What does a four gigabit DS cart get you? If my demo session yesterday with Ni no Kuni: Another World is any indication, the answer is, just about the best visuals and sound ever seen on the DS.
Ni no Kuni is a gorgeous game, nicely combining solid 3D character models with vibrant hand drawn backdrops. The game's presentation is, all around, first class, with character profile overlays showing off the attractive character designs.
Outside of the in-game visuals, Level-5 is doing something very right with the game's movies. I usually hate seeing the DS get a major RPG that's filled with video cut scenes, as the compression ruins the experience. Not so with Ni no Kuni. The video sequences I saw -- and there were a lot of them -- looked nice and crisp.
The game appears to limit its movies to a single screen, which I think is a good thing. I personally can't keep up with some games that like to spread their sequences to both the top and bottom screen.
We were all expecting Ni no Kuni to look good. Level-5 have shown a mastery of producing clean visuals on the DS, and adding in Studio Ghibli art and animation to the mix could only improve that. But what was most shocking to me during my play experience was the sound. The game's music is fully orchestrated, as performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic, and is reproduced perfectly on the DS. The quality is beyond anything I've ever heard on the system. But more than that, the game also does some interesting things with composition, including a stirring classical battle theme.
Level-5 doesn't appear to be shy about the game's aural quality. When you start off the demo, you're given a suggestion that you should play the game with headphones rather than through the DS's internal speakers. This is one warning you'll want to follow (thankfully, Level-5 had the demo kiosks set up with headphones).
On top of all the video use, there seems to be plenty of voice in the game. Most of the scenes during the demo -- even the in-game stuff -- were voiced. The voice quality seems to be high, but this is to be expected given the cart size.
So is this just a graphical and aural tour de force courtesy of Studio Ghibli? I obviously can't say for sure given my thirty minutes play time, but there does seem to be a gameplay-packed RPG underneath the gorgeous package.
The demo, which I believe could be the opening of the game, begins with an introduction told through narration and stills. Oliver and his stuffed-animal-come-to-life Shizuku are set to head off to the world of Ni no Kuni. But in order to open the door to that world, you have to input a spell.
Normally, you'd get this spell by consulting a hardbound book that will ship with the game. But, as explained prior to the start of the demo, Level-5 made special arrangements for the demo build, allowing you to view a sample drawing of a spell directly on the top screen as you draw on the bottom.
Your first spell is simply a horseshoe symbol with a line running down the middle. Input it, and the game jumps immediately into a video sequence showing Oliver and Shizuku entering the alternate world. Most of the early play experience from there has Shizuku guiding Oliver around as you attempt to make your way out of a forest. Along the way, you meet a giant talking tree, befriend a new ally of sorts (more on that below), and fight a giant one-eyed beast.
These are two scenes from the demo.
The demo boss fight (left) and the spell input system (center). To the right, a screen showing the quest system.
You control Oliver either with the stylus or through the d-pad. Opt for the stylus, and a Dragon Quest IX-style arrow appears on the screen, showing the direction you're leading the character.
The game has random encounter battles, with enemies invisible in advance. The encounter rate was turned up a bit too high for my liking in the demo. I'm actually not a big fan of random encounters, so I was disappointed by this, but at least the stirring battle score managed to get me into things.
The turn-based combat system puts Oliver, Shizuku and it seems like just one other character on the bottom screen, facing off against enemies on the top screen. In the demo, the number of enemies reached just two, but this was presumably due to being at an early point in the game.
You select your side's moves all in one go. As a nice touch, the characters turn to face the screen when you're selecting their move then turn back to face the enemy when you've moved on (this is actually the first thing that stood out to me when I saw someone playing the game ahead of my session).
Ricchie, the Imagine you encounter in the demo.
Your moves are selectable via easy-to-touch panels. All characters have access to attack, item, and defense, but some have additional moves. Oliver can also cast magic, and starts off with heal and fire magic spells. Along the way, you meet a special ally character named Ricchie, who also has access to special skills -- in this case, an attack that does damage to all enemies.
Characters like Ricchie are known as "Imagines," and they actually play a part role in the game's story, as they're apparently tied closely to Oliver's heart. What this means in terms of gameplay is that you can build them up outside of battle using a "Growth Box," that's selectable from the main menu screen.
The demo introduced a few additional gameplay systems outside of battle. While not actually available for use, Shizuku explains the game's Alchemy Pot, which allows you to blend items together. Shizuku also details a "Hero Point" system, where you earn points for performing good deeds. In the demo, Shizuku suggests that you clear out some poison bushes so that subsequent travelers will be able to pass through.
Scenes from beyond the demo. The bird to the right appears to be the game's item shop.
The main menu also made mention of something called "quest notes." Screenshots released by Level-5 confirmed that the game does have a quest system, with Oliver asked to perform optional tasks.
After a few battles and running around through the forest, I came upon a boss which required quite a few hits for the kill. Following this, I was able to leave the forest and head out into the main world, presented as a fully 3D map which you can freely navigate. Of course, you'll end up getting into random battles here too, but the encounter rate appears to be lower.
My play time ended just as I approached a town. The demo wasn't actually over, though. I was the last one remaining in the event hall and decided that I should probably leave.
This Level-5 Vision demo is actually the same demo that will be distributed to players at the Tokyo Game Show. There seems to be a whole lot of gameplay in there. That's a good thing, as players will have to wait until Spring 2010 for the full version.