E3 2012: Ni No Kuni Hands-On
Developer: Level-5, Studio Ghibli / Publisher: Namco Bandai / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Release Date: Q1 2013 / ESRB: Not Yet Rated
If the company name Studio Ghibli means nothing to you, sit still, this is worth hearing.
If the writer/director Hayao Miyazaki is as alien as Steven Spielberg is to a Martian, then hang on to your hats, you’re about to find out about what you’re missing.
It’s a tough sell, but Studio Ghibli, helmed by Miyazaki-san is one of the most amazing animation studios at work in the world today. Sure, otaku will be drooling at the mention—and steeling to pounce on any informational miss-step, but titles like Princess Mononoke and Ponyo will hopefully make you at least click on the links. What stood out about these animated movies (in the most superficial of senses) is an incredible art and animation style backed by character development that elicited emotions barely touched in most Rom-Coms, let alone “cartoons.”
But Namco teamed with Studio Ghibli to create a core Japanese RPG. Oh yes, the JRPG moniker already carries baggage, but cast all assumptions aside and let yourself accept that you may be witnessing one of the most visually stunning RPGs ever crafted.
Sure, it may have debuted on the Nintendo DS in 2010 (odd choice, but it’s a different market, and the game enjoyed record-breaking critical success) but it’s finally coming to PS3 in a U.S. version.
To suggest it’s visually stunning potentially undermines any other features that could make Ni No Kuni stand out for a U.S. audience. But it is the first feature any observer will notice. It is simply beautiful to behold. Characters, environments, animations, cinematography… it will take most gamers just five minutes (max) to fall hook, line, and sinker for its aesthetic. Though that can go a long way to encouraging fence-sitters to fall on the side of JRPG goodness, what it also needs is a game.
Ni No Kuni has already been a hit in Japan, and as a result, otaku were clamoring for a U.S. release. “It’s an example of listening to fans,” says Akahir Hino, President and CEO of developer Level-5 Inc. While this new release aims to retain all the animation techniques that Studio Ghibli is known for, the challenge was to ensure this core JRPG was still accessible to Western audiences.
Sure, in our play-test it wasn’t easy to figure out the battle system as the protagonist, Oliver, works with his friends to battle foes in what seems a mix of turn-based and real-time battles, but with every nuance on screen capturing our attention, the mechanics felt like the details they should be when a story embraces your mind.
Our introduction to Oliver is suitably tragic—he loses his mother in an accident, and despite being overwhelmed by grief manages to help other people around town. His familiar (we can’t spoil the introduction…it’s a tear-jerker/heart-warmer/plot-helper) becomes a key component in the story exposition, and contributes his fair share to the some million words of dialogue that needed to be translated to bring Ni No Kuni to the West.
How this all plays out is the real unknown here. Efforts have been made to ensure that western audiences can manage the turn-based combat mechanic, but it won’t take much to appreciate the beauty of the environments and animation as your characters travel this world on an epic journey.
How epic? We scratched barely a fraction of the surface, but if you’re hankering for an RPG experience like no other, keep an eye out for Ni No Kuni early in 2013… it’s likely you won’t have seen anything like it.