‘Ni No Kuni’ dazzles both new, old gamers

Reviewer’s Rating: ★★★1/2

Do you enjoy the animated films of venerated Studio Ghibli? Films like “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away?” If so, then I have two nuggets of good news for you. One, your sense of childlike wonder is alive and well, and two, Ghibli has collaborated with the game studio Level-5 to craft a jaw-droppingly beautiful game that will appeal to younger gamers and those who are looking to rekindle the feelings they had when they first started gaming years ago.

One of the best things about “Ni No Kuni” is that its protagonist, Oliver, is not an overdressed and emotionally underdeveloped teenager or a silent protagonist, the likes of which seem to dominate most Japanese RPGs, or role-playing games.

Oliver lives in Motorville, USA, with his mom and tends to say things like “neato” and “jeepers creepers.” Lots of fantasy stories hinge on the idea that the hero’s pure heart can save the world, but “Ni No Kuni’s” Oliver is one of the few that seems to make such an idea plausible.

Oliver is just a good-hearted boy who is thrust into a fantastical situation when a doll given to him by his mother comes to life and reveals that there’s a whole other world living parallel to Oliver’s own.

Oliver travels with the loud-but-lovable fairy Drippy (whose slang and thick Welsh accent make him one of the most likable sidekicks in video game history) and goes on a quest to learn enough powerful magic to stop the evil wizard Shadar and save the other world. It’s typical RPG fare, but the story is made interesting by the fact that every person he meets in the magical other world has a counterpart in the real world, and his quest requires hopping back and forth to solve problems from both ends.

Brave though Oliver may be, he’s still just a little kid with a wand and a few spells. Fortunately, he can recruit the pint-sized beasties he encounters on his journey to fight for him. If that sounds a little like “Pokemon,” well, that’s because it is. Oliver and his comrades can each have one of these critters at a time fight for them, and mixing and matching the combinations, as well as knowing when to cast a spell or two, makes up the bulk of the combat.

It’s fun enough, but it also feels derivative and is probably the weakest aspect of “Ni No Kuni.” On the other hand, the simplicity and traditional feel of the combat meshes well with the game’s main goal, which is to bathe the player in waves of old-school RPG nostalgia.

One look at the anime-like graphics, charmingly simple characters and the game’s lush locales makes the Studio Ghibli influence clear. Few games are as whimsical, as full of wonder and as downright pleasant as this one. Young children whose attention can’t be held by some of the grimmer and more technical RPGs out there, and fans of Ghibli who don’t normally play video games will absolutely love this game. There’s even an easy mode for people who just want to enjoy the world and the story. While the narrative itself isn’t particularly groundbreaking, the characters are vivid and interesting, like a fat tomcat who is a king in the magical world and likes to be referred to as “Your Meowjesty.” “Ni No Kuni” is funny in the way that a good Disney movie is funny, and it lends the game a lighthearted tone that keeps it from ever feeling like a gloom-and-doom save-the-world quest.

The game sounds almost as good as it looks, with quality voice actors and a score from beloved Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi, who created the soundtracks for the Studio Ghibli films.

All in all, it hammers home the fact that, while the combat in “Ni No Kuni” is a little dusty, the presentation is phenomenal. Those looking for an adventure that their kids will love or that will make them feel like a kid again should step into the magical world of “Ni No Kuni.”