Level 5's hotly anticipated JRPG, Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch, has been the cause of much excitement in the gaming world, mostly because of the developer's collaboration with the much-loved Studio Ghibli. What fan of Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle could resist finally getting the chance to completely immerse themselves within Ghibli's fantastically surreal landscapes and the strange characters that dwell within?

Publsihers Namco Bandai kindly invited The 405 to play the first three hours of the game at their HQ in Hammersmith, and what a three hours it was.

The first thing I notice is the unmistakable music of Joe Hisaishi played by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Aside from animation style, the score has always been one of the most effective tools used by Studio Ghibli to create the unique feel of their films, so it's great that Level 5 have managed to sign up someone who is essentially the "sound" of so many classic stories. I defy anyone to watch Spirited Away without welling up at least once when the orchestra swells.

The good news is that if you're new to RPGs, and just want to wallow in Ni No Kuni's story without having to grind your way around the map building up your stats, then there's an Easy option available where gamers who aren't used to the RPG mechanic, or young children, won't feel too out of their depth. I opted for the normal mode, as I like a bit of a challenge and (mistakenly, I might add) figured "how challenging can a Studio Ghibli JRPG be?" But more on that later.

PhotobucketThe game kicks off in full swing. You are the game's protagonist Oliver, a child of about 10 or so, and you've just arrived in the titular Ni No Kuni, where a herd of fantastical creatures are stampeding towards you and your aggressively welsh companion, Drippy. As the stampede rushes past you, leaving you untouched, the player is taken back in time, to where the game's story begins: the town of Motorville. As opening cut scenes go, it's a great introduction - any doubts that Studio Ghibli may have held back on the artwork are laid to rest as you marvel at the majestic landscape stretching out before you in the first panoramic reveal. Even the stampede is gorgeous. But cut scenes are cut scenes, and as anyone who's played any game ever can tell you, they mean nothing if the game play animation looks like it's been designed by somebody with elbows for thumbs (I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy VII).

Thankfully, when I finally take control of Oliver in Motorville, it becomes clear that the same care and attention spent on the cut scenes has been afforded to the in-game animation. Obviously, the cut scenes are of a better quality - they could have been lifted straight out of one of Studio Ghibli's films - but the only way to maintain that ludicrously high standard would have been for Level 5 to abandon the JRPG element, and replace with point-and-click.

PhotobucketMotorville is a fully realised town, so anyone worried about getting stuck in a Final Fantasy 13 tunnel of mediocrity can breathe a sigh of relief. While you're given clear objectives, there's nothing stopping you from having a quick wander around the town, talking to NPCs and generally taking in the atmosphere. There's a mini map on screen, and due to the slightly frustrating fixed camera angle, you are going to be needing it - Oliver will often disappear behind scenery, but as long as you keep a close eye on the map in the corner, you'll soon find yourself on screen again. It's a slight niggle, but worth mentioning.

The voice acting is as good as can be expected from a Japanese to English regionalisation - they've not cut any corners, and the actors are of a high quality, but I am still happy to see that there will be an option to play with the original Japanese voice overs and English subtitles.

PhotobucketWhile the story is primarily aimed at kids, it rarely pulls any punches. Less than an hour into the game, Oliver's mother dies as a result of saving his life. She suffers heart failure, leaving him an orphan. The death of a parent in a cartoon is much easier to deal with when it's an animated Deer (though, not that much more), so if your child is of a sensitive nature this might be something to bear in mind. Especially as it (unsurprisingly) upsets the now orphaned Oliver so much that he holes himself up in his room, crying his heart out as he tries to come to terms with the fact he may be responsible for his mother's death - pretty heavy shit to lay on a kid. The music and the animation don't make it easier. Had I not been in a room surrounded by other writers, I've no doubt I'd have been in danger of shedding a couple of tears myself (but then, I get emotional at everything these days - I found myself welling up to Good Will Hunting a few weeks ago, but then Robin Williams' beard is terrifying in that movie). Then, the game snaps you out of it - Oliver comes across a stuffed toy given to him by his mother to keep him company while she was out at work, as we find out in a tender flashback (seriously, the woman was a saint - if you're not even slightly moved by her death, take the game out of your console and throw it away, you stone hearted sociopath!) When Oliver's tears land on the toy it comes to life, and turns out to be the companion we saw at the beginning of the game - Drippy, the inexplicably Welsh king of the Faeries!

PhotobucketDrippy is ridiculously Welsh. He's so Welsh, that the subtitles add extra syllables to his dialogue, in case you missed how rip-roaringly Welsh his accent is. He's also, for all his good intentions, a bit of a bastard. The first thing he does is snap Oliver out of his mourning period by calling the poor boy a cry baby. His mother is barely cold in the ground, and his newly animated cuddly toy is telling him to get his act together. For good reason, it turns out - but still. Drippy sets into motion Oliver's quest by giving him a book of spells - there's a good chance that the young boy can become a wizard, travel to the magical parallel world of Ni No Kuni, and bring his mother back to life. So, off they set and here we are back at the game's introductory cut scene.

PhotobucketHere we arrive at the meat and potatoes of all JRPG - the open world map and combat mode. Encounters with the open world's wild life aren't random, as you can plainly see them wandering across the landscape. However, if they notice you they will rush to attack, so your best bet is to try and sneak behind them to get the first hit. The monsters in the first area map are fairly easy to deal with, and they effectively lulled me into a false sense of security. The battle system is turn based, and the controls are fairly traditional. The only time it started to get slightly complicated was later on in the game when Oliver is given the power to summon companions. I felt the first strike could be a little slow, even during a sneak attack on an enemy, as the player has to select which of his party he wants to use: Oliver, or one of his companions. Each companion has their own strength, and it becomes apparent from battle to battle, and with the help of on screen prompts, which one is more suited to which adversary.

PhotobucketAcutely aware that I only had 90 mins or so left before I had to put my controller down, I decided to take on my first quest by heading to the only city visible in the background - Ding Dong Dell (with a cat for a King - there's a lot of fairytale crossover in the game). This sets into motion a series of events that slowly reveals the true nature of the quest at hand - a dark Djinn is having an adverse effect on the people of Ni No Kuni, leaving them unmotivated after having part of their soul sucked out of them (sleep tight, kids). Thankfully, Oliver has the power to reinvigorate them by targeting people with excess enthusiasm (for example), and using what they have spare to pass on to the NPC who is lacking. This is all explained in game, and in Oliver's spell book. So, to use another example, if you were to find a character who'd been struck down by boredom you would be able to cure him by seeking out another character with an excess of excitement.

PhotobucketThe first quest went without a hitch, I survived all my enemy encounters, managed to level up to my satisfaction, and gained access to the first town proper. Towns in the parallel world of Ni No Kuni slightly mirror their real world counterparts in terms of characters, events and setting - if you've read The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, you should be fairly familiar with the concept. One quest requires you to go back home to Motorville to advance your quest in Ni No Kuni; you just need to keep an eye out on people and events that seem to be linked between the two worlds.

As I advanced into my final hour with the game, I hit a brick wall. Due to time constraints, I had ignored the first rule of JRPG, which is to fight as many battles as possible before moving on to the next part of the story. As such, I was grossly outclassed by monsters in my last hour. I was having to think tactically, when to run, what magic to use and when to strike. Magic is finite, and refills aren't as plentiful as you'd hope. Drippy will help out during battles by throwing you the odd orb of health or manna, and succesfully landed hits will also sometimes result in the enemy spawing refills, but if you find yourself in an area where you need magic to solve a puzzle AS WELL AS combat, you'll soon find yourself staring at a game over screen before proceeding to the most recent checkpoint (which aren't as frequent as you might expect). It was a real eye opener, and showed me that the developers have taken this game very seriously indeed. Sure, it holds your hand for the first couple of hours, but once you properly get started, you'd better get good fast and remember to grind against foes that can't kill you in a couple of hits.

PhotobucketThen, my time was up. I put down the controller, and went back to my mundane life having racked up three hours of game play in a world I didn't want to leave. Level 5 and Studio Ghibli have created a game that not only looks beautiful, but one that will appeal to children and hardcore gamers alike. Whether the rest of the game holds up to the first few hours, well you'll have to wait until the game's released on the PS3 on January 25th to find out. In the mean time, check out the demo on the Playstation Network.