Ni No Kuni is part old school JRPG part 'do we need another generation of consoles' JRPG. Visually it is a feast for the eyes. At times it's like playing a watercolour through well trodden old paths so many Final Fantasies have taken us down before. The difference here is that Ni No Kuni is a hybrid, developed by Level 5 and anime film makers Studio Ghibli. The latter have never been keen on one of their films being turned into a game but slowly warmed to the idea of Level 5 creating something new and unique. The result is an RPG with hidden depth and a story that gets close to being too soft and fluffy at times, without ever falling off the cute cliff.
The story, which holds the game together, is a simple one. Oliver is thirteen and living in Motor City (which looks like America circa 1950) with his mother. After tragedy strikes Oliver sobs onto a soft toy given to him by Mom and it springs to life. Mr Drippy (seriously) is a fairy from another world with a Welsh accent and a lantern on his nose. The other world needs saving and Oliver is soon whisked there. Before long he's off on a quest to change the outcome of the tragedy back home and bring peace to the land of magic and fairies.
The other world is delight. You move from area to area across a world map of such charm and beauty that it brought back memories of '97 and THAT world map in THAT game. There are no random battles here though, monsters are there to be seen and you can try and avoid a fight or charge on in. As you level up monsters will even start legging it away from you, which makes them much harder to catch. Oh yes, in a Pokemon like twist ten hours in to the game to gain the ability to capture 'familiars' and have them fight in your place. By the time you have three party members, each with three familiars, battles become more tactical. It's within this system all the depth is found. The story may feel like it's for kids but there's so much to do to make your familiars more powerful. Equipment can be crafted for them, they can be fed to help there growth and depending on who you put them with they'll become more powerful. Not all familiars are easy to catch either, whether you get the option or not is completely random and at times it feels like it's never going to happen as you chase a particular beast.
There is grinding to be done in Ni No Kuni. Certainly the bigger bosses, post game end, make it a necessity. The grinding, naturally, eats time and it can make the story seem quite disjointed but once all the fast travel options open up the games pace picks back up again.
Side quests help to bring the world to life and although there's an element of 'go here, bring me that and I'll give you this' to it some of them are just so damn lovely in tone you won't mind a bit.
The voice acting, when you get it, is superb, it's just a pity there's not more of it. Drippy in particular is a brilliant creation, he and Oliver are great leads and the supporting cast are all equally likeable cliches.
Between them Studio Ghibli and Level 5 have made a beautiful, warm, JRPG which as well as taking you back to those heady days with Cloud, makes you wonder quite why we're getting a new Playstation announced this week.
An early contender for game of the year.