Yesterday, a demo went up on the UK PSN for Ni No Kuni, a collaboration between Level-5 (of Professor Layton and Inazuma Eleven fame) and much-loved animation house Studio Ghibli (known for Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and many more), and I spent the day downloading it on my slow-as-all-hell PS3. Of course, I forgot that it then needed to install…

Yesterday, I wasn’t sure which demo it would be, from the two I have seen at a couple of different Expos this year. It turns out that the PSN demo is the one I saw fairly recently at the Eurogamer Expo at London’s Earl’s Court in September, which featured a forested level and a volcano section. This seems to be unchanged from what I saw at EGX, and unfortunately even carries the 25 minute time limit that was present in the build that was on the show floor.

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I eagerly plunged in though, starting with the first playable section, titled ‘An Errand for Old Father Oak’. As I’m sure you can guess, this would be the forest area I mentioned earlier. It starts off with a boss fight, against the wayward guardian of the forest, and if you don’t keep your distance, it’s very easy to lose – indeed, should the guardian get close enough to knock you down, he can hit you again before your character, Oliver, has a chance to get back up, effectively leaving you unable to do anything but wait for a KO.

Keep your distance, and you can throw out the odd fireball, heal or defend with plenty of time, or simply switch to your one and only familiar in this section, a tiny imp with a sword and cape named Marr Mite. Marr Mite can attack directly (as can Oliver, but it’s really not worth the effort), or use a special move called ‘Cut Loose’, which is more damaging but drinks up MP. This boss battle effectively works as a tutorial (so long as you don’t foolishly rush headlong into battle… ahem), and Oliver’s Welsh companion Drippy will chime in at a couple of points to tell you about defence or the items that occasionally pop out of the guardian after a number of hits. One of these items, a shining golden orb, allows Marr Mite to pull off a super move at no MP cost, which brings and end to the battle. The guardian, weary, trudges back into the forest, leaving Drippy and Oliver to wonder whether he’s back to his old self.

Next up is a chat with The Great Deku Tre… I mean, Old Father Oak, who gifts the pair with a stone tablet, which seems to serve as your in-menu manual and help system, as well as a magical locket (and the magic needed to use it) to help restore people’s hearts. Oliver thanks the great oak that looks a bit like a bird for some reason, and the pair leave for a place called Ding Dong Dell, where, with the help of the locket and spells, they plan to heal the heart of a down-on-his-luck guardsman.

We leave Old Father Oak’s grove and wander through the forest, and it strikes me that this is a lovely looking game. It’s not a massive technical achievement (characters and environments seem to be of fairly low poly counts, and textures aren’t massively detailed), but it’s a beautiful game nonetheless – bright, colourful and artistic, it looks like a cartoon brought to life, and if it reminds me of anything, it’s Tales of Vesperia with Ghibli’s art style.

That allusion to Vesperia strengthens when out on the world map. It’s strikingly similar to that other Namco-Bandai title, using a high bird’s eye view, with enemies visible on the field, but Ni No Kuni‘s world map does seem a bit more detailed than Vesperia‘s. It’s a short trek to Ding Dong Dell (which is a good thing, as the clock is still running), and as we reach the gate, we’re treated to a cutscene showing us the aforementioned depressed guard. Apparently, his colleague can’t open the gate without his listless friend, so people have started to pile up trying to get into the town. Drippy tells Oliver he must use his locket and new spells to borrow some of the happy-go-lucky guard’s enthusiasm, and give it to the other one. Which apparently is nowhere near as creepy as it probably should be.

With the guard back to his old self, the gate to Ding Dong Dell can be opened, and Oliver and Drippy can enter to… well, to nothing, as my timer runs down and my demo is over. Luckily, there’s another scenario to play through, ‘Eruption Interruption!’, which takes place on the appropriately-named Mountain of Fire.

Here, the aim is to get to the top of the mountain before it erupts, with Drippy stating (loudly and often) that we have but three minutes to reach the summit. So, off we set, with new addition Esther in tow, which adds another party member, as well as her familiars, to the battle party. This scenario obviously takes place further into the game, with Oliver now having command of three familiars, which helps to shake things up a bit. You can also swap between Oliver and Esther freely, commanding either them or their familiars, so it seems like the battle system should be fairly involved once you’ve gathered enough wee beasties and learned the basics.

Along the mountain path, enemies roam and jets of steam burst forth from cracks in the stone, slowing your ascent. It’s not particularly difficult to reach the top in under three minutes, though, and once you do, you learn an important lesson: Drippy lies! But that’s not your primary concern here: antagonist Shadar (who was briefly mentioned in the first demo level) shows up to, well, antagonise our heroes, calling up a massive fire beast called Moltaan to fight you. This battle is a bit tougher than the boss from the forest scenario, but here we have stronger and more numerous allies to call upon, so with careful use of provisions (hot coffee for MP, sandwiches and bread for HP), Oliver and Esther win through.

As Moltaan falls and writhes about in the pool of lava from whence he came, Oliver uses a spell to detach a massive boulder perched precariously above the beast. It falls on Moltaan’s head and buries him deep in the molten rock. Clearly, Oliver is not messing about. With that, the demo ends. I beat the clock!

I’m actually looking forward to this a little more now. At Eurogamer Expo, I watched a couple of friends play these two scenarios, and wondered if the battle system might be a little bit on the simplistic side. But having gone hands-on with it in a comfortable, quiet place, it seems like it should offer a good amount of depth. It looks as though we’ll be allowed three familiars in battle, so choosing and levelling up your best battle team across both characters will no doubt form the meat of the game.

Aside from that, it’s a genuine pleasure to look at, and the voice-acting (what little there is of it) is well-done – my only concern here is that the vast majority of dialogue in this demo is text-only. Hopefully, this will be rectified for the final release, otherwise Ni No Kuni may end up being a curiously silent game much of the time.

There’s little story in these demo chapters, but given that we’re getting two 25-minute slices with a boss battle, that’s to be expected. The interplay between characters seems to be of the usual high Ghibli standard, more so in ‘Eruption Interruption!’, as we have Esther along for the ride, but I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in when my copy arrives next month, and I hope to find another magical Ghibli fable, backed up with a beautiful world and solid mechanics.

Ni No Kuni releases in the UK on January 25th.

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