Ni No Kuni’s White Witch peers into her crystal ball and says, “So, this is the child who will save the world,” sneering at her pint-sized aggressor and his ill-matched ambition. The temptation is to sneer with her. Not at Oliver, the likeable 13-year-old called upon to save the fantasy world of Ni No Kuni in order to do the same for the life of his mother, but at the over-familiarity of the premise: the orphaned child at the precipice of puberty, who, in the words of the game’s attract sequence, will “save a world, but must first save himself”. For a story penned by Studio Ghibli, the animation house behind some of Japan’s most enduring and critically acclaimed cinematic fairytales, the hope was for more of a twist in the tale.
But there is still gold to be found in clichés for those with a subversive eye and sparkling talent – virtues that Studio Ghibli and Level-5, its game development partner, do not lack. So while Ni No Kuni’s premise and systems are familiar at a glance, their quaintly rebellious execution, flair, and voice, plus the studio’s meticulous detailing, make this a journey filled with fresh wonder.
Oliver resides in Motorville, a small but well-to-do American town. There’s no year attributed to the setting but, judging by the style of the motorcars that sleepily cruise its streets, the vinyl-only record shop and the price of Idaho potatoes in the local greengrocers (35¢ for 10lbs), we’re in the 1950s. It’s a town of white picket fences, immaculate lawns and flower boxes. Its shops bear hand-drawn signs, the lampposts look like they were painted yesterday, and not only does everybody know everybody else by name, they also know all about their medical conditions and love lives.
Ghibli’s strengths are all here, drawing a consistent and detailed world, while maintaining a rare clarity of storytelling. The key players, their motivations and fears are all introduced with an expert’s hand. Oliver’s ultimate goal is to save his mother following a tragic accident in the opening moments of the game. When it seems as though all hope is lost, his tears awaken his favourite toy, Mr Drippy, a tubby, saucer-eyed fairy with a small red lantern dangling from a ring in his snout. Drippy is one of the medium’s great characters, defying his stature with a gigantic personality and a thick Welsh accent. He acts as Oliver’s friend and guide, cheering him on from the sidelines in battle and providing humorous narration for the journey.