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The first video game by Oscar-winning animation team Studio Ghibli, Ni No Kuni is a sublime, character-driven adventure that gives a new lease of life to Japanese role playing games.
Have you seen Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle or My Neighbour Totoro? If you haven’t, you should really try to rectify that situation. They’re wonderful, heartbreakingly sweet films; the kind that leave you feeling like you’ve just swallowed a slice of sunshine pie. They’re the work of Studio Ghibli, the Oscar-winning animation studio which stands as Japan’s rough equivalent to Pixar. And Ni No Kuni is its first video game, developed in partnership with games studio Level-5.
Without this pre-amble there’s a good chance that you’d read the game’s title, frown at the seemingly meaningless quartet of syllables, and then move on to something else. ‘Ni No Kuni’ roughly translates as ‘Second World’, but to be honest that barely does a better job of selling the experience on offer. No, to understand the game’s appeal, you need to see it in motion, to see the animation come to life under your control.
The game’s beauty cannot be overstated. As Japanese role playing games go this does little to rock the boat, offering the usual mix of exploration, turn-based battles, and character-driven storytelling. But its sublime child-like art direction, graphics and animation give even the most familiar ingredients a new lease of life. There’s a subterranean steampunk city, for example, and though we’ve seen this kind of location a dozen times before, it feels fresh because it’s a Studio Ghibli subterranean steampunk city. And because it’s populated with sinister anthropomorphic pigs.
You’ll care about the central story - a young boy explores a strange land in search for his mother, who gave her life to save him. But Ni No Kuni’s world is so charming in its details, there’s pleasure to be found in even the quietest moments – when you’re simply pottering around on the map screen, for instance.
If you’re looking for an antidote to the chilly come-down of New Year, this is the perfect tonic.
Neon Kelly is deputy editor at Videogamer.com