A young boy's journey to bring his mother back to life becomes an animated epic in the interactive juggernaut Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Namco Bandai Games America and Level-5, reviewed for PlayStation 3, Rated E10+, $59.99).
This pure Japanese-influenced, role-playing game plunges a single player into a lush, anime universe and in control of Oliver, a 13-year-old from the quiet, 1950s town of Motorville.
After his mother Allie dies rescuing him from drowning (she literally collapses from a broken heart), Ollie finds himself on a great adventure in a mystical, parallel world to revive her.
It's a poignant story of courage and confidence-building balanced by the hijinks of our protagonist's companion, a bulbous fairy with a thick Welsh accent (and lantern dangling from this nose) named Mr. Drippy.
While mourning his mom, Ollie sheds tears that fall upon a stuffed animal that turns into this wise-cracking, helpful imp.
Mr. Drippy now whisks the fledgling hero to the lands of Ni no Kuni where magic and anthropomorphic characters reign supreme. He also mentors Oliver on becoming a wizard to ultimately defeat the evil Dark Djinn Shadar and rescue Allie.
With art design from Studio Ghibli, the same creative powerhouse that delivered the full-length "Spirited Away," the result is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous landscape to play in with a wide-eyed protagonist on perpetual quests that Gandalf would admire.
Just like any serious role-playing game, resource management, character communication and combat are essential to gaining skills and experience to level up and hone a wizard's powers.
Combat stays fresh amidst nonstop confrontations with whimsical menaces by mixing real-time action and turn-based events to keep the player busy for hours a session.
While in the middle of battle, a player interchanges between Oliver and his newfound collection of familiars (Mr. Drippy remains out of the frays) to fight with.
A player chooses from text bubbles to deliver attacks, cast spells or defensive moves against a wide range of bizarre creatures such as Sleepeafowl, Ruff, Minor Byrde, Rhinosaur, Baatender, Inphant, Whippersnapper, Najas (Heliotosis) and Jabbers.
For example, during a typical ambush by a pair of Oroborus (rolling snakes biting into their tails) hiding in the forest, I chose the spry familiar Mitey to strike with his wooden sword quickly.
Enemies drop lighted orbs called glims during the action and picking them up reloads health and magic meters. Final blows to the foes were delivered by using Oliver's fire spell and each fallen aggressor burst into a puff of smoke as they perished.
Run out of health points in battle and go unconscious and lose a percentage of your gold guilder collection to return to fight again.
Anyone accustomed to Pokemon will be right at home here with familiars that need to be fed treats to increase skills and managed to learn new tricks and reveal miracle moves.
With towns, forests, castles and dungeons to visit, stuff to acquire (in your bottomless bag), clothes to upgrade, environmental puzzles to conquer, spells to perfect and kings to rescue, it's an all-encompassing challenge, requiring a serious time commitment.
Specifically, tasks can involve collecting gold gilders to buy items, taking on a variety of side missions, and bounty hunts to eliminate specific monsters, collecting stamps on merit cards to retrieve awards, staying overnight at an the chain of Cat's Cradle Inns for a needed rest, conversing with spirits, concocting spells with a cauldron by finding the right combination of items and munching on a loaf of bread to restore health.
In one mission, to get into the Cat King's town Ding Dong Dell, I had to borrow enthusiasm from another guard by casting the Take Heart spell and liberating some of the consenting subject's essence. Then, use a locket and the Give Heart spell to restore balance to a broken-hearted guard.
The game is big on compassion and helping further referenced by such spells as the Healing Touch, used to heal wounds with, as described in the game, "a warm touch of kindness."
Additionally, a player will gleefully enjoy the reading required from not just the onscreen character dialogue but also a fully illustrated virtual reference manual loaded with timeless wisdom called the Wizard's Companion.
The massive tome, more than 300 pages, presents hours of details tied to all parts of the universe with easy navigation, bunches of classic illustrations, a creature compendium, stories and enough multisyllabic words to get parents involved in the fun.
Topping off the traditional cartoon visuals and exceptionally fun interactive package is a musical score by Joe Hisaishi fueled by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra that not only greatly adds to the action but also rivals any fantasy movie soundtrack I've heard.
Of course, the payoff is a family-friendly game with a lead character any youngster can relate to, one that learns to conquer fear, minds his manners and works on becoming the best boy wizard possible.
Parents won't mind that he's also on a chronic mission to do good in the parallel universes, a refreshing change of pace from some of the much less noble video games available.
It's hard not to imagine that any 10-year-old would not immediately fall in love Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. An epic that liberally plucks the heart strings as it taps into some of the best elements from "The Wizard of Oz," "Alice in Wonderland" and a pinch of "Harry Potter."
It's an imaginative role-playing journey worth investing in and one of the best games available for the PlayStation 3 in a long time.
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