeding. It’s an entirely optional pursuit as your initial team are by no means weak, but the option to accrue hundreds of different creatures is there for the most dedicated. New game mechanics are constantly drip-fed throughout the first twenty hours of the game, adding extra layers to the already deep combat and questing. The slow rollout of these extra features means the game never becomes unmanageable but, if a reminder is needed, a friendly companion called the Telling Book will happily point you in the right direction.
The JRPG conventions still apply, but are rendered so adorable that even the most monotonous task can be forgiven thanks to an inspired enemy name or quest description. A huge argument within the anime community exists for or against playing games and watching anime in its native language. While purists will likely want to play Ni No Kuni in the original Japanese, the year it’s taken to release in the West has evidently been put to good use in the localisation department. The English voice acting is note perfect; Oliver is never annoying, imbuing the character with the right amount of naivety without appearing idiotic. The highlight is Drippy, Oliver’s companion, and his fan-flipping-tastic Welsh accent. The original Japanese has Drippy speak with an Osaka dialect - the equivalent of a yokel-esque tinge in the English. While Welsh doesn’t hold quite the same connotations, the use of dialect specific words and just the right amount of blunt, in-your-face attitude render Drippy a character that lives on beyond the recorded dialogue. This detail in localisation is consistent throughout all aspects of the game - any written dialogue is imbued with accents and character quirks, so much so that you can’t help but hear the voices in your head. Special credit goes to whichever genius came up with the sheer amount of puns - you can’t help but smile when a Cat King is referred to as “Your Meowjesty” and they just get better from there on in.
Tying the mood together is Joe Hisaishi’s stunning orchestral score - already a contender for best soundtrack of the year - which reveals its quality within the first few instants of loading the game. Containing both an Imperial March and the best Overworld theme since Epona galloped across Hyrule Field as standout tracks, Hisaishi’s score undeniably contributes to the Ghibli-ness of Ni No Kuni. Every track, from the most grandiose composition to the ubiquitous battle tune, is memorable, catchy and could be listened to on constant repeat. There’s even a Japanese-vocal song to wrap things up, as is the tradition in almost every Ghibli movie.
Despite the glowing recommendation, Ni No Kuni still has a few shortcomings. The family-friendly aesthetic is a little misleading, considering the difficulty spikes during combat sections. The mix of real-time and turn based combat is intuitive and solid. Even so enter a new area or encounter a boss and you’ll often find it a struggle, necessitating a good deal of grinding. Calling it grinding does the game a disservice - while there are a good deal of fetch quests, a good chunk revolve around fixing the ‘broken-hearted’. Oliver acquires a compendium of spells over the course of the game - each very specific and often playing the part of a Zelda-like tool. For example, ‘Spring Lock’ enables Oliver to open sealed chests, prompting return visits to already completed areas in search of unopened boxes. Two important spells - Give and Take Heart - are used to fix the aforementioned brokenhearted, people missing certain character traits. Oliver is tasked with balancing these emotions in the populace, redistributing the best in people so that everyone has a new perspective on life. Although it sounds rather preachy it comes across as rather sweet.
It’s this charming personality that raises Ni No Kuni above other JRPGs. Grinding in other games can be repetitive, attritional and rather blatant padding. The drive to see what comes next, presented with such high production values, pushes Ni No Kuni above your typical JRPG making it universally accessible. It helps that dying doesn’t cancel any XP gained, merely charging you 10% of your amassed gold if you choose to immediately continue. It’s a fair approach which if done differently might dilute any warm feelings towards the title. Instead, every defeat is only a minor setback and another chance to spend more time in Oliver’s magical world; a win-win situation. Unfortunately it’s your AI companions that might result in a large number of those defeats. As only one character can be player-controlled at any time - barring a few generic, all-encompassing tactical decisions - it will often be the case that the computer AI will make some disastrous combat choices and fail miserably. You’ll have to keep a close eye on health meters to curtail any bad moves, even more aggravating when certain characters are super effective against enemies. Lose them and you’ve pretty much lost the fight.
Offset against the huge world, locations that feel familiar yet wondrous, numerous sidequests, gameplay quirks and more, any minor problems are soon forgotten. With hundreds of hours of gameplay in a world that you’ll never want to leave, Ni No Kuni is not only a brilliant game to start 2013 but also one of the best games in years. Studio Ghibli were wisely protective of their property but Level-5 have done a fantastic job that will appease fans and newcomers alike. What could have been a gorgeous shell of a JRPG turns out to be brimming with personality, so much so that you won’t want to leave these characters and their world behind. Only a few select games combine world-building, character and gameplay so well that turning off the PlayStation feels like a betrayal. Uncharted was one, Dishonored another and Ni No Kuni easily joins those two in creating an unforgettable experience. In Oliver’s quest to fix the broken-hearted he requires a spell or two; combining their efforts, Studio Ghibli and Level-5 have all the magic they need to warm the hearts of even the most cynical gamer.