On the surface Ni no Kuni may look like another cutesy Japanese RPG, but scratch below the gorgeous anime paintwork and darkness lurks, as you embark upon a tale of orphans, broken hearts and an all-powerful witch with a cape hewn from the very fabric of the galaxy itself.

Supplying visual treats undercut with pervading melancholy has become a hallmark of Studio Ghibli, here joining forces with renowned RPG experts Level-5 to produce a fine adventure that distils all the best eastern traits of the genre into one title.

Most J-RPGs receive only niche interest in Europe, but Ni no Kuni has managed to draw western gamers’ attention due to the Ghibli connection, and Level-5 have not wasted the opportunity to impress.

Taking control of recently orphaned Oliver, you are guided by cowardly comic companion Drippy, a mining ‘Lord’ fairy from the deepest valleys of Wales. His idea for curing Oliver’s grieving blues is that he travels to Drippy’s alternate universe to re-unite with a parallel version of his mother, not before defeating the evil Shadar and fixing it for Wales to win the Rugby World Cup. Well, maybe not that last one, but you get the gist.

Special kudos is due here to the localisation team for endowing Drippy with an authentic voice from the valleys. He provides much gentle humour and makes a welcome change from the usual bland dubbing in games of this ilk. The developers use this to mirror Drippy’s rural Osaka accent in the original Japanese edition, just one example of the effort put in that really makes the title shine.

Battles are undertaken using ‘Familiars’, Pokemon-alike pet creatures who take the blows of incoming enemies on the behalf of Oliver. There are up to 300 quirky monsters available to tame, once you have the necessary expertise, and all come with differing abilities and the opportunity to customise heavily when levelling-up. More and more extra features emerge as you go, with other warriors, familiars and travelling companions joining your party.

At times in the game’s opening stages it feels almost like you are merely watching a Studio Ghibli film with an optional ‘X’ button, but as the world unfurls before you, the engrossing tale begins to balance itself out with action. The availability of myriad tasks lends the experience some welcome variety as you seek to level up and explore the world further; even if some of the early missions are rather prosaic, the archetypal ‘fetch’ missions being a minor drawback.

As you get deeper into the quest, the versatility of the fighting system becomes apparent, as you get to choose the best Familiars for the situation at hand. They can be powered up by doling out various glucose-filled snacks, bringing on not only extra abilities but perhaps the onset of type 2 diabetes. Luckily you can swap out Familiars when necessary, sending them down storage chutes to be rested and made ready for use.

Delving into your magic books and reading up on subjects can reap rewards, especially when you manage to locate the cauldron. Alchemy then gives you the option to make your own food, weapons and other items, and before you know it, creatures that seemed impossible to defeat two hours ago are suddenly vanquished with a few simple attacks.

Costumes, treats and other consumables can be purchased at stores in each town, staffed by anthropomorphic assistants – the raven in the armoury crowing about his prices as the cat in the hotel implores you to enjoy a purr-fect night’s sleep – competing with each other for the game’s worst pun, a title stolen later on by the porcine people of Hamelin.

Full of memorable locations, Ni no Kuni serves up a wide world full of different landscapes for you to explore, from almost-blown volcanoes to the bathing suited-paradise Castaway Cove. Although they follow the usual green woods/desert/fire/ice formula, each is rendered lovingly, with custom-made monsters and scenery. There are always more items to be discovered, bounty hunts to be undertaken and experience points gained.

Scored with a wonderful, if perhaps overly-dramatic musical arrangement, Ni no Kuni lives up to the literal translation of its title – a second world – and one lovingly designed for you to spend hours exploring in all its beautifully rendered glory.

By Sam Gill

Score: 5/5

Price: £39.99
Format: PS3
Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Namco Bandai