In case I wasn't already excited enough about the January 22, 2013, release of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, I was able to actually demo a section of the game at a special preview event held by Namco Bandai today. So basically, January 22 can't come soon enough!
The section of the game that I played through was a very linear area that sent you battling minor enemies up until the final boss, which was a forest spirit that you had to defeat to bring to its senses. By this point in the game which is about 30-40 minutes in, I was told Oliver already has some spells and a familiar, which he can send into battle.
Being a team-up of Level-5 and Studio Ghibli, I was really hoping that playing the game would be like playing a Miyazaki movie, and that's pretty much what it looks like. The characters are cel-shaded, and they move around a beautifully painted background. What I especially loved were the little character details such as when Oliver skips over rocks or wobbles a little as he carefully crosses a log. Clearly a lot of detail has gone into the animation here.
Battle is real-time, and you can see your enemies on-screen, occasionally giving you the opportunity to sneak around and surprise them from behind for a combat advantage. Unfortunately, they have the same opportunities! Entering battle, you can choose to take on the enemy yourself or send your familiar into battle for you. I tried both, and you can even switch between them during a battle with the L1 trigger. The triggers are also used to cycle through your combat options, like attack, magic attack, defend, and whatnot. But again, the battle is taking place in real time, so you want to act quickly. At least you're free to move around the battle area so as to avoid attacks and prepare your next assault.
Combat was pretty intuitive, and the adorable animations come into play again here, such as when Oliver pulls out his spellbook and waves his wand to cast a fireball. The boss was impressive and large, and because this was clearly still part of the tutorials, little Drippy was giving me advice throughout. During combat, enemies will release green and blue orbs which if collected, refill your health and magic meters. And at the end of the boss fight, the boss released a golden orb, which not only refills your meters, but lets you cast a super-powerful move. If every boss does this, I can see it being kind of cheap, but then again, you have to get them all the way down to a sliver of health before the drop it, so it's more like a fishing move instead of a special attack.
The event was held in a large room with various demo stations around, so I couldn't really get a good listen at the soundtrack, though. So I couldn't tell you if Joe Hisaishi's score is spectacular, although I assume it is. I did hear them speaking English, but don't worry there is an option to have the original Japanese audio track with subtitles. The cutscenes I viewed were all done with the in-game graphics engine, but I'm sure the animated cutscenes will blend well, because the in-game graphics do a fine job of replicating the Ghibli look.
After defeating the boss, I saw a quick demo of the world map, which is expansive, and contains various wandering enemies of different sizes that you can try to avoid or not depending on your mood. Although there was a really big one with antlers at the top of a mesa that I think I would probably avoid until I'd leveled up quite a bit more! There are towns to explore in this world and people to talk to and sidequests to do, but that was all left as a big tease for me. All I got to play was a quick linear combat level from early in the game.
Sadly, Namco Bandai doesn't have the rights to the 3DS game that was released in Japan, only the PlayStation 3 one. So while there's still no news on whether or not the portable game will hit US shores, we only have to wait five short months to play Ni no Kuni here in North America. Okay, I lie. Five long months. (Also, I'm afraid that actually playing the game may have pushed me over the edge into shelling out the extra cash for the Collector's Edition!)