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'Ni no Kuni' is a bittersweet throwback to the world of a child's imagination

"Ni no Kuni" plays like a moving, breathing Studio Ghibli movie.


Level-5 and Studio Ghibli evoke beauty and childhood nostalgia in the world of "Ni no Kuni."

We were all children once, no matter how badly some don't want to admit it. The innocence of our worldly "newness" let us create worlds from thin air, taking inspiration from our own small lives and projecting our dreams onto the environment. Our imaginations were our best tools, and Studio Ghibli and Level-5's Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch made me ache to be little again, wide-eyed and powerful in my will to believe in magic.

Level-5's original idea for Ni no Kuni stemmed from the desire to create a game that celebrated the company. The publisher knew it wanted to create something special, so it reached out to the favored studio of author and animator Hayao Miyazaki, believing Studio Ghibli an excellent candidate in spinning a tale alluring in both story and gameplay.

Level-5 and Studio Ghibli worked closely throughout the development process, and the partnership is strikingly evident in the final product. Ni no Kuni's environments are beautifully stuffed with features down to the minutia on a messy desk and the cracks in the cobblestones, the level of detail akin to that Ghibli's animated films. After completion of the original DS game in 2010, Level-5 felt the world of Ni no Kuni would have an even greater impact in HD.

The company once again set up shop alongside Ghibli to render the title for the PlayStation 3. More side quests and explorable areas have been added to the PS3 version, but the core story remains the same. Another benefit of the console version is Oliver's magic spell book has been completely digitized, replacing the physical book containing instructions and hints that accompanied the DS release.

"Ni no Kuni" plays like a moving, breathing Studio Ghibli movie.

My demo began in the Golden Grove, a busy wooded path awash in warm color. Oliver and Drippy - the king of the fairies and Oliver's companion - were on their way to a city on the other side of the forest. Although it's Level-5's game at its core Ni no Kuni plays like a moving, breathing Studio Ghibli movie, feeling like an installment somewhere between My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo. The woods I was in were alive down to each fluttering golden leaf and quivering oversized mushroom. I wanted to be in Oliver's shoes, feeling the air and sunlight in this gorgeously animated world, with little Drippy tottering along behind me.

Combat is real-time and offers a lot of variety without being complex. Oliver can preemptively approach roaming enemies or wait for them to attack him - the first party to make a move gets the first strike. Oliver can choose to fight on his own or summon small creatures into battle called Familiars. Familiars can be obtained in the main storyline or tamed from the wild later in the game. Oliver can hack away with his weapon or use spells, each spell requiring a certain amount of charge and recovery time. When choosing spells or Familiars, however, combat will pause, giving players ample time to determine their next move. Players can also move freely in battle, making it easier to dodge attacks during recovery time.

Along his quest Oliver must collect pieces of heart. Pieces of heart are divided into types based on traits such a courage and happiness, and Oliver can obtain them from people who have an overabundance of a specific trait. The piece of heart can then be given to another person who lacks that trait.

Ni no Kuni is by no means a children's game. It was built to appeal to all ages, casting its spell of nostalgia on those who find bits of themselves in Studio Ghibli's works. The studio and Level-5 have done well to bring their RPG to the PS3, a console with the power to give justice to the game's fantastical environments and story. From what I played at E3, the emphasis on story and atmosphere is an assurance that Ni no Kuni isn't "just another RPG," but something with great potential to close the gap between video games and art.

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