The delay in bringing Ni No Kuni to North America and Europe – some two years after its Japanese debut – can be attributed to creative control, not localisation laziness. The translation job and voice work on the game has been as meticulous as a full-blown Studio Ghibli production. It’s most evident in the entirely accurate tones and lingual quirks of Drippy, sidekick to child hero Oliver, and our guide in the story’s parallel world of magic and mystery. Did we mention Drippy is Welsh? And a Welshman who delivers colloquialisms like “knickers”, “tasty” and “tidy” without pause for breath? This is localisation on a startling level indeed.
Whisked – or spirited – away from his picturesque small-town home, Oliver is the chosen one of this yarn, enlisted by Drippy to save Another World from a sweeping spell of broken-heartedness. It’s a typically Ghibli-esque narrative (even if it is from the scribes at Level-5), one that bestows the power to change and save another realm on an innocent, uncorrupted youth. And for its first few chapters, Ni No Kuni feels quite narrowly designed for that young and wide-eyed demographic. Of course, Ghibli’s films employ a child-friendly aesthetic, but they have the rare ability – thanks largely to their pacing and universal themes – to transcend any single audience group.
While Ni No Kuni shares the same narrative qualities and strong production values found in any Ghibli film, its early stages come across like a beginner’s guide to RPGs. Worse still for the experienced player (and those fleetingly familiar with the genre), it could even seem like an interactive movie with some light roleplaying elements layered on top. But what a movie it is to interact with. From Oliver’s animations, as he treads through the Deep Dark Woods and Whispering Waterfalls – all dense, luscious vegetation – to the crisp and characterful world map, Ni No Kuni is an artistic triumph.
It’s only when ‘Familiars’ – miniature embodiments of your heroic spirit that act like the pawns of Dragon’s Dogma, attacking and defending at your behest – are introduced that Ni No Kuni begins to open up. From here on your inventory expands, your book of spells (accessed in-game rather than via the physical book of the 3DS version) grows, and the combat transforms into a strategic brawler, requiring keen management of your hit points, magic, and attack/defend stance, as well as your physical position on the walled-in battlefields. Encounters aren’t random – you can see your opponents in advance, and you’ll gain the upper hand if you manage to attack them from behind – but in most of the locations we travel around they’re still mostly unavoidable due to the rigid linearity of the level layouts.
As the action deepens, the story also begins to rocket along its trajectory into the more familiarly fantastical realm of Ghibli feature films such as Princess Mononoke. One potential issue is that two strands of cutscene tend to fight for space and time, punctuating each step of the journey and potentially impeding your sense of control, even as they simultaneously enrich the atmosphere of the world. There are game-engine cutscenes, a blend of Ghibli’s designs and Level-5’s tech, and then there’s a selection of out-and-out animated cutscenes, which come courtesy of the team at Ghibli. Beautiful as they are to behold, hopefully they won’t dominate, or destroy, the game’s flow as your quest unfolds and Oliver continues his journey towards wizardhood.