I recently had the chance to have a go at Studio Ghibli and Level 5’s Western version of the already released in Japan RPG Ni No Kuni.

If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Studio Ghibli then you’re missing out on some of the most wonderful animated features you’ll ever see. As animes, Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke, all directed by Studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki have achieved the incredible and achieved classic status in the West. And while they’re the most talked about Ghibli stories, they are but a small portion of the company’s impressive back catalogue.

Level-5 on the other hand, is pretty much a household name in Japan, having a wealth of successful titles in its back catalogue, its first being early PS2 era RPG Dark Cloud. Amongst its successes are Dragon Quest VIII and IX, White Knight Chronicles and its sequel and the massively popular Professor Layton DS and 3DS series to name but a few.

It’s no surprise then, that news of a collaborative project between Studio Ghibli and Level-5 sparked high expectations in gaming circles. Both teams have garnered acclaim for their animation and storytelling abilities and both have managed the often difficult task for Japanese creative of making it big in the West.

Ni No Kuni is taking its sweet time to get to the West; originally out in Japan in December 2010 on the Nintendo DS, followed almost a year after by a November 2011 PlayStation 3 release, again in Japan. Its official slot for the North American region is January 22, 2013 but it’s going to be oh so worth the wait; the reception it’s had in Japan has been nothing short of phenomenal.

The game’s story follows a boy named Oliver, whose mother recently passed away, before her death she made for him a sweet little cuddly toy. One pivotal day sees Oliver sobbing, toy in hand, only to find his tears bring life into the doll in his hands, conjuring a spirit by the name of Drippy. It’s not long before Oliver is whisked off into the eponymous land Ni No Kuni in a bid to find this spirit world’s version of his mother. It’s all so very Ghibli, and could easily be a Miyazaki tale, but interestingly, the script and story have come from Level-5, albeit reviewed by Ghibli at every stage.

If the visual grandeur of Ghibli movies and Level-5’s reputation for attention to detail are anything to go off, you’d expect to Ni No Kuni to look pretty good, and I’ve gotta say, it really does. Ni No Kuni is divided into 2D animated cut-scenes and 3D cel-shaded gameplay; both are stunning to put it lightly. Level-5 has had Ghibli on board to assist with the animation and style throughout the production and it really shows.

The coloring is superb, the flora and fauna exude lushness, and the characters beam with vibrant cel-shaded perfection and oh the shadowing. It struck me as I played through woodland section named Ding Dong Dell that it looks exactly as you’d hope a Ghibli game to appear. It’s quite the feat the two teams have performed here; the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a game looking like an anime (and a Ghibli one, jeepers).

With all that attention to graphical detail, the emotional and involved storyline and that perfect animation you’d wonder if Level 5 managed to find any time to work on gameplay. It seems it did though, as playing Ni No Kuni is as dreamlike as the fantastical landscapes it possesses.

Oliver traverses the spirit world with both party characters and familiars; both can be picked up along the way. Familiars can be summoned at point in battle, but unlike the system in that other JRPG, the creatures are fully controllable and can be moved around the arena. Indeed, Ni No Kuni’s battle sequences are refreshingly kinetic, and the combat has ditched the fully turn-based system oft-associated with role-players for something a little more dynamic.

When a battle begins, the game switches to an arena mode within which your character can fully move around. Oliver is capable of attacking his enemies, as are his party members (you’re allowed a maximum party of three), but the familiars both he and his new friends can summon are often decidedly more powerful when it comes to elemental damage or boast specific skills you might want to take advantage of.

The three basic commands I had available for use with Drippy were “Attack!”, “Defend” or “Cut Loose”, the latter being a special powerful attack. You’re also able to tell Oliver to “Run Away”, “Defend”, “Attack” or enter sub-menus to casts spells or use provisions. At the point of my fight with the Guardian of the Woods (a huge green beast with a massively powerful special attack), I possessed Healing Touch, and Fireball spells. I also had a Strong Coffee, White Bread and a sandwich, a veritable packed lunch if you will.

Having three characters to control and several familiars to summon for each might sound like it could get a little complicated but Ni No Kuni doesn’t throw you in at the deep end, instead starting you off with just Oliver and a single familiar. There’s a host of different ways to play too, with automatic spell-casting an undoubtedly attraction option to those after combat with a little less ADD.

At its simplest the commands for automatic fighting available to send to your familiars include “Keep us healthy”, “Do what you like” and “Provide backup” but there’s a lot more where they come from. There’s serious depth here and as the game progresses the arsenal and options available to you only get more plentiful.

You will, upon occasion see a colored ball spill from the body of a foe in battle. These balls are collectible power-ups of different sorts; blue will heal health and green magic while gold glims grant the player an opportunity to perform an extra powerful special attack. The balls exist temporarily, so you’re required to make a quick decision on whether to take the risk of collecting them from the foot of your opponent.

If the combat system all sounds a little much at this point, don’t worry, everything is recorded in a spell book given to Oliver by Drippy (and don’t forget we’ll have a guide right here).

One part of the playthrough enabled me to reach the world map. The feelings invoked upon reaching it are comparable to those I felt the first time I got to the world map of Final Fantasy VII. There’s a sense of wonderment, awe and excitement accompanied by the realization that there’s a massively detailed non-linear world out there to explore, peppered with locations to visit and some of the most colourful characters you’re likely to ever come across in a video game.

The voice-acting is stupendously good, and I assure you, fully justifies the lengthy wait we’ve had to cope with. It’s clear that localization was considered somewhat of a priority for Namco Bandai from the minute you begin to play. Drippy even has a Welsh accent, which fits his endearing and friendly no-nonsense attitude perfectly. We’ve come a long way from “I hope this isn’t Chris’s blood!”

Ni No Kuni is a joy to play; a magical, endearing tale that’s sometimes sad, often funny and wholly absorbing. I wholeheartedly recommend it regardless of age, experience or level of role-playing enthusiasm – it could well change your mind.