Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Despite the indirect influence it has had on the world of videogames, Studio Ghibli has resisted dipping its beautifully animated toes into a title all of its own. That’s all about to change, however, with the launch of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on the PlayStation 3; the fruit of a partnership between Studio Ghibli and JRPG experts Level 5. The road to this point hasn’t been an easy one, however, as Ni No Kuni has had to undergo a lengthy localisation process since its Japanese release in November 2011 so that Western audiences can finally explore The Another World (the literal translation of ‘Ni No Kuni’). The potential of animation royalty joining forces with a video game veteran is clear for all to see, but do these two giants merely serve to water each other down?
In some ways, it is curious that it has taken Ghibli so long to make its own game, so natural a fit are the themes of its movie output; films that relish in and celebrate the fantastical. The one benefit of this reluctance is that Ni No Kuni has a huge amount of material from which to draw, and draw it does – not in basing its tale and characters on any specific movie or universe, but in milking every last drop of Ghibli’s experience and artistic/narrative heritage.
In being released in a console generation capable of doing justice to the Ghibli aesthetic makes for one fine looking game, and – as predictable as this may be – Ni No Kuni’s visual prowess is absolutely worthy of praise. Level 5’s game engine does a fantastic job of capturing that Ghibli magic, a fact that is demonstrated by how smoothly the game transitions from traditional, two-dimensional animated cutscenes into superbly realised three-dimensional worlds populated with wonderfully animated characters. Ni no Kuni wants to place you in a studio Ghibli Movie, and it absolutely manages to do so.
The tale it has to tell is also extremely engaging, even if it’s hewn from the classic heroes-journey as well as being thematically similar to Ghibli films such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. The story opens in the 1950’s America-inspired Motorville, with the focus being on a young boy named Oliver whose misadventures in amateur car design indirectly result in the tragic death of his mother, orphaning him in the process. With Oliver locked in grief, a stuffed toy given to him by his mother (known as Mr. Drippy) magically springs to life on contact with the boy’s tears and whisks him off to an alternate reality and on an adventure of the classic Ghibli mould. This opening section sets the tone for the game that follows, with Ni No Kuni tackling a diverse range of themes from family dramas, personal crises, to societies in turmoil, all of which are handled with the same deftness of touch that is prevalent in Ghibli’s filmic work.
Though things get off to a mightily impressive start, this is tempered by a nagging sense that disappointment may be lying in wait around every corner, a feeling exasperated by the way in which Ni No Kuni drip feeds mechanics and major narrative progressions. Thankfully, this disappointment never comes, and the almost leisurely pace with which Ni No Kuni draws you into its world feels controlled and measured rather than lacking in momentum. The game’s world and characters are given room to breathe and time to win your affections and this ultimately sucks you in to Ghibli’s and Level 5’s combined vision. It’s a trick that a lesser game may have struggled to pull off, but here the visuals, the narrative, wonderful scripting and stellar voice acting (the decision to give your constant companion, Mr Drippy a strong Welsh accent is utterly inspired) retain your attention so well that the mechanics and systems on which the game proper is built seem almost invisible, chugging away in the background, servicing the narrative and glorious visuals.
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