You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t love at least one Studio Ghibli film. Ni No Kuni is the first high-profile videogame that the esteemed animation studio has gotten involved with, and this chosen collaboration, with progressive Japanese RPG developers Level-5, manages to bring an impressive slice of that cinematic magic into an interactive adventure.
The primary draw of a Ghibli film is of course the striking, colourful hand-drawn style of the animation – Ni No Kuni nails that perfectly, portraying a wonderfully rich, varied world with often bizarre character designs that are pure Ghibli. The further you’re pulled into Ni No Kuni’s geographically varied world, the more you appreciate just how well the studio’s visual style works in a videogame capacity. Likewise, there’s a few hours worth of original Ghibli animation to drum the story along, too, a truly valuable part of the package.
Ni No Kuni echoes Spirited Away in the idea that there is a parallel world that’s linked to our own. The story follows a lad named Oliver, who’s orphaned after his mum dies of a heart attack, which is quite heartbreaking to watch and represents the story’s most close-to-home moment, before it transitions into more of a conventional fairytale.
Some weeks after her death, you see, a soft toy left to Oliver by his mother comes to life – with a Welsh accent (sample dialogue: “I’m a fairy, en’t it?”)! This adorable and eventually brilliant sidekick, Mr Drippy, is a bit of a belligerent dick at first, essentially telling you to get off your arse for still whinging at your mother’s death a whole three weeks after she passed away (because soft toys understand the intricacies of grief). He then informs you that he’s from a magical world where you may be able to save your mother, as part of a package deal for becoming the land’s saviour – Oliver agrees, and off they go.
It’s aided by a terrific localisation that mirrors the strong work Western studios have committed to Ghibli’s films, with energetic voiceovers that almost stand up to Ponyo or Howl’s Moving Castle in quality. Along with the beautiful soundtrack by the studio’s standing composer Joe Hisaishi, there’s no shortage of elements in Ni No Kuni that we’d consider to be Ghibli-esque.
The only drawback is how traditional it is as a game, really – while you do move around during fights, the combat system doesn’t feel a million miles from the first turn-based Japanese RPGs released over 20 years ago. There’s a sweet creature management system at the heart of the scrapping, and it’s pleasingly simple. Exploration revolves around a vast world map with hub area towns, which is again inoffensively familiar. You’ll forgive the antiquated mechanics, but will you forgive the unending gauntlet of puns?
For example, you’ve got a Premier Inn-style chain of hotels called Cat’s Cradle, ran by a woman who looks like a cat, called the Purrprietor. You’ll find more than a few characters like this, whose existence in the world of Ni No Kuni is entirely based on one pun – our personal favourite of which is the ‘Hootique’, ran by an ageing owl-like lady who refers to herself as ‘Hootenanny’. If that’s the sort of thing that makes you owl with laughter, you’ll find this a hoot (oh god sorry).
Ni No Kuni’s story is convincingly built with the same storytelling appeal of a good Ghibli film, with a similar exploration of life’s harsh realities from a perspective of childhood wonder. In videogame terms, it recalls an almost lost time where the Japanese RPG was synonymous with creating a quite unmatched sense of place – but, for once, you’re not trawling through a world fraught with depressing apocalypse scenarios. Those games definitely have a place, but the legitimacy with which Level-5 has used Ghibli’s aesthetic to create this world makes it as refreshing a departure from other videogames as the studio’s films feel next to other animated movies.