Ni no Kuni, aka The Another World, is not the game we were expecting. Level-5's long-awaited collaboration with Studio Ghibli has hitherto been sold on the strength of the legendary animation house.
Boot it up and the game is front-loaded with Ghibli magic. Giant cat kings and stunted aardvark men could have wandered from the set of Spirited Away, and Joe Hisaishi orchestral highs are proper hair-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff. It's a living, breathing cartoon.
It's very gracious of Level-5 to put their development partners first. Thankfully, the game soon reveals the attention to detail and compulsive depth that defines their best work.
Funnily enough, Ni no Kuni has more in common with Pokémon than Dragon Quest IX. Combat revolves around Imagines, elemental sprites you woo to your side with the power of song.
Whittle an Imagine's health and it becomes susceptible to serenading. Find a song it likes and he'll join you. With a party of three humans and nine Imagines, combat focuses on swapping support characters in and out of the firing line, matching the right element to the right enemy.
Placement also plays a part. Weaker characters can hide behind defensive brutes, for example. Find an efficient formation and you earn points towards triggering power attacks.
Balancing elements while maintaining spatial awareness isn't as hard as it sounds - Ni no Kuni is, in its early hours at least, a forgiving game.
It turns out you don't team up with a beloved family animation studio to make games the family can't appreciate. Imagines are closer to Tamagotchi than Pokémon; each has three stages of evolution and can be strengthened by ample grooming and care.
Take a comb to 99% of Pokémon and you'd never see that arm again. If this focus on caring and loving nature screams Ghibli, Level-5 bring to it the same depth found in Dragon Quest IX's epic bestiary - there are some 380 Imagines to find and rear.
And this is before you get item fusing, hidden riddles, a 500-strong enemy bestiary, Wi-Fi battling and wireless egg trading. Luckily you have the huge 'Magic Master' spell book to help you through.
What? A book?! What is this - school? Traditionally the express train to Snoresville, books are made cool again by Level-5's luxury Ni no Kuni tome.
Arriving in a box the size of a breezeblock the book is done up in true wizarding style: hardback cover and crusty brown pages (like when you rubbed teabags on your history homework to make it look ancient).
It's not just for looks, either. The 'Magic Master' is a sort of mandatory walkthrough, housing key info deliberately excluded from the game.
On a basic level this includes a few recipes for obvious item alchemy and descriptions of loot our boyish hero, Oliver, can find. More than this, it's a gateway to magic powers. Oliver uses runes to cast spells, plucking them from the tome to do so.
Easing you in with obvious 'cast X spell, please', Level-5 ramp up the dependence by forcing budding wizards to read the spell descriptions and deduce the right rune for the right occasion.
It's a frankly stonking collision of the real and the digital. Are you playing the game or is the game playing you? Translating it will be a pain - just look at the index - so we're fervently hoping it doesn't delay localisation.
Cross your fingers for a UK release date. This is magical stuff.
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