(Namco Bandai for PS3)
By Mike Delano
The fantasy worlds in Studio Ghibli’s whimsical animated films have always possessed a special lived-in quality. The filmmaking studio has a knack for capturing all the little details and exposing all the nooks and crannies in a fictional space to make you want to visit and explore them. So naturally, a collaboration between Ghibli and superstar Japanese game developer Level-5 should be a perfect match: The opportunity for Ghibli’s artists to create a world and for the great gaming minds at Level-5 to bring that world to glorious interactive life. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch definitely delivers on that promise, but to get the most out of it, you have to meet the game on its own terms.
At its core, it’s a traditional JRPG (with all of the good and bad baggage that tag brings with it); so don’t let the awe-inspiring presentation (it really is a Ghibli film brought charmingly alive in video game form) make you think it’s a more modern experience than it is. Recent role-playing experiences like Mass Effect and even Final Fantasy XIII have pushed the genre forward in fascinating ways, but Ni No Kuni sticks to many tried and true JRPG conventions, like overly deliberate pacing and overly familiar story conventions. The battle system is the most up-to-date part of the game, offering up lots of customization options and giving you full control of your character in a large battlefield where attacks can be avoided in real time and items dropped amongst the fray can change the course of a battle.
So, despite its 2013 release date, Ni No Kuni is really a throwback to the great JRPGs of decades past, with one big difference: You’ve never before seen an old-school RPG so visually sumptuously realized as this one. The characters, the environments, the interiors, the overworld – everything is gorgeous, and you want to spend time in this fantasy world. Given that, the game truly does accomplish what the two studios set out to do; namely, caputirng the Ghibli spirit in video game form so it can be enjoyed for dozens of hours, because imagination this rich shouldn’t have to whiz by in 90 minutes.