Why Ni no Kuni Will Make a Great RPG
If you've ever watched an animated Studio Ghibli film or played a game made by Level-5, then you can understand how exciting the prospect of a merge would be. That's evidently the thought that popped into somebody's head during the production process of Ni no Kuni, translated into English as The Another World. The game has flourished on the Nintendo DS in Japan, but only recently could fans relinquish held breath as the announcement of a US release broke through. The game is landing on the PS3 as Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Queen of the Holy White Ash in Japan) in early 2012.
In video games, Level-5 developers are renown for the polish and fluidity of their in-game animations. Studio Ghibli is the film equivalent. The union of talent is the best possible arrangement that fans of either company could ask for with a video game, and considering the promise involved, it's no wonder that the web has been lit afire with the mere idea of it. As far as the Japanese go, we non-natives are once again jealous. They've owned the DS game since last year.
RPG tradition shows us that gameplay, while important, can never match the wonder of storytelling. At least that's how it should be. Some modern role-playing games have failed to deliver quality on both fronts, whether they're as embarrassing as Square Enix's online mistakes with Final Fantasy XIV, as overly complicated as the combat in Resonance of Fate, or as uninteresting as the characters in Final Fantasy XIII (not to completely name call Square Enix, but those are the facts).
For the gameplay in Ni no Kuni, fans can depend on Level-5's comfortable presence in the industry. We know that combat in Ni no Kuni is going to be turn-based, and that the DS and PS3 versions differ at least in story perspectives, from the midpoint on. The PS3 version will also have added story content, continuing where the DS narrative ends. In the game players control Oliver, a thirteen-year-old boy who travels to a world parallel to his own on a quest to revive his recently deceased mother. He's accompanied by a fairy named Shizuku.
Like in any proper RPG, the characters in Ni no Kuni will take center stage, moving the story along. In their movies, Studio Ghibli has always successfully created characters that are both compelling and memorable. They're often energetic and loaded with quirks. We can bet the characters in Ni no Kuni, playable or otherwise, to be just as fleshed out, if not more so.
Emotion plays a strong role in the Ghibli films, fueling any real motive a character has. Sometimes those emotional needs and wants aren't explained until later on, so Ni no Kuni may present a refreshing element of curiosity. In the movie Howl's Moving Castle, for example, the magician Howl was as much a puzzle as his transportable house was.
But Studio Ghibli isn't just known for their gift of sharing a good tale. They're known for their brilliant animation and gorgeously realized environments, most of which pop with detail and charm. Some of them stem from real world locations, but quite often they mix the fantastical and the bizarre with the everyday. Waiting for a train in My Neighbor Totoro turns into a meeting of creatures, including a slinking cat train and the humungous, smiling Totoro.
Speaking of My Neighbor Totoro (one of Ghibli's finest productions), the film was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, a master animator and the genius behind many of the studio's most popular films. No official word has leaked regarding Miyazaki's involvement with Ni no Kuni, so fans are left to suppose that the director is simply busy elsewhere. Studio Ghibli has carried on without Miyazaki's influence before, but the most successful efforts have been his—from Spirited Away to the more recent Ponyo. How his supposed absence will affect Ni no Kuni is unknown, but given Ghibli's crew of other excellent animators and their overall attention to character, the game will undoubtedly be a solid work of visuals and story. Grave of the Fireflies, for instance, was directed by Isao Takahata and is one of the studio's most highly rated films. And who knows—maybe Miyazaki is secretly working his magic behind the scenes.
The well-regarded Japanese magazine Famitsu certainly spoke high praise for the DS counterpart, describing Ni no Kuni as having "a lot of backdrop that allows you to understand the story on a deep level. It's not the light, easy-to-play sort of thing you'd expect with a potable game, but the sheer scope of the project makes it worth the time to play." With any luck, the console version will be an even bigger undertaking, giving us a world we can get lost in—one of Ghibli's heartwarming movies brought to virtual life.