Revenant Kingdom features a youthful male heir in search of his stolen throne. While this type of story is a staple diet for Japanese fantasy games, Level-5 managed to develop a novel game series that resonated with audiences and critics alike, setting them up for comparison against JRPG giants like FINAL FANTASY, Suikoden, or the Fire Emblem series.
The original art style had everything to do with that. Both Ghibli and Level-5 were well-versed in creating original manga and anime art styles before production of the first Ni No Kuni game commenced. Level-5, although lesser known than the world-famous Ghibli studios, already was a household name with gamers who loved the Professor Layton and Inazuma 11 series: games in a 2D manga style that held their own on the crowded Japanese and international markets. However, producing 2D games was different from building an original 3D video game that had all the allure and pacing of the Ghibli anime, yet still was fun to play.
To do so, Level-5 had to re-create the 'charm of Studio Ghibli' productions in video game format, which required a lot of creative and technical tinkering. Ghibli's 2D cel-shaded anime look initially did not lend itself to 3D video game environments, for instance, leading to a search for the right ways to use lighting and shadows in the game. Also, character movement did not feel right when motion captured actors' performances were used in the game: no amount of acting could make characters seem comically 'clumsy' and adorable enough to fit the bill of an animated Ghibli character, leading to all sorts of technical corrections to strike the right balance between motion capture and Ghibli animation techniques.
In the end, the world of Ni No Kuni offers a beautiful fantasy setting that's as enchanting as it is different from other videogames. As the series of concept art prints offered by Cook & Becker clearly shows, the Ghibli design philosophy may have something to do with it. At pre-production, much time was spend on old-fashioned sketching and aquarelle painting, to get the mood right before (digital) production commenced. These charming, hand-drawn sketches have a beautiful quality of their own, and could easily be mistaken for children's' books illustrations.
As a result, the games apply the same soft color schemes as much of the Ghibli anime, and character designs share the 'chibi'-style (a style of manga and anime characters that look both 'cute' and 'super deformed') we know of great Ghibli titles like Howl's Moving Castle or Princess Mononoke. Moreover, there's an infusion of Ghibli-tropes and larger narrative motifs in the games that will feel all too familiar to Ghibli fans. Even though Ghibli's famed co-founder and film director Hayao Miyazaki claims to have had no part in Ni no Kuni's production, his well-documented artistic vision permeates the art direction of both games. The games' point of departure is the emulation of Miyazaki's tremendous pictographic sensibility, apparent in the lush and vibrant scenery in Ghibli's anime productions, and in the scaling of scenes in relation to their backdrops. But it's also no surprise the Ni no Kuni games share many of Ghibli's (and Miyazaki's) dominant motifs, such as the juxtapositioning of nature and technology, the empowerment of youth, or the loss of innocence.
Of course, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is much more than 'just' a Ghibli anime sprung to life. Its character-based storytelling (not to mention the complex battle systems driving the story) is as much Level-5 as it is Ghibli, in a classic case of a sum being bigger than its parts. In the final analysis, their combined work stands out as one of the most endearing video game productions around, radiating that Ghibli charm far beyond the shores of Japan.
Text by Arjan Terpstra - @ranja72