Tomorrow, January 22, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch finally arrives on US shelves. The PlayStation 3 role-playing game is a collaboration between developer Level-5, and animation house Studio Ghibli -- two companies that are among the most consistent in their medium in terms of quality. Any joint effort from these two powerhouses demands attention.
I demoed Wrath of the White Witch at E3 and came away quite tickled. Jim Sterling certainly had a ball based on our official review. And Dale North... well... he's Dale North. After years of waiting, we should all feel happy and blessed that we are about to get our mitts on such a treasure.
But I'm not happy, guys.
Ni no Kuni PS3 may have made the journey overseas, but the DS original remains grounded in Japan. And there is zero reason for that. None.
Wrath of the White Witch is no mere update of the DS version, subtitled The Jet-Black Mage. From what I've gathered, both games were developed separately and feature several elements that differ in significant ways, even though the general framework is the same.
Even if Mage and Witch were identical save for the graphics, I still believe there would be strong interest in the former. The large library of quality RPGs on the DS and PSP indicates that the genre has found a cozy home on handheld devices. It's ironic that a genre infamous for demanding massive time investments would adapt so well to the style of bite-sized gameplay fostered by portable hardware.
Level-5 envisioned Ni no Kuni as a franchise, thus there is no reason why anyone ought to picture Mage and Witch as anything but complementary experiences. I understand that the big draw of Witch is how closely the in-game assets resemble the original artwork, but it's not like Mage is a slouch in the art department either.
It doesn't end there! In order for Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi's score to sound as crystal clear as possible, Level-5 opted to use a 512 MB game card, the largest of any DS game. "Compromised," The Jet-Black Mage is not.
More important than graphics and card space is the fact that Ni no Kuni is a major milestone for an animation studio that has historically avoided getting involved with videogames. Ni no Kuni is technically not the first time Ghibli had a hand in a game's art direction -- Magic Pengel on the PS2 holds that distinction -- but the level of involvement here is unprecedented. Why would you not want to experience such an event firsthand?
But Wrath of the White Witch was announced for the West, while The Jet-Black Mage wasn't.
Localization for Mage was definitely considered, but according to Level-5 CEO Akihiro Hino, the big spanner in those plans was the book bundled with every copy of the game. For those unaware, the 352-page Magic Master book is a companion guide that details in-game lore, creatures, and magic runes that can be drawn on the touchscreen to cast spells. This book is a crucial element of the game, and its existence as a physical object was intended to add an extra layer of immersion.
Apparently it was too expensive to translate, and even if it were translated, there would be the issue of printing enough copies for each game and expecting consumers to pay a premium for the bundle. I'm sure Level-5 could have found a decent workaround, but I do understand the cost concerns. Disappointing news, but that's the way the world turns, right?
By the way, Witch also requires the use of the Magic Master book, but instead of being a physical object, it's an in-game item accessible from the menu. And oh yeah, US publisher Namco Bandai is selling a limited "Wizard's Edition" bundle that includes a physical version of the book, now called the Wizard's Companion.
WHAT. THE. FUCK.
So all that talk about expense and translation hurdles was just bullshit? I'm trying to be as rational as I can, but the only conclusion I can draw is that neither Namco nor Level-5 thought Ni no Kuni would have been able to sell on the DS. I don't see how it wouldn't unless Namco wasn't planning on advertising the game at all.
Look, I'm glad that Ni no Kuni is coming out for PS3, but we are still being robbed of delicious Ghibli goodness! There has got to be a way for the DS game to make it out here somehow.
Here's what to do
The DS is a lame duck. There might be a studio or two still releasing new DS software, but most have moved on to its successor. Therefore Level-5 should port Ni no Kuni: The Jet-Black Mage directly to the 3DS. The team won't really need to touch it up too much -- as you saw in the footage above, its a very beautiful game, I would say even by 3DS standards.
With this platform transition, Mage would benefit from the larger game card capacity -- cards at the 3DS' launch could already hold 2 GB, four times the size of the DS' largest. I'm going to take an educated guess and assume that Mage's card was fairly packed, thereby preventing Level-5 from -- oh, I don't know -- including a digital version of the Wizard's Companion. Because 3DS game cards are much roomier, the already translated book ought to fit in nice and neatly.
There you have it! Players now have in-game access to the book, just as PS3 players do, and they won't be prevented from casting spells be drawing the runes. And for those who desire the original experience as intended, there could be a 3DS version of the "Wizard's Edition" as well.
But what of the argument that a currently two-year-old game from a previous generation platform would be a hard sell no matter the pedigree of the parties behind it? If Namco doesn't want to play ball, Level-5 should take its business to a progressive company like XSEED, which has recently shown great willingness in taking chances on niche but highly demanded RPGs on Nintendo consoles. XSEED has already been rewarded for localizing The Last Story, and even Xenoblade Chronicles, which Nintendo of America itself published two years after its Japanese release, has done "quite well" by the company's expectations.
If Wrath of the White Witch performs to Namco's satisfaction, there ought to be no reason to hold off on localizing The Jet-Black Mage any longer. But if Witch does not meet its goal, Mage should nonetheless be given a shot for the sake of sharing one of the most beautiful-looking games in recent memory with the rest of the world. We have evidence that low-print software runs can pay off handsomely, just as long as the parties involved keep modest expectations.
I just want some Level-5 / Studio Ghibli magic on the go. Is that so much to ask? Am I asking for the sun and the moon? Am I being naive in regards to the nature of big business?
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