There's something majestic about the film library produced by Studio Ghibli. Whether it's the master works of the dynamic Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle) or one of the studio's other works (Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns), they've produced some incredible anime films over the years, many of which are getting a re-release here in the United States thanks to Disney. Now their work is just about to spread into another medium, as they've worked with Namco Bandai and the developers at Level-5 (the studio behind Rogue Galaxy, White Knight Chronicles and the Professor Layton games) on a thrilling action/role-playing game called Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.
The game's been out in Japan for a few months now, but Namco is working with Level-5 on its localization to the U.S. market. We'll have to wait a few months to see it in action but it'll no doubt set the mark high just as Miyazaki and his fellow directors have done with their movies. In fact, making it interactive could be the next great thing for the studio as players can actually partake in this dazzling world.
The story sounds like something straight out of a Miyazaki tale. In Wrath of the White Witch you play as Oliver, a young boy who finds himself abandoned when his mother passes away. Crushed and alone, the boy bawls his eyes out with some of his tears striking the only possession he has left from his mother: a stuffed animal. Miraculously, the tears actually have a magical effect and the toy springs to life. Introducing itself as Mr. Drippy, it informs Oliver that he's been summoned from another world where every being on his planet have "familiars," or secondary versions that are like carbon copies. The creature offers to help Oliver on his journey over into that second world where the "other" version of his mother is dwelling – and could very well provide the answer to her resurrection in his current universe.
It sounds complex but it's really a great starting point for an action/role-playing game and is unlike anything you've experienced before, even if you're used to Level-5's offerings from the PlayStation 2 and 3. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has you start out as a two-person party, later giving you the opportunity to team up with other "familiars", which you'll need to do as you take part in battles with other creatures and mysterious beings.
The game features a simple enough battle system, one where each “familiar” has balance within this quirky little world. Some of them work on the defensive, healing each member of their party or protecting them while others can strike using a series of traits like fire spells, wind spells, melee attacks and more depending on the character. Each "familiar" is different from the next, not unlike the Pokemon series (but obviously with Studio Ghibli's design) but the battles follow the more traditional RPG conventions like the ability to defend and attack while activating certain skills and keeping each party fairly balanced, so no one bows out to damage.
The gameplay in Wrath of the White Witch is easy for anyone to play even if you aren't grasping the traditional action/role-playing set-up. Your battle party will change during your journey, though Oliver and Mr. Drippy will no doubt be the mainstays - why depart with such charming folks, anyway?
Obviously the big draw to Ni No Kuni is the inclusion of Studio Ghibli's animation work. Level-5 worked painstakingly hard to develop this universe in the right sort of way and it really pays off over the course of your journey, whether you're stopping to gather the sights or running off to the next part of the alternate world. The animation is smooth and beautiful steeped with a sense of wonder that Studio Ghibli knows so well, really drawing you into the game's universe.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to try a demo of the game just yet so we're unsure how the English dialogue will turn out. The music (composed by Studio Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi) should be up there with some of Studio Ghibli's best standards and Namco Bandai knows how to cast good anime game (between their Naruto and Dragon Ball Z game releases), so we're probably in for a well-chosen cast.
The wait for Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch isn't too far off, as the game is slated for an early 2013 release. If you're curious, check out the import version in the meantime - its gameplay is easy to figure out and its impeccable animation really goes a long way in making you feel welcome. That's Studio Ghibli for you – grabbing hold and not letting go as it tells its remarkably story.