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My Neighbor Totoro

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

I am the father of an all most two year old boy who loves watching The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on Disney Jr. I’m constantly trying to find new things for him to watch and get excited about just so I don’t have to watch more Mickey Mouse. And it’s not as if that show is particularly bad or anything, it’s just made for young kids and isn’t supposed to be stimulating for adult viewers. I’ve had some success getting him to watch Looney Tunes and even The Simpsons. He’ll rarely ask for either like he will with Mickey, but he’ll let me have them on the television with minimal fuss. The only show he really, actively, watches though is still Mickey, and that’s probably because of his enthusiasm for it and because the show is interactive with the characters constantly addressing the viewer. When he watches something like The Simpsons with me, it’s mostly in silence and he’ll occasionally point at an object in the show and tell me what it is.

For the first time in his short life, my son actively watched a movie. Often to get him to watch something non-Mickey, I’ll get it started on the TV before getting him up from his nap, which is what I did this past weekend with My Neighbor Totoro. I have been somewhat excitedly waiting for a time to introduce my son to this movie because it’s one I have a lot of affection for. A stuffed Totoro was even the first toy I ever bought for him before he was born. I’ve always been pretty certain that he would like Totoro, to a point, but I honestly felt like we were still a few years away from that day. To my surprise, I got him up from his nap and put him in our big recliner with a cup of juice without him even mentioning Mickey. He hadn’t been feeling well so I wasn’t sure what version of my son I would get, but he didn’t object to what was on the television and I went into the kitchen to finish up some dishes I had started before his nap ended. As I was busying myself, I could hear him laughing. I stopped and watched and he was smiling at the television. He would giggle when he was supposed to, he’d point to things on the screen, and bob his head to the music. What seems like a small, insignificant, moment is amazing through the eyes of a parent who is observing their child do something for the first time. He was engaging with a film, and it was beautiful. I chalk it up to the magic of Studio Ghibli and it’s extremely talented director and co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki.

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No wonder why my kid liked this one, who wouldn’t want friends like these?

My Neighbor Totoro is a charming tale about two young girls, Satsuki and Mei. They have just recently moved to an old home in the countryside with their father while their mother is recovering from an illness at a nearby hospital. The precocious youngsters are intensely curious about their surroundings and new home and take to the country with intense optimism. This is a film devoid of any kind of cynicism. Satsuki is the older sister and helps out her dad around the house and also by looking after Mei, who I would guess is around 3 or 4. When Satsuki is in school and her father at work, a local old woman affectionately called Grannie looks after Mei.

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A little house in the country side.

Very early in the film the girls take-note of strange creatures in their new home. These soot spirits and their existence are not challenged by the adults in the story, and we see their father encourages his girls to think like children by doing so himself. The girls seem a little afraid at first, but their dad tells them laughter is the best cure for fear, and their laughter drives the little soot spirits away. When Satsuki is away at school though, Mei happens upon the dwellers of the forrest and the massive, cuddly, Totoro who resides there. When she tells her sister about the Totoro, Satsuki is skeptical, but once again their dad is encouraging and has the girls thank the forrest for allowing them to live with it. It’s hard not to imagine that Miyazaki, a noted environmentalist, didn’t see himself in the father character present here.

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Mei in hot pursuit of two little forrest spirits.

The film follows the two girls closely and unfolds at a brisk pace. It’s an interesting tale in that there is very little conflict, danger, or suspense. There’s some implied with the film’s climax, but it’s never deceptive. My Neighbor Totoro takes your hand from the start to guide you through its story and we trust it implicitly. Perhaps more interesting, is that it all works so well. Someone who has never seen the picture would probably interpret my description of it as dull, but the film is so charming and positive that watching it is like a relaxing soak in a hot tub; it’s simple, obvious, but oh so good.

The art direction is wonderful, and the character designs for the forrest spirits are delightfully simple. Totoro and his little buddies are a bit rabbit-like in appearance, though cat-like in behavior. They’re cute, and it’s obvious why stuffed dolls of them exist in the first place. The Catbus, which appeared about halfway through the film, is pretty wild to take-in, but so much fun. It adds a little absurdity to the film that fits right in with the sometimes silly tone. That tone is mostly captured through Mei, who is perhaps the most authentic young person I’ve ever seen brought to life in an animated movie. Her movements, facial expressions, and behavior feel so spot-on and really add life to her character. I’m honestly a little sad whenever she’s absent from a scene, and it’s her character that lead to the biggest reactions from my own little guy as we watched.

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Just two kids riding in a cat bus.

The forrest scenery is lush and dominated by shades of green. I love this countryside as presented here because there’s just so much nature. This is the kind of film that makes me think I’d be okay with a more relaxed lifestyle that isn’t so plugged-in. My copy of the film is on DVD, and Disney finally released a high definition version a couple of years ago, but I haven’t upgraded yet. The film is gorgeous, though I notice a little grain at times and I wonder if that would be present on the Blu Ray. Normally, I enjoy a little film grain and would prefer to watch a movie on actual film than digital, but this picture is so vibrant that I find myself longing for as clean and pristine an image as possible. The film’s score is done by Joe Hisaishi, and it’s effectively whimsical and beautifully composed. Hisaishi and Miyazaki have such an amazing ability to complement one another with music and picture and this rather simple score might be my favorite of the Ghibli movies. The closing title song is adorably sweet and poppy. It probably will appeal to children more than adults, but I find it undeniably charming.

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Mei’s first encounter with Totoro.

This being a Walt Disney localized release, the english dub is of high quality and well done. Sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning play Satsuki and Mei. Tim Daly and Lea Solonga play the parents, and Hollywood’s go-to man for animal sounds, Frank Welker, plays Totoro. The cast is probably light on star power in comparison with other dubs of Ghibli films, but the actors are more than capable and make watching the english version of the film a real delight.

The film, at its heart, is also probably one that appeals more to children than adults, which makes it unique among Studio Ghibli films which don’t obviously focus on children the way Disney does. At least, my head tells me that My Neighbor Totoro is indeed a children’s movie, but I am so moved and delighted by it every time I view it that my heart has all but convinced me that this is a film anyone can enjoy and fall in love with. That doesn’t mean it’s a film for everybody, my own wife finds it criminally boring and weird, but it’s not a film confined by demographic. My Neighbor Totoro is a wonderfully charming story beautifully accented by gorgeous visuals and a moving score. It’s fantasy, but understated fantasy, and the movie effortlessly compels the viewer to buy into everything that’s on screen. It’s in some ways a perfect film, without obvious flaws, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Studio Ghibli is a cultural institution in its native Japan. It’s credited with the anime revival of the 1980’s and for popularizing the form in and outside of Japan. Many of its films have gone on to influence not just anime, but other works of animation as well with its characters even making cameos in Pixar films. Studio Ghibli was officially founded in 1985, but many consider its beginning to be with the film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Released in 1984, it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki and future Ghibli director Isao Takahata was named producer. The film’s success is essentially what founded Studio Ghibli with most of the crew joining the studio.

Nausicaä is a film that almost didn’t happen. Fresh off his well received directorial debut in Lupin III:  Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki was approached to direct another feature length anime picture by Animage. Miyazaki came up with the concept for Nausicaä then, but the studio wasn’t interested and the project was aborted. Miyazaki took Nausicaä to the manga form where he was able to build up a fanbase for the property leading to another opportunity to bring the story to the anime form.

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Nausicaä atop her glider.

It’s easy to see why Nausicaä is considered the spiritual beginning for Studio Ghibli. It goes beyond the fact that it’s a feature-length anime production featuring names that would become synonymous with Ghibli. The film, thematically, is very much in line with a great many of Ghibli’s films, most obviously the one’s directed by Miyazaki. The film contains a female protagonist with a Buddhist-like point of view towards nature and the people around her. The film can simply be described as an environmental picture that also strongly endorses pacifism, subject matter that would be covered in other Miyazaki works with the most obvious being Princess Mononoke. The film’s themes are clear and easy for any viewer, even the very young, to pick up on. The film’s themes are so obvious and central to the plot that it’s one of weaknesses as well as Miyazaki would become better skilled at relaying his message in future films with more skill and subtlety. The film’s directness sometimes leads to stilted dialogue and some uninteresting villains.

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In the path of an enraged Ohm is not someplace you want to be.

Beyond the film’s sometimes amateur story-telling, there aren’t a lot of negatives to be had. The film focuses on the princess Nausicaä, who lives in a small dessert village on the outskirts of the poisoned forest. Mankind is forced to live in a world dominated by insects with the most formidable being the massive, tank-like Ohm, following an apocalyptic event occurring a thousand years before the events of the film. These insects are hated and feared by most of humanity and the toxic forests they inhabit slowly kill the people who live close by. Warring factions of humanity eventually bring harm to Nausicaä’s home with her people becoming casualties of war when a prison ship crashes on the outskirts of the village. Nausicaä is able to rescue one of the passengers who instructs her to destroy the ship’s cargo: the remains of a Giant Warrior which brought about the apocalypse of a thousand years ago. The owners of the ship, the Tolmeki empire, come after the ship and its contents bring their war to Nausicaä’s doorstep. The princess is pressed into battle and even takes human life in the process, but it’s all for naught. The Tolmekians, lead by a princess of their own named Kushana, wish to revive the Giant Warrior to destroy the poisoned forest. The village priest deems this unwise as doing so would only incite the Ohm who’s massive stampedes have brought great destruction to humanity in the past.

The Tolmekians are also embroiled in conflict with the Pejite people. Kushana, taking Nausicaä as hostage to ensure the cooperation of her people, and her airships encounter the Pejite which allows Nausicaä to escape. Circumstance forces her into working with a Pejite pilot and the two discover an amazing secret beneath the toxic forest. Nausicaä’s journey becomes one of self-discovery for herself and her world. With few people even interested in understanding the Ohm and the forests they dwell in, she finds herself as the only one who can prevent a second cataclysmic event that would surely doom her people as well as others. The machinations of the film’s plot are easy to follow and easy to predict. Still, the end result is not particularly harmed by this as the film presents a satisfying climax and conclusion for the story.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

As a protagonist, Nausicaä (voices by Alison Lohman in the english dub) is easy to like and understand. Her sense of adventure is contagious and represented most by her mastery of a unique jet-propelled glider she often zips through the sky on. She has a special empathy with nature which is shown early in the film. She’s fearless and possesses a strong conviction for what is right. She kills early in the film out of rage and self-defense and is affected by it. Through her actions we can see she would make an excellent killer if that was her aim, but chooses a different and noble path. Her closest ally is the sword master Lupa (Patrick Stewart), who also seems to embody a form of pacifism as we don’t see him kill in his parts of the film, though we see him demonstrate his incredible talent with a blade in each hand. Asbel (Shia LaBeouf), the Pejite pilot Nausicaä befriends, is our set-in-his-ways character who learns to see the world through a new lens during his trials. He’s the character most affected by Nausicaä and her outlook on life.

The film is set with many suspenseful moments like daring escapes from doomed aircraft and stunning rescues. Much of the film takes place in the air as the most prevalent piece of technology in the film are the massive airships piloted by the Tolmekians and Pejite. Anyone familiar with Miyazaki’s works know he’s a lover of aviation so it’s not surprising to find it here. When the film is not in the air the setting either shifts to vast desserts or the wondrous toxic forests. The forests are portrayed in cool shades of green and blue with mostly imaginative looking flora, some of which looks like it belongs under the sea. The look of the film is a bit dated, which should be expected of a thirty-year old picture. Still, it’s not unpleasant to look at and it still has some wonderful moments. The audio is also a bit dated, mostly in the sound effects department, but the score (Joe Hisaishi) is easily the part of the film that best stands the test of time. The english dub is also handled well by Disney and the Blu Ray release contains the Japanese audio for purists.

Anime fans owe a great deal to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Not only did its popularity and success in Japan help to pave the way for future anime releases, but its butchered original western release helped to convince Miyazaki and others to oversea the localization of future films. Studio Ghibli’s famed “no cuts” policy is born from Nausicaä and I think all fans of animation can agree that’s something we’re all happy is in place. It’s hard to separate a film, or any work of art, from its legacy, but in doing so Nausicaä still holds up us a nice picture worthy to rest in the library of Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli films. As a legacy piece, it’s a fascinating look at the beginnings of a great director and a fun piece of nostalgia for animation buffs around the world.


Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

NiNoKuniI normally only write about old games, but sometimes a game comes along that evokes the spirit of the games of yesterday and I feel compelled to write about it.  It doesn’t hurt that said game is a collaborative effort between developer Level-5 and the great animation super power Studio Ghibli.  I am, of course, speaking of Ni no Kuni:  Wrath of the White Witch, a role-playing game for the Playstation 3 that came out nearly a year ago in the US.  Translated literally as Second Country, Ni no Kuni is a Japanese RPG that borrows heavily from the games of old such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, with a touch of Pokémon for good measure.  The game tasks the player with guiding the main character Oliver into a parallel world on a quest to not only save that world from an evil wizard, but also save his mother.  There’s swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons, and all of the familiar tropes of the genre.  It’s a fun trip down memory lane for those of us old enough to remember when seemingly every RPG followed the same path, but there is enough infusion of modern elements to give the game a fresh feeling.  Top it off with the unparalleled presentation afforded by Ghibli, and Ni no Kuni is easily one of the top games of 2013.

Ni no Kuni, at its core, is a story about a boy and his love for his mother.  Aww!

Ni no Kuni, at its core, is a story about a boy and his love for his mother. Aww!

The plot for Ni no Kuni is, like its gameplay, a mixture of traditional and non-traditional.  The main character, a kid named Oliver, is the typical unlikely hero destined to save the world from evil.  The non-traditional part is how the story begins with Oliver being rescued from an innocent mishap with a go-kart by his mother, who tragically loses her life in the process.  It’s a seemingly ordinary piece of tragedy and it plunges the main character into depression, something not many video games are willing to deal with.  Much of the story centers around depression, or similar emotions, and Oliver is beckoned to help heal their broken hearts while healing his own in the process.  Not long after Oliver becomes withdrawn, his stuffed animal Mr. Drippy soon comes to life as Drippy, High Lord of the Fairies, and he takes Oliver to a parallel world to not only save his mother, but save Drippy’s world from the evil dark djinn Shadar.  Oliver’s world, a 1950’s looking America, and Drippy’s share an unseen bond in that people in one world are linked to people in the other by their spirit.  Oliver’s mom in this other world was a powerful sage, and by defeating Shadar, Oliver hopes to uncover what happened to his mother’s spirit-sister and hopefully save his mom in the process.  The story unfolds over roughly 50 hours of gameplay with Oliver becoming a wizard himself and visiting every corner of this other world making friends and toppling enemies while uncovering the mysteries of the past.  It’s very rewarding, and I was quite happy with how the major parts of the story resolved itself, though a lot of the plot is resolved before the game’s final act which made the last parts of the game less impactful.  It’s a minor complaint, but the story could have been tied together a little better.

The environments are some of the most breath-taking every displayed in a video game.

The environments are some of the most breath-taking every displayed in a video game.

The thing that will stand out strongest to individuals playing Ni no Kuni for the first time are unquestionably the visuals.  This game looks just like a Studio Ghibli film brought to a video game console.  When I first heard about the game I was more than a little intrigued as I am a big fan of Ghibli’s films.  This game exceeded my lofty expectations and really pushes the artistic merit of gaming.  It also pushes the power of the PS3 and it shows.  Some textures are slow to populate and there’s definitely numerous instances of pop-in especially on the over world, but this is all easily forgiven considering just how superb the game looks.  The color palette is varied though slightly muted which actually adds a great deal of charm and gives the game an old feel.  Ghibli opted for near pastel shades over more striking primary colors in many places, but where they go bright it really shows.  The vegetation in several spots really pops and gives the environment a lush quality.  The water effects are some of the most natural I’ve ever seen, and the special effects are suitable and effective without being over-the-top.  The character designs are mostly kept simple, and in the case of the many creatures, perhaps too simple.  The main cast looks great though, and I really liked the look of the White Witch herself and her astral cloak that has a life all its own.  Further adding to the presentation is some excellent voice acting by a mostly British cast and a truly wonderful score from the master Joe Hisaishi.  Ni no Kuni is easily on my short list of favorite video game scores and it’s absolutely feature film quality.

Battles can feel chaotic at first, but eventually most gamers will find a rhythm.

Battles can feel chaotic at first, but eventually most gamers will find a rhythm.

All of the bells and whistles though would be for naught if the gameplay didn’t stack up, and thankfully it does.  Ni no Kuni, as I said earlier, is a mix of old and new concepts for the JRPG genre.  Oliver and his companions still have hit points and magic points and get stronger through participating in battles and gaining experience points.  As they level up they learn new skills and gain better base stats like strength, dexterity, and so on.  The battles take place in “dungeons” and on a world map where enemies are visible and some will attack and some will run away.  Where Ni no Kuni tries to incorporate some of the elements of modern JRPGs is with the battle system.  It’s not a turn-based battle, making it similar to Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade.  The party is limited to three members during the game, with the player controlling only one at a time.  When controlling Oliver or one of his companions, the player is free to move around the battle field and position the character to attack up close or from far away and can switch at any time to one of the other characters.  Where Level-5 looks to separate Ni no Kuni from a game like Xenoblade is with the familiar system.  Taking a page out of Pokémon, Oliver is able to capture the monsters he encounters and use them as familiars.  These familiars basically do the fighting for Oliver, and each character can enter battle with up to three familiars.  These familiars share hit points and mana with their human overlords, but level-up independently and are able to evolve at certain points.  Each familiar can evolve twice, with the second evolution presenting a choice for the player to make which usually takes on the form of picking a water type vs a fire type evolution or something similar.  The familiars interject some variety to the mix and helps to keep the playing experience unique for each individual who picks up the game.  Level-5 also did a good job of making several viable familiars lessening the occurrence of over-powered creatures likely to dominate every gamer’s party.

Complementing the impressive game engine are some wonderful pieces of traditional animation from Studio Ghibli.

Complementing the impressive game engine are some wonderful pieces of traditional animation from Studio Ghibli.

The battle system has its own quirks that everyone has to get used to, and the choice to go with a live battle system means the A.I. is going to be controlling two of the party’s characters at all times.  Naturally, this is less than ideal and Ni no Kuni’s artificial intelligence is pretty limited.  Each character can be set to behave a certain way, but there’s still no way to tell the A.I. to forego using mana on weak enemies or to focus on fire spells because the enemy is vulnerable to it over some other elemental property.  Often times I found myself using the setting that commands my partners to not use any special abilities, or else they’d blow through all of their mana after just a handful of enemy encounters.  There’s also no way to select the tactics when out of battle, which is an oversight that should be corrected in a sequel.  Another annoyance for me were the more theatrical attacks.  Certain spells and such trigger special animations during battle and these are fine when initiated by the player, but when initiated by the A.I. it becomes annoying because it cancels any commands I had issued which can be deadly if it was a healing item or spell I had pulled up.  There’s also the whole taming of new familiars, which definitely could use some tweaking.  It’s one thing to make it hard to catch the elite creatures in the game, but just about every familiar is overly difficult to tame and that’s because it’s all predicated on chance.  Sometimes when beating an enemy, instead of dying, they’ll get little hearts over their heads prompting the player to initiate a series of commands that will make the creature a new familiar for the party.  The chance of most any creature going into this state is usually less than 10%.  There are quests in the game that require Oliver to tame certain creatures and these were my most hated tasks due to how random the whole system is.  Outside of battle, navigating the world is pretty seamless but there are unpolished aspects.  The game doesn’t let you get ahead of it at any time.  If you know you have to cast a certain spell on a certain individual or object you can’t just walk up and do it, you have to engage it first so that Drippy can tell Oliver he needs to cast Give Heart or some other spell.  The game has a tendency to think everyone playing it is pretty slow, or just stupid, and overly explains how to do certain things.  The thing I found most annoying though are these special treasure chests spread all over the world that can only be opened by having one of the characters shoot them.  That doesn’t bother me, but the fact that the party has to be standing on a specific spot to do it drove me nuts.  The chest could be perfectly visible from where I had Oliver positioned, but because it wasn’t the exact spot the game wanted to be at, I couldn’t interact with the chest.  Each one of these chests was a piece of trial and error as I slowly moved Oliver around until an exclamation point popped up over his head.

The game's many familiars and deploying them properly are often the difference between success and failure for Oliver.

The game’s many familiars and deploying them properly are often the difference between success and failure for Oliver.

The battle system is not perfect but it’s far from broken and it contains enough depth to remain interesting.  It does take getting used to though, which makes Ni no Kuni the rare game where the beginning is more difficult than the end.  Especially because early on the player will only have Oliver and one or two familiars at his or her disposal.  With such limited options, it basically means most battles will require proper defense to make it through.  During battle, a well-timed attack can stop an enemy dead in its tracks.  It also can cause a special gold “glim” to appear, which when obtained, triggers an ultimate attack or special move.  What the game doesn’t convey properly early on is that well-timed defense is actually a better strategy for getting these glims to appear, and for the first couple of boss fights, these gold glims are tide-turners.  Later on in the game Oliver and his familiars will have access to a wide range of spells and abilities capable of striking from a distance making these super moves less important, but early it can be a challenge to topple a boss character.  After that though, the game is basically as hard or as easy as the player wants to make it.  As is typical of the genre, the world map opens up gradually as the game progresses by giving the player new modes of transportation to utilize, starting with sea and then ultimately air travel.  Once the seas open up though, the player can find some tucked-away areas where certain enemies frequent that grant boatloads of experience points.  If at any point a player finds the game too hard, they can simply go off and level-grind their way through it.  Spend enough time leveling-up, and the game becomes a breeze.  Even without doing so, the game is far from difficult.  Once the main campaign is bested, some more difficult challenges await but a Ruby Weapon you will not find.

Oliver and his friends are sure to leave an impression on anyone who plays Ni no Kuni and sees the story through to its conclusion.

Oliver and his friends are sure to leave an impression on anyone who plays Ni no Kuni and sees the story through to its conclusion.

Ultimately, what separates Ni no Kuni from its peers is the story and presentation.  The tale of a heart-broken young boy just trying to save his mother against all odds is touching and sobering.  In a world of fantastic creatures and unbelievable happenings, it’s a grounded premise that anyone can relate to.  The general presentation for the rest of the game is truly unparalleled.  Other games possess greater raw processing power and more detailed texture maps, but as far as artistic presentation goes I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed or been more impressed by any other game’s visuals than Ni no Kuni’s.  It’s beautiful, and I often found myself getting lost in the scenery more than once.  The battle system took time to grow on me, and there’s no doubt I would have preferred a more traditional turn-based approach, but it does possess its own charms and once I felt comfortable with it the game opened up for me.  The game is designed to entertain gamers of all ages, meaning it does have to cater to younger gamers at times.  It probably holds your hand too tight, with the same explanation for what the Veil spell does popping up every time it’s cast, but such annoyances are minor quibbles of an otherwise excellent game.  The game is a true JRPG, a genre that may finally be making a comeback, which means it has all of the charms and all of the annoyances inherent in the genre.  There are tons of fetch-quests to go on, the story unfolds in a strictly linear fashion, and there’s probably way more text in this game than anyone cares to read, but it’s also a grand tale that unfolds in a satisfying manner with lots to see and explore.  If this is a genre you’ve always loved, then Ni no Kuni is a game that should not be missed.  And if you’re new to it, Ni no Kuni is a great place to start.