Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is the kind of game that unanimously owns you from the moment you pick up the controller and take those first tentative steps into its absolute wondrous beauty.

Sitting down with the latest English build of Ni No Kuni, we couldn’t help but be hypnotised by the game’s purity. You kind of want to surrender your senses to the game. Oliver’s story is one of honest tragedy, a boy prematurely separated from his mother, seemingly left with nothing but his broken heart to purposely prepare him for a life without his beloved mother. Ni No Kuni wears its heart on its sleeve and unashamedly so. Prepare for man tears with this one, akin to Argo falling of the bridged platform on route to the final colossus or Aries being untimely impaled and killed by Sephiroth’s masamune. Ni No Kuni will send your emotional compass in any number of directions whether you like it or not. Even in despair, there is hope and this hope will motivate you on Oliver’s quest to potentially reunite with his mother once more.

Developer Level-5’s decision to collaborate with Japanese movie makers Studio Ghibli only reinforces the game’s emotional integrity. The creators of some of the most beloved, honest and relevant animated films of all time (see My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away), Ghibli emphatically leave their unique aesthetic personality all over this project. While that by itself should enough to attract you to the game, this aesthetic carries with it a charm, purity and a beautifully unbreakable intent that no other animated studio the world over can muster. Ni No Kuni’s beauty is intoxicating, from the hand drawn cut-scenes to the subtle real time visuals. This is a real showpiece for Level-5, for Ghibli and for PlayStation 3.

Our playtime was spent in a serene forest environment on “An Errand For Old Father Oak.” Oliver is accompanied by Drippy, a hand stitched companion beanie toy, brought to life by Oliver’s tears from his deceased mother. Oliver and Drippy must tentatively venture into the Deep Dark Wood in pursuit of the Guardian of the Woods. The Ghibli influence is most tangible in this setting. This world is evocative of so much of what Ghibli do. It’s just so full of fascination and personality, from the static colourful woodlands to it’s quirky creatures and their interesting personal traits. You could seriously spend hours merely running around, taking in the scenery, interacting with its charming foliage folks and absorbing all of its beauty. This is RPG at a heart and it puts a strong impetus on exploration and its combat.

It wasn’t long before we reached our target, the elemental forest guardian of the forest we spent a good 10 minutes trawling through the scene to find. Its worth noting that you cannot escape a battle once you engage with it. There is no option to flee the battle here. You can either take on the antagonist with Oliver and his ability to conjure up any number of magical spells or with an accompanying Mite, all the while guided by Drippy’s helpful commentary and on screen hints and tips. The combat isn’t as limited as you might have thought. You can defend, attack or essentially cut loose of your enemy and perform what appears to be some kind of special enhanced attack.

It’s important to keep an eye on you magic and health gauges, not least because once you lose health or use up magic while attacking, you will need to replenish your powers quite quickly. This can be done mid-battle by collecting any number of blue and green orbs littered around the immediate fighting space. Upon the successful defeat of the enemy, you will be awarded bonuses by Drippy, especially if you have defended yourself valiantly. The combat system isn’t exactly original, but it’s functional and purposeful and finely balanced. It’s complimentary to the nature of the combat and attacks available to Oliver. The menus are clean, unobtrusive and unintimidating.

It’s also worth noting that you can play the game with the original Japanese voice over with new English subtitles, so as to experience the game the way it was originally intended in its original Japanese context. While the English voice over’s seem fairly competent in this localised dub, every Ghibli movie should be watched in Japanese with English subtitles at the very least. Ni No Kuni should be no exception to this rule. This is an interactive movie videogame that never feels like it’s trying to be one or the other. The balance appears to be just perfect.

Kudos to Namco-Bandai for taking a risk on Ni No Kuni and bringing it westward. Localisation is a taxing risky process and you can tell that N-B have really pushed the boat out to make our localised version of Ni No Kuni every way complimentary to the imaginative creative vision of the Japanese original.

From its engaging characters, to its progressive familiar gameplay and its resplendent beauteous visual and musical styling’s, Ni No Kuni looks like 2013’s first proper must buy. We’re counting the days.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is available in Ireland on PlayStation 3 from January 25st 2013