We're so ready for Ni No Kuni. The collaboration between Level-5 (Professor Layton, Inazuma Eleven) and Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle) is the sort of unbelievable, almost impossible crossover that gamers fantasise about in the pub after a couple of pints and long week; a literal dream team ripped straight out of our most delirious reveries.
Having already in released in Japan to rave critical acclaim, Ni No Kuni is headed to Europe in January 2013, complete with British-localised voice acting and loads of extra content courtesy of Namco Bandai. Behind the closed doors of the Namco E3 booth, I sat down for a lengthy interview with International Brand Manager Dennis Lee to learn more about the past, present and future of this gorgeous anticipated PS3 exclusive.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): So, how did the Level-5/Ghibli collaboration originally come about?
Dennis Lee (Namco Bandai): Strangely enough, when Level-5 was starting to work on their new project that ended up becoming Ni No Kuni, they had some early design documents and a little bit of direction about what they wanted the game to be. They felt like they really wanted to do something special for this project. So they reached out to Studio Ghibli, showed them all their early documentation and said "hey, we really want to do something with you guys." It ended up working out to where Studio Ghibli really liked the concept, and they had some extra resources, you know, it worked out perfectly. They talked about what they would do and Studio Ghibli ended up creating all of the animated cutscenes of the game. With them working on all of that stuff, there's also all of the feedback, the back and forth between them and Level-5. So, throughout a lot of the game, you'll see a lot of Studio Ghibli's mark as far as the quality control, the attention to detail and all the things that make Ni No Kuni really feel like a Studio Ghibli work.
Dealspwn: How involved were Ghibli in the storyline? It reminds us of Spirited Away.
Dennis Lee: The storyline was written fully by Level-5, but very similar to, you know, Spirited Away. When they wrote the story, they were looking at doing a project that felt very much like a Studio Ghibli work. Because Studio Ghibli was working on all of the animated cutscenes, again, a lot of their feedback and influence came through in the story for Ni No Kuni.
Dealspwn: Now, the JRPG market is getting pretty saturated - not so much in Europe, but definitely in Japan. What makes Ni No Kuni really stand out from a gameplay standpoint?
Dennis Lee: On the gameplay side, one of the things for Ni No Kuni that is implemented really well, is that there's always a really strong presence of story in a lot of the roleplaying games that come from Japan. It's hard to have a lot of customisation and the ability for the player to alter a lot of core things when the story is so strong. So, with Ni No Kuni, one thing that they did, is that they combined both the characters and the story throughout the game with Oliver and all of his main companions. The level of customisation with Oliver, for instance, is pretty limited as far as how you level him up and what spells he learns; of course you can equip him with different equipment, but his customisation is pretty limited to help drive the story.
But, what Level-5 created was the Familiars. Each character can bring up to three Familiars into battle, and if you have three characters at the time, you'll have nine different familiars. All those Familiars are customisable as far as which team you want to bring in, how you raise them and how they evolve. All of that is up to the player, so they're mixing both a level of customisation and having such a strong story. It's really hard to do both!
Dealspwn: For sure, and so many games really don't manage to do it, without going fully Westernised...
Dennis Lee: Yeah, going fully one way or the other, exactly.
Dealspwn: Fantastic! Look, cards on the table, us Brits have had to wait so long for Ni No Kuni. It's been horrible! We're going to have to wait a few months more, so what can we expect from the finished version? How is the localisation going?
Dennis Lee: So, the localisation is going along really well. We essentially have all of the main story points localised, a lot of the voice work has been done. There's still a lot of tuning to do, and the NPCs and building out the rest of the world hasn't been done quite yet, but the localisation is an area where Level-5 are really ensuring that what they bring over to the Western World feels like it was created specifically for that region. Not that, "oh, this is just a Japanese game and just a quick port and a quick translation." The essence of what they were doing in the Japanese version comes across, not so much that it was a direct port, but some very specific small things. For example, in the Japanese version, all the characters have a traditional Tokyo accent, but Drippy has an Osakan accent. Everybody recognises it but it is a little different, and at the beginning of the game you feel that Drippy is from another place, you know.
So in the Western version, as they were casting all of the English voice talent, everyone has a proper British English accent. But Drippy has a Welsh accent! They want to make sure that those details aren't lost in the localised version, because whether it comes to the story points or making sure that making sure it's accessible to everybody, or even those small details that might not be a big deal, but they still want to have that same feeling and making sure that it all carries through. That's the reason why it's taking a while and why you'll still have to wait a few more months.
Dealspwn: We're willing to wait, and we're glad to hear that the English version will be properly distinct from the US release. Just out of interest, how much dialogue are you having to localise, and how does it fit into the cutscenes and gameplay?
Dennis Lee: There is quite a bit of voiceover work! The cool thing about the game is that, as you're playing through Ni No Kuni, in the development of the game they did a really good job at having the story flow throughout. So, constantly throughout the game you're seeing - whether it's a Ghibli animated cuscene or a real-time cutscene with full voiceover and cinematic - there's always that progression. It always feels like the story's advancing, there's always more things happening, it doesn't have a long period of time where you don't get something driving the story. Which of course, is all voiced over for the main scenes. So there's over an hour of animated cutscenes, but there's much more than that of the real-time in-engine cutscenes.
I don't really know the actual number of voice actors off the top of my head, but there was a whole team that they brought on to do the voice acting, and they did it in Europe. So all of the voice talent is from Europe. That is part of what Level-5 wanted in terms of the feel of world, that it had the 'old-time' European feel to it even though some areas are modelled after a US city. In the original Japanese I believe it was called Hetroit, of course they were modelling it after an older version of Detroit. Of course, in the Western version, it's called Motorville, and they wanted to make sure that everything felt right no matter where you came from. They didn't want the world to feel too US-centric or Japanese-centric so the environments they created show very much in the same way that a Studio Ghibli film. Some of them look like you could be in Venice or other areas, though.
Dealspwn: How hands-on have Namco Bandai been with Ni No Kuni's localisation, in terms of feedback? What's your role beyond distribution?
Dennis Lee: Actually, with the localisation and the dialogue, Level-5 has such a high bar of quality that they're always trying to hit, that there really wasn't need for Namco Bandai to come in and give them direction. Everything they've showed us has always been to a really high quality, to where every time we did hear new builds of the game that had more of the localisation and voiceover work implemented, everything has been so close to that bar that we haven't had to give them much feedback. So, that's really good. I think the Level-5 team with their previous works, they've worked on high profile games that have been localised really well, so they've taken on their previous experiences and worked it into Ni No Kuni - the Dragon Quest games, the Professor Layton games, you know. The Western versions of those, you wouldn't know that they were created for a Japanese market, so they have the ability and the experience to localise at an extremely high level.
What we're trying to do at Namco Bandai, is we understand that a lot of the really core fans might have imported the Japanese version in, and they're playing it. So when we show new assets, we're trying to show the fans where the game is headed. So far, both trailers we've released include a lot of dialogue and a lot of story elements. We could to the traditional E3 trailer where we'd have "lots of action lots of action lots of action!" and cut a bunch of scenes together, but in talking to Level-5, we were working on showing off more of the dialogue in the game. So that way fans can hear the voiceovers and decide, "hey, we like that one, it sounds really good," or some people might be like, "well, you know, I like the Japanese better than the English voices." If you're not familiar with Ni No Kuni then it gives you a little insight into the characters and the story and what they're doing.
So we've been doing that with the first two English trailers we released, and in the end, if someone's a purist and they're a fan of the original Japanese voiceovers (there are a lot of those fans out there), the Japanese voiceovers will be included in the game. So, we're trying to be as receptive as we can to the fans, listening to their requests, their comments about previous RPGs and really trying to make as many people as we can happy.
Dealspwn: Out of bloody-minded interest, how long is a single playthrough of Ni No Kuni?
Dennis Lee: So if you're playing through the main story, essentially the story is somewhere within sort of thirty to forty hours of gameplay. Going through the main story, you might do a few of the little sidequests if they're right near you and maybe you want to do some of the things to earn some specific weapons or something like that, you're looking at thirty to forty hours. Which is about 'right' for this kind of story-driven game: you don't want it to be too short, but you don't want it to be extremely long.
But if a player is really interested in exploring the environments, talking to all the townspeople, doing a lot of the requests that they have and also trying to capture and collect all of the Familiars then you're looking at a much longer game, because there's quite a lot of content for players to do if they want to immerse themselves into the world and the story.
Dealspwn: We'll be doing that, for sure. Will the Western version have any bonus content compared to the Japanese release?
Dennis Lee: There is going to be some additional content. One of the main things is that all of the post-launched DLC that was released in Japan is going to be included on the disc, day one, right away. There will be a couple of additional surprises in there that Level-5 has put into the Western version as well, a couple of additional additions... wait, is that the right way to say it? There is more content that will be included. But the main thing is that all of the post-launch content will be included day one, so we won't be taking it out, piecing it out and selling it later. It's all going to be on the disc.
Dealspwn: Will there be a Special Edition?
Dennis Lee: Right now we're, erm, looking into the possibility of what our promotion and direction is going to be for the game. If we do annouce anything specifically with promotional items or special editions then we'll let them know ...
Dealspwn: Cuddly Drippy. Cuddly Drippy. Do it!
Dennis Lee: Heh, yeah, haha.
Dealspwn: If Ni No Kuni sells well enough in the West, will there be potential for a sequel or another collaboration like this?
Dennis Lee: Erm, so, I can't speak specifically for Level-5...
Dealspwn: Ooh, go on.
Dennis Lee: I have... sat in on one of Hino-San's interviews (who's the president and CEO of Level-5), and he did say that if the game does well enough in the West, then there is a possibility that there might be more Ni No Kuni coming. So I can say that because it's a quote I overheard! But right now I know they are looking at how well it does in the West, and they might have other projects so it might come out right away. Depending on how well it does, they may have other engagements to do first. You never know about the future.
But he did say that if it performs really well in the West, then it is a possibility.
Dealspwn: So, no pressure on us then!
Dennis Lee: Haha, yes, I know, the pressure's on for consumers in Europe and the US!
Dealspwn: Good to know. We're so ready for Ni No Kuni after watching all those trailers, and I know that our readership (and editorship!) are incredibly excited about it. So lastly, exactly when is Ni No Kuni going to reach British shores?
Dennis Lee: So the game comes out in January 2013. It has a January 25th release date in Europe, so we're all getting it at the same time. Level-5 wanted to ensure that as many fans as possible will have access to the game all at the same time, so they made sure that the US and European release dates lined up, so as many fans as possible could play and enjoy.