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Ni no Kuni: Shikkoku no Madoushi (DS)

I had first played Ni no Kuni (which literally means "Second Country") during the Tokyo Game Show in 2009. At the Level 5 booth, members of the press were allowed to play for a limited amount of time one of a few games that were back then still in production. Ni no Kuni was a game I was excited about, being that this game was designed with Ghibli Studios, and contained music by Jo Hisaishi. Needless to say, I spent the entire preview time playing only Ni no Kuni.

The game finally was released just a few months ago, in December of 2010. It's a bit pricey, the retail price of which was over 6,000 Yen, so I had been holding off on a purchase. However with Golden Week sales all over Japan, retailers had slashed the price of Ni no Kuni to just under 3,000 Yen. The cheapest I saw it for sale was 2,580 Yen, at Sofmap in Akihabara. That's where I got it.

I haven't played much of the game, though I felt I needed to write about it because Ni no Kuni provided me with the most fantastic box opening experience I've ever had in my entire life as a gamer.

First of all, this box is huge. It's 24x18x6 cm. It's like a PC game, back when they came in large boxes. So naturally I was so excited to see what was in this box.

Around the box is a thin paper cover. You take it out and the box becomes even more beautiful. From this point, I knew I was going to be astounded... it was beginning to more and more look like a product of Ghibli.

Then, inside the box, the first thing you see is this absolutely gorgeous book that looks like it came from another world.

This book is, by the way, hardbound. It's not just some paperback book. They really spent money on this. It's also 352 pages long!

The book, called the "Magic Master", contains all sorts of information such as a beastiary, information about items, how to perform spells, etc. And this isn't all just for show. This book is actually necessary to play the game. Sometimes during gameplay, you'll be asked to look for information on the book without which you wouldn't be able to make any progress (though you probably can with the aid of the internet).

The book is also beautifully crafted and contains artwork that truly resonates Ghibli's excellence in creating images of fantasy worlds. It's truly an inspired work of art. Here are some artwork from just a few pages of the book.

This is the title page.

Details found on the edges of the title page.

Second page:

Details from the second page:

A page from Chapter 1:

Close up of a section from the page above. This explains the process of healing a "Nukegarabito", which seems to be what you call people in Ni no Kuni who have been cursed.

It's an absolutely beautiful book, and I have been trying my best to handle it with utmost care. I'd like to keep it in mint condition. Opening this game box and finding this book inside it was such a special moment. Yeah, I know that sounds extremely dorky, but really, this experience made me feel like a kid again. The money I spent on this game has been well worth it, and I haven't even played the game yet when I made that conclusion!

For about an hour, I browsed through this book with awe and excitement, and I never even bothered to load the game into my DSi until later that evening. Clearly, for me, this game has already earned high marks for its artistic creativity and unique concept, as expected from anything created by Ghibli Studios.

As earlier mentioned, the book isn't just for show, but an integral part of the game. In the game itself, your character finds the same book, but everytime you need to look for information in the book, the game tells you to open your actual, real-life book. The in-game book cannot be used as a reference. This creates a sense of immersion as you have in your hands, an actual object that is used in the game, and you actually have to use it in real-life to make any progress. This to me is a brilliant idea.

However, while it is brilliant, and it helps give players a feeling of a real magical world, the concept of having to use a book along with your DS doesn't really make commercial sense.

The DS is a portable device. On the DS, most people would likely want to play games on the go, and many want to do so in short bursts. But to play this game means you also have to bring the book with you, and that's rather inconvenient.

Today on the subway, I brought my DS with me, but I didn't bring the book. And about 15 to 30 minutes into the game, I was asked to summon a spell, the method of which was in the book. So obviously, without the book, I couldn't go any further with the game. I shut my DSi off, and ended up playing Tiny Wings on my iPod Touch until I reached my destination.

Even if I were to bring the book with me, it would be inconvenient to have to sometimes stop playing the game and consult with a 352-page book on a crowded train. At home, it's a different matter. I can be much more engaged in a game at home than on a train, for example. I wouldn't have a problem browsing through the book for something every now and then at the comfort of my living room.

Then again, I haven't played much of this game yet. Perhaps later on, the book would not be as necessary as it has been at the early stages of the game.

The other problem I see with this is that, to need such a big book with so much information leads me to think that Ni no Kuni wants me to have a very immersive experience. That's not something most people look for in portable consoles. On home consoles or PC, that'll work. But for portables? For people like me, yes that's all fine and dandy, though I would assume that the majority of portable gamers (who are probably casual gamers) don't look for such engaging experiences on a handheld.

Maybe that's why this game hasn't been selling so well. Which is sad because I really like the whole concept of this game.

If you are a big fan of Ghibli, like I am, just having this book is worth it, even if you can't read it. I hope for our non-Japanese speakers out there that Level 5 will release Ni no Kuni (and the book) in English sometime in the future.

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