That huge lobster looks daunting

It's been four long years since Level-5 announced its Studio Ghibli collaboration project, Ni No Kuni, during an interview with Japanese Famitsu magazine. In the time since then, Namco Bandai has been working hard to bring it to North America and Europe. So how are things shaping up so far?

It was expected that a partnership with Studio Ghibli would result in gorgeously detailed anime cut scenes, but it’s remarkable how captivating the opening sequences of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch are. The title begins by thrusting you into the depths of a tear-provoking scene, putting you into the shoes of young Oliver, whose mother has died in a tragic accident. Struck by grief, Oliver cries alone in his room, transforming his toy into a living fairy named Drippy. Drippy gives Oliver magical powers and leads him into the parallel universe of Ni No Kuni, where he pledges to bring back his mother, hinting at possible twists between the two worlds.

The anime scenes are reminiscent of Studio Ghibli’s 1989 feature film Kiki’s Delivery Service in terms of animation style and character design. Yet once the gameplay stages begin, Ni No Kuni transforms into a graphically superior Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, immersing you into a bright, expansive world, teeming with monsters and quests.

While many Nintendo gamers were left reeling by publisher Namco Bandai’s decision not to release the Nintendo DS version overseas, it’s clear from the first few minutes that this was the right decision: Ni No Kuni’s rich cut scenes thrive on PS3, particularly in contrast to the dated DS version.

Even the sewers are cute

When roaming around the watercolour-style overworld, you’ll spot monsters waiting to attack. These can be avoided, but if you come into direct contact with them you’ll be whisked away into a separate battle mode. The battle system is a combination of real-time and turn-based combat, which sounds odd but works well; many RPG battle systems leave you feeling removed from the action, Ni No Kuni’s direct style helps to fully immerse you in the combat. The further you progress through the game, the more spells and assist characters you’ll unlock.

In addition to the strong combat and visual style, you’ll also be able to select from Japanese audio with subtitles, creating an authentic JRPG experience. However, those that prefer to play in English will be able to switch to a dubbed dialogue option.

If you’ve been waiting for a solid JRPG, then Ni No Kuni is certainly going to appeal. Its beautiful art style, empowering soundtrack and colourful overworld make it one of the most exciting propositions on PlayStation 3. You’ll get to sample its charms for yourself when the title releases early next year.