Full disclosure: Namco Bandai paid for my travel and hotel accommodations for the 2012 Namco Global Gamers Day
I've never been the biggest fan of Studio Ghibli. If you don't remember, they're the team behind Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro. The reason I'm not is because absolutely every film they've ever made makes me burst into an embarrassing amount of tears at some point….
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a role-playing game combining all the tear-jerking power of a Ghibli film mixed with developer Level 5's ingenious designs. And, just like Ghibli's previous work, the first few seconds of the trailer shown during Namco's press event (video after the jump) made me weep.
Oddly, I don't mind crying at games while I hate myself for breaking down during a movie. Ni No Kuni deftly blends anime and computer-generated graphics in a way only Level 5 can. It's no surprise that this style reminds me so much of Dragon Quest, as Level 5 played a major role in several DQ titles to date. Their clever ability to transition flat, 2D animation into fully 3D models is so seamless it's sometimes difficult to tell the difference.
The sheer scope and majesty of Ni No Kuni is immediately apparent. The world is open and explorable, like many Tales and recent Dragon Quest titles. You can run around and explore the vivid environment and fight monsters to your heart's content before entering towns. The demo available at Namco's event showcased how intricate and varied cities are. Ni No Kuni's world is as beautifully pieced together as the characters and has that rare quality of feeling lived in. Or, that's the impression it makes.
Mechanics-wise, Ni No Kuni's combat is a strange mixture of turn-based concepts blended with real-time movement. Actions have cooldown windows but your character spends an entire turn attacking then waiting to attack again. In the meantime, you can move around the field avoiding enemy fire. This blend is what really instills the idea that two distinct RPG experiences are quietly converging here. Moving in battle is as fluid as any Tales title, and the menus are as whimsical and accessible as every Dragon Quest game.
Ni No Kuni isn't without its problems. The demo I played felt very slow. Oliver, the main character, runs ridiculously slowly at all times, which makes controlling him feel unresponsive. While western gamers are getting an amazing PS3 re-imagining of this gorgeous project, they will not receive the detailed magic book released with the Japanese DS version. All of the necessary information is now incorporated in the actual game rather than added as reference material. These are relatively minor gripes for a potentially amazing RPG experience but are still worth considering.
Namco revealed during the Global Gamer's Day event that the DLC available in Japan will be released for Western audiences. The new version may also come with additional creatures similar to the extra monsters included in localized versions of Final Fantasy VII.
Ni No Kuni looks brilliant and could be the first Ghibli project I truly love. It's a terrible shame that anyone interested in playing this game will have to wait until Q1 2013 to get their hands on it. That's…torture. Doubly so for me as I want to continue exploring this vibrant and magical world.