In September 2008, to celebrate the studio’s 10th anniversary, Japanese developer Level-5 announced that it was creating a brand-new fantasy role-playing game called Ni No Kuni. What made the project special, though, was who Level-5 was partnering with: Studio Ghibli, the famed animation house behind films like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. The chance partnership happened thanks to musician Naoya Fujimaki, who had previously worked with both companies, and introduced Level-5 boss Akihiro Hino to Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki. It was the first time Ghibli had been so deeply involved with a video game. The resulting experience had all of the care and whimsy you’d expect from Ghibli combined with the RPG knowhow of Level-5, a studio known for genre hits like Dragon Quest IX and Dark Cloud.
Since then, things have changed for Ghibli. The studio hasn’t released a film since 2014’s When Marnie Was There, and iconic director Hayao Miyazaki has retired (and unretired) multiple times. The studio no longer functions as a traditional animation company that produces most work in-house. Instead, Ghibli now often serves in a producer role on projects, while other studios handle the heavy lifting.
So when it comes to Ni No Kuni II — a sequel launching on PS4 and PC this November — you won’t find the Studio Ghibli name on the box. But in spite of that, not much has actually changed when it comes to who is making the game. “Studio Ghibli, at least the animation development department, is no longer functioning as an animation studio at this point,” explains Level-5’s Hino. “So we approached a lot of the key members who worked with us on the first Ni No Kuni directly, and involved them with the creative team and process for Ni No Kuni II.”
That includes former Ghibli animator and character designer Yoshiyuki Momose, and composer Joe Hisaishi, who not only soundtracked the first Ni No Kuni, but also created the music for nearly every single Miyazaki film. Because of this, Ni No Kuni II is still a game that bears all of the hallmarks of a Ghibli production: lush, colorful worlds; wonderfully animated characters who feel truly human; and adorable monsters that you just want to cuddle. Hino says that, for the most part, the staff working on the sequel is the same as the original. “It’s just the legality, and the organizational structure behind it, that has changed,” he says of the partnership.
Since the first game debuted in 2011, Level-5 has almost exclusively worked on games for mobile or portable platforms, continuing successful franchises like Professor Layton and turning out new ones like Yo-kai Watch. Hino says that Ni No Kuni wasn’t initially designed with the intention of creating a sequel, but the possibility of making a new game on more powerful hardware like the PlayStation 4 and modern PCs proved very tempting. “With all of these new resources at our disposal, it defines what we’re able to do, and opens up many doors to use that in a very compelling visual experience,” he says.
For Hino and Level-5, working alongside the talented animators at Ghibli has had a profound influence on how the studio goes about creating its games, especially when it comes to the seemingly small details. “In developing the first game, and of course this one as well, there were several meetings [with Ghibli] covering even very minute details,” Hino says. “I think it really helped Level-5 as a company to grow. One of Ghibli’s big strengths isn’t necessarily their ability to create these characters, but more subtle human drama, which I think played a large role in helping us develop the second Ni No Kuni. We spent a lot of time with the storyboards, and going back and forth with Ghibli, ensuring that the drama isn’t lost in the final product on the screen.”
It’s a combination that proved successful with the first game, as the original Ni No Kuni sold more than 1.1 million copies worldwide on the PS3, which played a large part in greenlighting the sequel. But despite all that has happened in the intervening years, the goal of Ni No Kuni II remains the same as with the original. “What I feel we’ve inherited as our mission in teaming up with such a great studio like Studio Ghibli [on the first Ni No Kuni],” explains Hino, “is creating the best possible interpretation of what anime would be like in a game.”