Ni no Kuni is probably the last game you’d expect to be getting an overseas release. It’s colorful, child-like, and rendered in a cel-shaded anime style—completely the opposite of what’s currently popular in the western landscape. Namco Bandai and Level-5 have seemingly decided to take a gamble.
The two companies have partnered up and plan to bring Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch to North America and Europe in January 2013. It’ll have been quite a bit of time from the original Japanese release, but that hasn’t deterred them from trying.
We sat down with Senior Global Brand Manager Dennis Lee at E3 to find out more surrounding the game’s localization, challenges of bringing it westward and more.
RPGSite: So what makes this game different from previous Level-5 RPGs?
Lee: When Level-5 was planning on creating Ni no Kuni, they really wanted to do something extra special for this title. There was an anniversary coming up for the studio and so they wanted to take their expertise in creating those previous role playing games like Dark Could, Rogue Galaxy, Dragon Quest and they wanted to create something that played to their strengths but also something new. One of the things that they wanted to do was to give the players more ability to customize.
While the main characters in the game—while they’re progressing through the story and grow as you play through the game, the player is also able to capture all these familiars and bring them into battle. The familiars allow players to really customize what they do.
Once you’re able to capture them, which is about a few hours into the game, you can capture different familiars, decide which ones to bring with you, you can raise them and give them different food and make them stronger in different ways. They also level up independently from your characters as well and they will evolve into different familiars as you progress through the game.
The other element that they wanted to add was the strength of the characters in the story. Characters and story have always been strong in Level-5 games, so they reached out to Studio Ghibli to see if they wanted to be involved in this one.
They shared with them some of the early planning documentation designs and Studio Ghibli really liked the direction that the game was going. It worked out to where they were able to strike this partnership where Studio Ghibli would create all the animated cutscenes for the game and also story-boarded and supervised all the real time cutscenes as well.
That allowed Ni no Kuni to have more of a theatrical feel in the way it tells its story. Level-5 of course has always been able to create great stories in their games, but by having that extra knowledge from Studio Ghibli it helps create something that fans can watch and experience as if it were a true Studio Ghibli work.
Lee: Yes. So of course there’s the localization which is a must-have which Level-5 is working extremely hard on to make the game feel like it isn’t just a rushed translation or anything. They’re going through the script and rescripting it to where if you’re playing it in the United States or in England or France, or wherever you’re from that you feel that this game isn’t foreign, that it’s created for that player in their territory.
As far as content goes, all of the content from the Japanese version will come over. In Japan they released a lot of post-launch DLC; around three or four DLC packs that were released… All of that content is going to be available on the disc, on day one, no extra charge.
There are a couple of other things the team is looking to implement in the western version as well—little things like extra familiars, things like that.
RPGSite: Regarding the localized version, will it support dual audio and perhaps other languages through subtitles?
Lee: The game will have dual language support; you’ll be able to switch between the English and Japanese voice over with English subtitles. It’ll have subtitles for English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.
RPGSite: How do you feel about launching such a niche JRPG in the west which is so heavily dominated by mature games such as shooters and very western RPGs?
Lee: There are gamers of all kinds out there and they’re all looking for different experiences. There is that crowd—the players and the fans that do want these role playing games to come out.
Even within role playing games, there’s fans who want action RPGs, traditional RPGs, they want to be able to run around and so whatever they want like in Skyrim.
We’re bringing them an experience that feels very much like the entertainment that they already enjoy, but bringing that in an interactive way.
Level-5 is making sure that when they created the game that if you play it like a traditional RPG those fans will not be disappointed, but if you’re a casual gamer there’s options in the game to be able to experience the story and the game even if you’re not the best gamer.
You can switch all the battles to easy which allows the battle system to become less daunting if you’re a casual gamer.
Also in the menu you can turn on a hint guide that gives you a little star that shows up on the map that basically tells you where the next story point is. They’ve been really good at insuring that the game is accessible as it can be to as many people as possible. Having Studio Ghibli involved in the animated cutscenes and the style, design and look really helps there as well.
RPGSite: What was the decision behind keeping the name “Ni no Kuni” for the English release? You can roughly translate the Japanese name to “Another World” or so… and in the game, at least from what I’ve played they talk about going to this ‘Ni no Kuni’ which is basically a parallel dimension. Why did you decide to keep that name for the western release?
Lee: For the western release Level-5 did kind of look at what to do with the title. There was that notoriety and fanbase that had known the game to be “Ni no Kuni” already. Even though at first glance it might seem a little bit strange to a western audience, Ni no Kuni just kind of stuck.
There are other Studio Ghibli works where the name of the film didn’t really change. Ponyo is not a real word that sounds more Japanese, but that name had the right feeling for that work. Level-5 felt that Ni no Kuni was what the game was and the subtitle [Wrath of the White Witch] is where they changed it to help describe the game a little more for the western audience.
RPGSite: As far as collaborating with Level-5, how did that come about? Did they come to you? Or did you come to them?
Lee: The partnership with Level-5 ended up working out through the Japanese offices of Namco Bandai Japan. There were other things that Level-5 and an arm of Namco Bandai had been working together on previously that weren’t necessarily video game related like toys, animation, etc. Level-5 understands that Namco Bandai has a lot of experience in character-driven business such as through promotion and marketing of those characters.
They made the deal with Namco Bandai to publish the game in Europe and the US, which of course we are extremely happy about.
RPGSite: Who’s handling the actual localization? Is it you guys or Level-5 themselves?
Lee: Level-5 is handling all the localization. Every time they’ve shown us a new build of the game—new scripts, new voice over—everything we’ve seen has been at such a high quality meter that we’ve been extremely happy with everything that they’ve done.
RPGSite: What elements of the game do you think will appeal to western audiences?
Lee: The first thing that I think that a lot of people here at the show and when we’ve taken the game out to the press and the fans that has always stood out is really the artwork and the graphical style. It’s so unique and refreshing in the design and down to the smallest details—it has kind of this charming look and feel to it.
I think that gamers, no matter where they’re from, they notice that it’s so striking and so different that I think that initially pulls them in. I think then the story is what’s going to help drive it through because there is this really strong story in the game. The same way you can get lost in watching a movie, you’ll have that same feeling when you play Ni no Kuni.
RPGSite: So I’m sure you get a lot of questions on this but the DS version—are there any plans to bring it overseas? It might be difficult considering it came with a physical book but people seem to still be interested in that version of the game.
Lee: Right now we’re focused on the PlayStation 3 version and bringing it out to our fans.
RPGSite: Has Level-5 said anything about a possible sequel?
Lee: Since I’m not with Level-5 so I can’t say 100% what their next projects and planning are going to be but in an interview with the CEO, Hino-san, he did say depending on the success of the game in the west, they might consider doing a sequel or another game in the series.
RPGSite: Obviously you’re working with Level-5 now and they do have more games coming down the pipeline that could be potentially localized. Are you interested in working with them for the future?
Lee: I know that Level-5 has been a great partner, and on both sides I know we’re interested in more projects. For right now though we’re concentrating on Ni no Kuni. You never know what the future might hold.