Daniel Robson plays Studio Ghibliâ€™s new PS3 game
The first time Studio Ghibli boss Hayao Miyazaki allowed a developer to make a game based on one of his films, the gently haunting Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Technopolis Soft turned it into a shooter. That was also the last time Studio Ghibli boss Hayao Miyazaki allowed a developer to make a game based on one of his films.
Ni no Kuni, however, is different. Level5, fast becoming Japanâ€™s most important games company, understands anime â€“ its Inazuma Eleven game series has spawned a huge anime, which in turn sent the gameâ€™s profile into the stratosphere, and the forthcoming Youkai Watch will follow a similar strategy.
But more importantly, Level5 knows what younger kids want (its other franchises include Professor Layton and Little Battlers), and it can certainly handle a high-profile RPG (Dragon Quest VIII and IX). So with Level5 president Akihiro Hino ready to write a brand new adventure game for Nintendo DS and PlayStation 3, no wonder the bigwigs at Ghibli (if not Miyazaki himself) felt encouraged to dip their toe back into the corrupting world of videogames.
Ni no Kuni tells the story of Oliver, a young orphan in the fictional American town of Hotroit. Distraught at the death of his mother, he clings tightly to a doll she had made for him and weeps â€“ and his tears transform the doll into Shizuku, a fast-talking, gruff little pixie with a lantern hanging from his nose. Shizuku whisks Oliver away to Ni no Kuni, or the Second Land, on a magical mission to defeat evil sorcerer Jabo and bring Oliverâ€™s mum back to life.
The references are everywhere. Surreal creatures straight out of Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke inhabit this world as friends and foes, with the half-cat citizens of kingdom of Goronel recalling those in The Cat Returns. The idealised European architecture of Kikiâ€™s Delivery Service informs that kingdom, too, while other artwork brings to life locations similar to those in My Neighbour Totoro and Porco Rosso. Ghibliâ€™s star composer Joe Hisaishi provides a stirring orchestral soundtrack.
The voice acting, too, is of top standard, with excellent vocal work courtesy of such big names as Mikako Tabe, Arata Furuta and Masami Nagasawa.
Level5 brings to the table a deep and involving RPG structure, with a complex turn-based battle system to delight the hardcore gamers and enough side quests to keep you going for dozens of extra hours. But on top of that, it also invokes the spirit of Professor Layton, with gentle but fiendish family-friendly puzzles scattered throughout the game. Oliver must complete various trials on his journey through Ni no Kuni that tax his mind as well as his muscles.
When the game begins, Shizuku teaches Oliver some basic magic tricks that the player can implement either in battle or on the field â€“ the first being a warp from Hotroit to Ni no Kuni. As the game progresses, so do Oliverâ€™s magic skills â€“ various characters you encounter will teach new spells that help attack, heal, unlock and solve. The game comes with a hardcover Magic Master book (no word yet whether this will be translated for overseas, as you also get a digital version in the game) that beautifully illustrates these incantations, and sometimes you need to leaf through its pages to solve a puzzle. Itâ€™s like Harry Potter without the teenage angst.
Ni no Kuni itself is a sprawling and fantastical world that stretches across a cloud-covered map. At the start of the game, Oliver and chums (your party slowly grows) must traverse these sweeping plains on foot, but eventually you get access to the sailing ship Queen Cowra and later a dragon, Kuro, which you can ride. By air or by sea, the landscape is every bit as impressive.
The game is text-heavy, with a good deal of the exposition done via text windows during conversations with non-playable characters. These arenâ€™t voice acted, but the cut-scenes are â€“ and there are lots of them, giving you a full Ghibli experience to break up the battles.
Ah yes, the battles. Youâ€™ll spend plenty of time fighting in Ni no Kuni. Itâ€™s basically a turn-based system, but with a few differences. For one thing, Oliver doesnâ€™t always have to get his hands dirty: He can instead send into battle an Imajinn. These are little Pokemon-style creatures that you can capture as you scrap with them, and youâ€™ve really gotta catch â€™em all. Each character in your party can carry three Imajinns, and they level up through experience and as you nurture them like Tamagotchi â€“ they have a thing for sweets and ice cream.
Also, the battle arenas are free-roaming, so whichever character youâ€™re controlling can run around, similar to Final Fantasy XII. Tactical positioning is critical, especially during the rock-hard boss fights, where youâ€™ll want to dodge incoming attacks and prepare to retaliate.
The very best thing about Ni no Kuni is that it resists the bloated whimsy inherent in so many modern Japanese RPGs. While Final Fantasy XIII was a 50-hour cringe-fest and, well, almost every other Japanese RPG is chock-full of androgynous conflicted heroes and scantily-dressed women, Ni no Kuni draws again from the dual well of Ghibli and Level5, with themes mirroring the innocent adventure of Laputa or the camaraderie of Professor Layton and Luke, his boy assistant.
After all, anyone can relate to a young boy who misses his mum. This simple but heartbreaking plot device is there in The Neverending Story, in Peter Pan, in Harry Potter, bringing warmth and empathy to their otherwise fantastical narratives. And itâ€™s there in Ni no Kuni â€“ in spades.
Ni no Kuni is coming to a PlayStation 3 near you early in 2012.