When I first heard that Studio Ghibli and Level 5 were developing an RPG for PS3, I was ecstatic. Level 5, which has the Professor Layton series, two Dragon Quest titles, and numerous other accomplishments under its collective belt, has clearly established itself as a leader among independent fantasy-oriented games developers. And Studio Ghibli, of course, is responsible for such classic Japanese animated films as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, almost every other Hayao Miyazaki movie you could possibly imagine, Grave of the Fireflies, and numerous others. If you've ever seen one of these and have any semblance of a human soul, you are aware that any Studio Ghibli film is not "just a film".
Clearly, this game is a Big Deal, and reports from the first few days of the DS release- it came out Dec 9- are already looking generally favorable. It was released only in Japan, and has not yet been translated into any other languages, so the rest of us are just going to have to wait. However, a translation of the first 15 minutes reveals the setup of the story, involving a 13 year-old boy named Oliver.
Oliver lives a fairly ordinary life with his mother in what appears to be a suburban town. Oliver's mother has to work a lot, and Oliver spends a lot of time with his friend, whose name I think is Mark, but it was difficult to tell. I'm going to call him that anyway for now. Mark is a delivery boy, and has a very interesting car that he appears to have built himself, in which he makes deliveries, while Oliver tags along.
While the boys are driving down the road in the evening, the wheels come loose from the car, and it rolls down the hill into a lake. Mark manages to jump out, but Oliver is trapped. Oliver's mother, who has been taking a nap after work, is suddenly awoken by her mom-voodoo, which not only lets her know that her son is in danger, but guides her to the exact spot. She dives into the water and rescues him, only to suffer a heart attack and die just as she sees Oliver wake up.
Naturally, Oliver is inconsolable. He will not come out of his room, not even to talk to Mark, and instead dotes on a stuffed creature that his mother gave him when he was little. Except, of course, that the plushie is really a fairy named Shuzuku, who tells Oliver that if he follows him to "Ni no Kuni" (which translates roughly to "second country", but is implied to be some sort of alternate universe), where he might have a shot at bringing his mother back to life.
This is where I broke off. I've seen only scattered bits of gameplay footage beyond this point. The combat appears to be turn-based. In the DS version, Oliver can be moved with either the stylus or the directional buttons, so I would imagine this would be the case in the PS3 version, substituting joysticks for the stylus. Or potentially the Playstation Move, just to keep things interesting? This is definitely an option I'd like to see. One of the things that I enjoy about the Wii is that playing an RPG can be such a profoundly different experience than the traditional "Hit O to block and X to attack" mechanics, which are still fairly standard for PS3 RPGs, even though games are starting to make a lot more use of the motion-enabled Sixaxis controller, Fl0w and Flower being two prime examples.
The rest of the available story-related information makes certain things in the game seem very similar to other RPGs. There is reportedly a magic book involved, which is a key element in Nier. The setup, which could be phrased thusly: "travel to an alternate universe/magic land to save your recently dead mother", could just as easily be describing the game Folklore.
However, this is Level-5 we're talking about. Not to mention Studio Ghibli. These guys don't need to derive plots from pre-existing games, so I have no doubt that the overlap will be negligible. In fact, one could argue that, relative to most other movies intended for children, Studio Ghibli has consistently created some of the most original films out there, very rarely relying on archetypes or contrived plot devices, but instead letting the plot evolve from an initial scenario with a particular theme or two (usually involving environmentalism of some sort) in mind, as though the writers got that far, and then decided to channel the spirit of Coleridge and just dream the rest. I mean this in the best possible way; many of the stories in Studio Ghibli films are so beautiful and bizarre, they could only come from dreams.
And so, this is my biggest hope for Ni no Kuni: I hope that the experience of playing it is every bit as dreamlike as watching a Studio Ghibli film for the first time. I hope that the characters are every bit at nuanced and complicated, I hope the magic fairy world is dazzling to look at, and most of all, I hope to completely lose myself in it, but only after having been lost for several hours without even noticing, because it was so engaging. It's been far too long since I was utterly taken with an RPG, and so I find myself pinning a potentially unreasonable amount of hope on this game, and the idea that it won't be "just a game".
Official Ni no Kuni Trailer shown at TGS 2010
Unfortunately there is no audio in any of the gameplay videos
Ni no Kuni Gameplay Video #1
Ni no Kuni Gameplay Video #2
Ni no Kuni Gameplay Video #3
Ni no Kuni Gameplay Video #4