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Japanese developer Level-5 is known, among other things, for producing a handful of amazing, visually striking cel-shaded RPGs on the PS2. Studio Ghibli, meanwhile, is known for producing some of the greatest, most emotionally involving animated films of all time. Bring them together, and you’ve got an instantly irresistible basis for a game – as well as an explanation for why we’re so excited for Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.
A semi-traditional Japanese RPG, Ni No Kuni focuses on a boy named Oliver, and begins with a tragic event: the death of his mother. Overwhelmed by sadness, Oliver cries over a doll she made for him, and as his tears fall on it, it comes to life and introduces itself as Drippy. Drippy lives in another, parallel world, where the inhabitants apparently each share a soul with someone in Oliver’s world, and which can be affected by actions in his home town of Motorville. This somehow also means that there may be a way for Oliver to bring his mother back to life, and so he enters a world of magic in the hope of resurrecting her.
As its pedigree suggests, Ni No Kuni’s visuals may be its greatest asset; they’re immediately, arrestingly beautiful. Aside from their bright, cel-shaded color and cute character design, the animation is amazingly fluid (especially when Oliver and Drippy go up or down a set of stairs, at which point their gait changes dramatically), and the worlds the characters explore are big and convincingly detailed. We had a chance to delve into two of them during our brief demo with the game: the little walled town of Ding Dong Dell (and its surrounding overworld), and the city of Hamelin, where the inhabitants all dress as armored pig-men for some reason.
At first glance, Ni No Kuni is a pretty standard JRPG. Outside of Ding Dong Dell, for example, there’s a big, forested overworld we could explore more or less openly before going into town. The landscape’s dotted with interesting features, and – more importantly – wandering monsters, which we could sneak up on for an advantage, but which tended to just rush us if they saw us first (which was more often than not).
Combat is where Ni No Kuni starts to differentiate itself a little. Like in other Level-5 RPGs (such as Rogue Galaxy and White Knight Chronicles), fights unfold in a small but open space, where you’re free to run around (either to keep enemies at a distance or rushing up for close-range attacks) and initiate semi-turn-based attacks and other actions.
The twist here is that, while Oliver, Drippy and their friends (whom you can switch between instantly) are relatively weak, they’re each paired with at least one familiar, little monsters that can be summoned onto the field to fight for them, and which are much more powerful than the child protagonists, able to bust out better magic and melee attacks. The catch is that – while the children and their familiars stay on the battlefield at the same time – the familiars aren’t expendable, and if they go down, their corresponding kids are knocked out of the fight as well.
After a little while, we gave up exploring the countryside and headed into Ding Dong Dell itself, which turned out to be a walled (but strangely friendly) little town. We wasted a little time talking to the locals (but not too much, since the demo was on a strict time limit), and eventually found our way into the town’s sewers. These turned out to be a seemingly endless dungeon (seemingly endless because we didn’t finish it before the time ran out) filled with monsters and treasure, and the snakes and other creatures that populated its corridors turned out to be excellent practice for getting used to the battle system.
The other half of the demo was set in Hamelin, a huge, mechanized city in the midst of some kind of festival – as we learned when several houses moved on tracks to make way for a parade. Again, while there were a lot of people to talk to (including a woman who seemed a little exasperated by how much it cost to keep her grandchildren in pig armor), we didn’t waste a whole lot of time here, instead cutting straight for the heart of the city to see its ruler, and talking our way past a couple of friendly guards (who even let Drippy wander off with one of their helmets). However, they were nothing compared to what lay in wait for us: a huge, pig-shaped tank boss called the Porco Grosso, which – over the course of a drawn-out fight, during which we learned it was vulnerable to wind attacks – completely annihilated our party, ending the demo a little before the timer ran out.
Those of you who’ve been paying attention to Ni No Kuni’s development will know that it was originally released for the DS (with the subtitle The Jet-Black Mage) in a package that included an actual, physical book that was an integral part of the gameplay. Because of the expense in localizing and bringing over the book and the game, Level-5 chief Akihiro Hino told us, the studio has "no plans" to bring it to North America or Europe.
The PS3 version is its own beast, however, and its international edition will include a painstakingly localized script that transposes Japanese regional accents and dialects with appropriate English ones (which apparently means everyone speaks with British accents and slang), as well as new creatures, DLC and other additions that Hino wasn’t able to talk about at the time.
While it’s still too early to say if Ni No Kuni represents a return to RPG form for Level-5 after the disappointing White Knight Chronicles games, what we’ve played was pretty enjoyable – not to mention extremely pretty. In any case, our expectations are high at this point; we’ll find out if they’re justified when Ni No Kuni arrives early next year.