Ni No Kuni, you're my only hope.
I've been waiting my entire career for Ni No Kuni—a classic JRPG with a gorgeous overworld, wondrous animations, a heartwarming story, and most of all, the potential to resurrect the once illustrious genre. No offense to the open-world RPGs from Bethesda and choice-based RPGs from BioWare, but there's just something magical about the classic JRPGs of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Chrono Trigger that has been lost over the last five years, something Ni No Kuni has in spades.
Studio Ghibli is internationally known for their charming hand-crafted animations, from Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, to Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies. So it won't surprise fans that its partnership with Level-5 has graced Ni No Kuni with gorgeous cel-shaded environments and delightful characters. In fact, eight-year-old protagonist Oliver, seems plucked straight from Howl's Moving Castle, as if he were the bumbling child of Howl himself.
In line with traditional myth, Oliver loses his mother suddenly and is left meandering the shadows of his house, his eyes ready to swell with tears at the mere mention of her name. His aunt soon gives him a present on the porch, a stitched doll made by his mother. Back in his room, he soon sobs all over the doll, and to his surprise, it transforms into a real-life being who hops up and down with joy that Oliver has broken his curse.
From there, Oliver steps into the doll's world with the prospect that he could save his mother. Oliver's world and the doll's world are spiritually connected; if one person is resurrected in the one world, that person is resurrected in the other. Not only that, but he soon discovers that he has an uncanny knack for spellcasting. Thus begins his journey through mystic lands, including a village called Ding Dong Dell and a city full of cow people ruled by Her Moojesty. So yes, expect a lot of light humor too.
For a comparative description, Ni No Kuni is somewhere between Level 5's Rogue Galaxy and Dragon Quest VIII, with more than just a touch of Pokémon. In battle, Oliver and his party members can call out various familiars to do battle alongside them, with the player able to switch control between any of the familiars or party members at any time. Party characters and their familiars can have different abilities and spells, so it's important to choose the right character for the job. Case in point, if a familiar is knocked out, the party member controlling it is also knocked out.
Battle is a mix of real-time and turn-based action, in much the same way as Final Fantasy XII's combat system. All characters and familiars not in your direct control are governed by the AI and any loose tactics you assign (like "Attack!" or "Defend!"). Meanwhile, you or your familiar can cast certain abilities and spells, like Fireballs and various healing spells, in case you don't recover any health and mana by collecting green and red orbs on the ground.
The enemies themselves tend to be rather cute, fuzzy animals (like Baatender) that, for some reason, like to chase young magical boys on the overworld map. In any event, I noticed that some of these animals looked much like the familiars, so I'm willing to bet that there's some way for Oliver and company to capture these animals for their own. If true, I'm sure they'll call it friendship or something fluffy like that – anything but "slavery".
At any rate, Ni No Kuni has all the characteristics of a JRPG masterpiece that could last for weeks on end. Peering through the Key Items and various submenus, I found that Oliver needs to acquire various orbs symbolizing the different elements of the land and he must gather various lockets representing Courage, Enthusiasm, Restraint, and other conceptual qualities that have also been covered by Digimon crests. The demo also featured the ability to sail the high seas in Her Moojesty's ship, so there seems to be plenty of exploration as well. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch will ship exclusively on PS3 and simultaneously for North America and Europe some time in 2013.