Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli has taken a page from Disney’s book and stepped into the world of video games.
The Japanese animation studio, alongside video game company Level-5, celebrated its Western release of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on PlayStation 3 Jan. 22.
Studio Ghibli is best known for its beautiful animation in such Hayao Miyazaki films as My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Though Miyazaki founded the studio in 1985 he was not directly involved in Ni No Kuni.
Level-5 is known for the games Dragon Quest, Dark Cloud and the Professor Layton series. Together, the two created a beautifully designed adventure role-playing game.
Like Disney and video game developer Square Enix’s release of Kingdom Hearts in 2002, Ni No Kuni is a joint venture of animation and video game giants.
Though the game action starts slow, the graphics draw you in. Almost seamlessly blended, the mixture of animation and live-action gameplay remind you of the whimsical worlds Studio Ghibli is famous for.
Oliver, the game’s main character, is a young boy growing up and causing trouble in his home town. The story begins with the sudden death of Oliver’s mother, who suffers a heart attack following a traumatic event. Distraught and alone, Oliver cries in his study and his tears awaken Drippy — a stuffed animal his mom made for him who turns out to be lord of the fairies in another dimension.
Drippy enlists Oliver’s help to fight a powerful force in a world that mirrors Oliver’s own, promising in return to revive Oliver’s mother. They retrieve a spell book from Oliver’s fireplace and Oliver quickly progresses as a magician.
What’s nice about Ni No Kuni is that the spells Oliver learns aren’t just meant for battle. The spells are also used to complete trials, travel between worlds, interact with the environment and unlock treasures. Also, as you become more powerful, weaker enemies will run away rather than engaging in battle with you. This is nice because it allows the player to avoid tedious battles.
The game is meant for all ages, which at some points is an annoyance to more experienced gamers. For instance, being told to press X at several obvious points in the game or shown how to walk becomes a bit tedious. I held on because the previews showed promise and as a fan of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki’s brand of storytelling, I hoped to be impressed.
Ni No Kuni picks up after the first five hours of gameplay, with increasingly difficult boss battles. The fighting style is a mix of Kingdom Hearts and the Pokémon games. Not only can you battle as your protagonist— Oliver and secondary characters Esther and Swaine— but also with their “familiars.”
Familiars are similar to Pokémon in that they evolve throughout the game and you collect them along the way. Feeding your familiars treats will help them gain stats, and each familiar has a favourite snack. If you figure out which snack it is, feeding it to your familiar will increase stats faster and help your character bond with its pet.
Like Kingdom Hearts, your party gains health and mana from bubbles dropped by enemies or thrown at the party from Drippy on the sidelines. The fighting style of Ni No Kuni is a mixture of attacks, item use, and spells. The player can only control one character at a time but all of the characters and familiars are available to swap in and out during battle. The fighting style is live action and in normal difficulty, can at times be challenging.
Ni No Kuni is charming but lacks any real challenge in its initial stages. The plot isn’t altogether original but the amazing graphics and standard RPG gameplay are enough to capture the attention of any nostalgic anime or RPG fan. Although I wasn’t blown away, I’ll go as far as to say it’s the best RPG I’ve played since Final Fantasy X.
7/10 big-fat thumbs up.