Ni No Kuni: The Most Promising Japanese Roleplaying Game in Years

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Namco Bandai

You’ve probably never heard of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Let’s change that. What’s a “Ni no Kuni” anyway? There’s a “white witch” in the game? Someone made an RPG from Narnia fan fiction where Tilda Swinton lives?

One thing at a time. Maybe you’ve heard of Studio Ghibli, the Tokyo-based film house behind animated movies like Howl’s Moving Castle, Grave of the Fireflies and Spirited Away — a handful from the studio’s A-list, and some of the finest films ever made. Well, the Studio Ghibli folks got together with Japanese game developer Level 5 (Dark Cloud 2, Dragon’s Quest VIII, the Professor Layton series — some of the finest games ever made) a few years ago to make a roleplaying game. That game, dubbed Ni no Kuni: Shikkoku no Madōshi, emerged in 2010 for the Nintendo DS, only it never made it over here (or anywhere else, for that matter).

That’s usually the end of the road for a game like this. Why spend the money localizing and marketing an eclectic, anime-style JRPG when Western gamers tend to march more in lockstep with orthodox Dungeons & Dragons scions like Skyrim, Dragon Age and Mass Effect 3?

Last year that thinking changed, sort of. Two games made it across the Pacific that arguably shouldn’t have: Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story – the best and second-best roleplaying games, respectively, that I’ve played in years (pretty much everyone else, players and critics alike, agreed). And both of those games sold surprisingly well, suggesting there’s a market for this stuff alongside the Diablo IIIs and Dishonoreds and Torchlight IIs. Pay attention, JRPG doom-and-gloomers: Two fantastic JRPGs in a year was a rare occurrence back when the genre was considered popular.

Ni no Kuni was already scheduled to arrive in the U.S. last February, so no, I’m not saying Xenoblade Chronicles or The Last Story had anything to do with its hopping the fence, but that it’s coming at all is kind of remarkable, and here’s the other surprise: It’s a completely remastered version for the PlayStation 3, not a DS localization. Or maybe remastered isn’t the right word. The DS version was completed first, but it sounds like the PlayStation 3 version was developed in parallel from the beginning.

So what’s a “Ni no Kuni”? It’s a transliterated Japanese phrase meaning “two countries” or “second world.” The game’s story involves a 13-year-old boy named Oliver whose mother unexpectedly dies, at which point one of Oliver’s dolls — given to him by his mother — comes to life and tells him that he can save his mother if he journeys to this “second country,” a sort of parallel fantasy world with characters that operate as analogues of ones he knows from the real world.

Sounds like a Studio Ghibli film alright. Here’s Level 5 CEO Akihiro Hino responding to a question from IGN about the “feel” of the world, which sounds decidedly Ghibli-esque, too.

We would love you to experience the excitement of going on an adventure, as well as the feeling of returning to your childhood … Further, it would make us happy if younger players could live out their dreams and the spirit of adventure through this title, as they also think about the importance of their own loved ones, such as their family and friends.

And with that, you should probably have a look at the official game trailer.

How does Ni no Kuni work game-wise? I’m still waiting for my review copy, but the battle system sounds fairly traditional, good-guys-facing-bad-guys (though you can roam around the battlefield freely), with enemies visible on a continuous-time game field beforehand, Blue Dragon-style, and pre-combat approach incentives, say sneaking up on a creature to initiate combat with advantages.

I gather from the handful of explainer videos floating around that the battle system is relatively complex, which jibes with reactions to the handheld version’s mechanics. According to 1UP’s translation of the Famitsu review (of the Japanese DS version), “It’s not the light, easy-to-play sort of thing you’d expect with a portable game, but the sheer scope of the project makes it worth the time to play.”

Echoes of Pokemon: You’ll collect and cart around your own personal menagerie of familiars, each of which can be named, taught different skills and leveled-up. You can either set discrete battle tactics for each of your human companions and let the computer handle things, or take control of them directly. And there’s an “all-out attack” or “all-out defend” option that works just as it sounds, allowing you to pull off synchronized offensive or defensive maneuvers.

The only downer so far is that it’s PS3-exclusive. Nothing against Sony‘s fine system, you just want to see a game like this reach the broadest possible audience, especially if it turns out to be one of these games that raises the barometer for everything else.

What might it feel like to play a Studio Ghibli movie? To wander in a world that feels like “returning to your childhood”? We’ll find out in just a few more weeks: Ni no Kuni arrives on Jan. 22.