Studio Ghibli do what many film makers can only dream about. Each Ghibli movie creates a completely new world that the viewers want to explore. The exquisite details the artists put into a simple puddle or tree make you want to stop and examine each part.
I have always wanted to explore Laputa (Castle in the Sky), the semi-submerged sea-side town in Ponyo, or the spirit village and bathhouse from Spirited Away. But in a film you are at the mercy of the director, and often these glimpses into the world’s dreamt up by Ghibli (usually from the mind of co-founder Miyazaki Hayao) are far too short. The best you can hope for is a visit to the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo (something I heartily recommend [Me too - Ed.])
Ni No Kuni (which essentially translates to “Second Country”) is set in a world very similar to that depicted in Spirited Away. You play as Oliver, a young boy who suffers tragedy only to discover that he is actually a powerful wizard. Oliver must travel the various lands to gather powers of the four Great Sages in order to defeat Shadar (and the titular Witch).
Studio 5 have done an amazing job bringing Ghibli animation into the 3D gaming world. After watching a brief animated intro, I was shocked that the next screen I was shown was actually in-game and that I could move around it. I was in a Ghibli movie!
The story is told in three different forms during the game: click-through text bubbles, in-game animations with the characters voices (with subtitles), and, best of all, actual Ghibli animation sequences. The design of these sequences and the characters can make you clap your hands with glee. What might make you cringe is the English voice acting.
Your main companion through the journey is Mr Drippy, a fairy with a lantern attached to his nose. The English version of Mr Drippy is a over the top, stereotypical Welsh “boyo”, with a voice that drove me insane after a few minutes. Worse still, he is the one who explains gameplay to you as you progress, and any initial charm he has is quickly destroyed. Still this is easily fixed: keep the game’s written language as English and change the voices to Japanese and the problem is solved! (You will have to read subtitles, though.)
The world you explore is a cross between many created by Ghibli. There are ancient European-style castles, vast deserts, huge underground industrial cities, and exotic markets; all filled with quaint villagers, strange talking animals, ghosts, and fairies. One location in particular (run by fairies) is a cross between the market scene from Spirited Away and Osaka’s Dotonbori. All of this adds to the magic and wonder of a game that truly does feel like you are inside an animated film.
This is a Japanese RPG at heart so expect lots of text to read and conversations to skip through. Also expect long and slightly confusing descriptions of gameplay, especially about combat and spells. There is lots of combat.
Each land has monsters roaming it. If one spots you, it makes a beeline straight for you. What follows is a realtime fight between the monster(s) and you and your familiars. Familiars are essentially Pokemon; you can collect, train, and evolve them and they will fight the majority of your battles. Like Pokemon, there are different genus of Familiars and each person on your team (which builds during the game) is better at training certain types.
Combat itself can be tricky. As I mentioned, it’s in realtime, not turn-based, so you need to be careful about what action you take at any time. Boss fights can be especially difficult as often oliver will need to not use his familiar and instead stand back and use his magic. Some of the bosses and creatures are pure nightmare fuel (especially the one that’s called “Nightmare.”)
Oliver’s quest for magic is the main plot driver. When he first meets Mr Drippy he gets a book of magic that he needs to fill with spells. Some spells are combat only, some are for “daily use”, meaning they can unlock chests or help Oliver get to inaccessible places. The book will also fill with stories and information about the world. In a neat twist there are side quests that actually require you to read the book in detail and answer questions about it.
The side quests, as with every RPG, are almost required. While most give you some basic items and money, some will give you extra spells and aid the main plot of the game. This includes the “heart” quests. Shadar’s main influence on the world is breaking people’s hearts by removing things like kindness and enthusiasm from them. In every city you will find yourself coming across people with an abundance of these virtues; borrowing some to fill the empty broken hearts of others is a key mechanic.
While the game can become repetitive with combat and running around a city doing side quests the story is the main attraction. Like many Ghibli stories that start in the real world (or Ghibli’s version of it), the story can be interpreted as simply a young boy having an adventure in his imagination to escape the horror in his life. It’s the creation of the magical world though that Ghibli do so well. They don’t care if that’s what is truly happening, nor do they wish you to speculate.
This game is ultimately for children. The jokes simple and bawdy and the animation will amaze them. The gameplay may beyond the reach of some kids (and adults) but the exploration parts will see them running around for hours . . . then hopefully running around outside pretending they are back in Ni No Kuni.