Developers: Level-5 | Studio Ghibli
Publishers: Namco Bandai
Playing Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an activity that requires the gamer to constantly pinch themselves in order to make absolutely certain that they aren't dreaming. In a day and age where we told by publishers and platform holders that we have to pay a high price for everything, where mainstream gaming milks its audience for every last drop, where we're told that we can't possibly be allowed nice things, that we're stupid, and violent, and need to be constantly stimulated every 5 seconds for fear...it's heartwarming enough that such a wonderful union has blossomed.
Studio Ghibli and Level-5 sitting in a tree.
As with most relationships, high drama tends to hide the simple matter of asking someone out. In this case, Level-5 had the early concepts for a game, and they asked Studio Ghibli if they fancied collaborating on it.
The story is all Level-5, though it's clear where they've drawn their inspiration from. The game opens with protagonist Oliver running around his little home town, picking up groceries, and concocting the sorts of adventurous plans with his best friend that young boys do - the sort that will invariably result in danger, grazed knees, and a worried mother. Slipping out of his house after dark, the boys' experiment has terribly tragic consequences, and Oliver is left inconsolable at the loss of someone close to him, crying rivers at the result of his folly.
Sat in his room, Oliver's tears of grief awaken one of his toys, who transforms into the strangest fairy you ever did see - a beige, inverted-apostrophe-shaped blob called Drippy - with a lantern through his pointed nose, and a thick Welsh accent denoting his origins "elsewhere". Drippy explains that the world he is from is connected with Oliver's world, and that souls of people in one world are linked to those in the other, hinting that there might be a way to bring Oliver's mother back. And saving both worlds from annihilation from a great evil force, naturally. Drippy gives Oliver a magical tome, instructs him to find a stick for a wand (any stick will do!), and so the adventure begins, with the young boy and his fantastically outspoken sidekick transported into a vividly colourful, stunningly gorgeous fantasy world.
Ghibli have, of course, been hard at work on the game's anime cutscenes - the atmosphere and tone harking back to Spirited Away, but the visual stylings perhaps going back further to those found in Kiki’s Delivery Service. But the most arresting thing happens when the camera suddenly pans back and you're in the game itself. The crossover is almost seamless, and it's clear that some phenomenal work by Level-5 has gone into the creation of a cel-shaded engine that looks, sounds, and feels like you're exploring a Ghibl-created universe. The thick black lines that outline everything really help to give the visual style solidity. It's a technique, as we've seen in games like Okami, Viewtiful Joe, Wind Waker, and Jet Set Radio, that doesn't really age - now coupled, of course, with an instantly recognisable style.
The game has strong thing going for it from a mechanical standpoint too. Level-5 are no strangers to RPGs, after all, and indeed the actual moment to moment gameplay is somewhat reminiscent of the Dragon Quest titles, though it's clear that the developers have taken strides to try and make the game play in as unique a fashion as it looks.
Combat is conducted in real-time, in an open area that allows you to run around, pick your targets, dash out of the way of attacks, and collect any items and orbs that downed enemies leave behind. Attacks, spells, and items are all deployable via a menu, and each action is then undertaken over a short animation period, though this can be cancelled midway through if you need to quickly shake things up and switch tactics.
Oliver himself is not hugely customisable, with other main characters following relatively rigid roles between them. Default actions and battle roles for your companions (a little like the Gambit system in FFXII) can be set up prior to engaging in combat and then switched during battle. You only control one player at a time, with the others doing their own thing, but you can switch between player-controlled character.Additional depth is added to the gameplay through Pokemon-esque Familiars,as well - creatures that can be captured and boosted with treats and nibbles, and then deployed in battle. These Familiars all come with an elemental alignment of sorts, and a stamina bar that depletes over time, so analysing your the weaknesses of your foes is crucial, as is making sure that you swap your Familiars in and out of combat regularly. Each character can hold up to three Familiars, and with three characters in your party, there's a lot of room for some deliciously tactical encounters
Game worlds thrive on attention to detail - this is a medium that can capture the essence of a game world and deliver you an immersive experience like no other, and it's all down to detail, but it looks as though Level-5 have gotten it spot on. Though the polygonal environments might occasionally jar with the cel-shaded characters, everything else is pure charm. There's the delightful music, the astonishingly good localisation (regional accents put to excellent effect rather than hammed-up to annoying levels a la Fable), the way that cities such as Ding Dong Dell seem to be populated (hell, even the names instil a little smile). I felt bad the first time I snuck up on a a wild sheep (no random battles here!) and bested it in combat, simply because it looked so cute that I felt a bit guilty.
Crucially, the systems work in Ni No Kuni, at least they did in my hour or two with the game, and that's important. Whimsy is too often offset by clunky mechanics, poor pacing, or other infuriating barriers to enjoyment. But it looks like Level-5 might have crafted a game that will let us enjoy the wonders that both they and Studio Ghibli have brought to life, and immerse ourselves in the story that they want to tell. Ghibli's legendary director Hayao Miyazaki as long frowned upon this industry, and after the awful Nausicaa spin offs who could blame him?! But this is not just a chance to set the record straight, but to perhaps deliver something very special indeed.