A role-playing video game developed between Level 5 and the acclaimed animation studio Studio Ghibli, Ni No Kuni (aka "Ni No Kuni Shikkoku No Madoush" or Second Country) has been developed for release on both the Nintendo DS and Playstation 3 consoles. Released to massive commercial success on the DS at the end of 2010 (securing 600,000 pre-orders in Japan), it features the kind of cinematic tapestry that is becoming increasingly prevalent in contemporary gaming – the kind of tapestry which also provides a boon to the composer signed on to score the project. It's interesting to note how console games are increasingly embracing the notion of "big", old-fashioned orchestral scoring, and hearkening back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Increasingly nowadays it seems as if more games than films are being scored in such a fashion, what with the prevalent Hans Zimmer "Remote Control" aesthetic taking over many a contemporary blockbuster.
The cinematic scoring of games of course is no new thing – Bruce Broughton and Michael Giacchino have provided noteworthy examples over the years. In this instance, Ghibli regular Joe Hisaishi stepped up to the plate to deliver an extraordinary score, one of the best of his career to date. Even amid the wider canon of video game scoring, Hisaishi's robust effort deserves a special mention, embracing the approach laid down by his Hollywood contemporaries and yet giving them a real run for their money. It's a real pleasure to indulge in proper musical storytelling such as this. Hisaishi has always been a firm practitioner of beautiful melody through his collaborations with both Ghibli (Spirited Away) and Takeshi Kitano (Kikujiro) but he takes it to the next level here. There's never a sense the music is being used as wallpaper; Hisaishi applies different orchestral textures, themes and motifs to different parts of the score, ensuring his music becomes a vital piece of storytelling in its own right.
Performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, it starts where any great score should and that's with a dynamic, memorable main theme. Alternating between tremendous blasts of brass and percussion and a lovely, wistful wind theme, it is one of the best "journey establishing" themes of a score this year – and an ideal starting point for the game. Even without knowledge of the game itself, one still senses how effectively the score is narrating it, simply by how it utilises different parts of the orchestra to reflect different emotions, be it featherweight winds, strings and chimes in "First Dawn" to the skipping strings giving a palpable sense of flighty movement in "Hotroit".
Of particular note is the lovely "Recollection", transforming into a heavenly harp, piano and chime theme that is appropriately reflective and dreamy. "Raindrops" is indicative of Hisaishi's wonderfully impressionistic style, utilising chirpy winds and strings to represent the pitter patter of water in a way that is quite delightfully old-fashioned, before growing alarmingly strident and powerful in the second half.
Things take on a martial edge through the inclusion of snare drums and the full orchestra in "The Plot Thickens" and "A Powerful Magic", moving the score from intimacy into full-blown grandeur. "Field" brings back the memorable main theme, simply bursting with life and vigour. "Castle Town" is a delightfully authentic piece full of tambourines and dancing winds and carrying something of a medieval vibe, adding a dash of cultural flavour to the player's journey in the game. "Desert Kingdom" takes the score in yet another direction with tapping percussion and Middle Eastern instruments adding yet more regional variety.
As if one hadn't noticed John Williams' influence looming over the score already, Hisaishi's cheeky inclusion of a track entitled "Imperial March" should ram it home. Unsurprisingly, much like Williams' classic theme, it's a tongue in cheek brassy march that would appear to represent the villains in the game, although carrying something more of a militaristic edge. Two 'building' cues, "Crisis" and "Tension" fulfil their objective in evoking an agitated sense of jittery emotion prior to the onslaught of battle music towards the end of the score – and very impressive it is too. "Battle" and "Imagen Battle" continue to carry a somewhat tongue in cheek air; in between is "Jabo, the Black" which moulds the main theme in a dramatic action context and lends the score the thematic backbone it needs.
"Labyrinth" again builds the tension by moving from xylophones to increasingly outré statements from the full orchestra before it's all let loose in the explosive and terrific duo of "To the Decisive Battle" and "Final Battle" where the main theme gets its most heroic statements courtesy of the powerful brass section, accompanied by huge drum rolls and cymbal clashes. The latter raises the tension by pitting the main and Imperial March themes together in the final showdown. Everything is brought to a satisfying conclusion in the gorgeous "Reunion", which ushers in the breathless piano theme from "Recollection" before the full orchestra brings proceedings to a rousing close. "Kokoro no Katera" ends the score with an attractive vocal performance of the main theme in Japanese, the orchestra gradually building in tandem with the singing to end on the best possible note.
It's a pity to have to say it but the reason why Ni No Kuni is such an entertaining and powerful score is because of how old-fashioned it is, utilising a multitude of themes and strong incidental pieces in the classic Golden Age tradition. Of course, many modern day Hollywood composers still favour harmonically pleasing ensembles (look at John Powell or Alexandre Desplat) but throwback scores like Hisaishi's are becoming increasingly rare. Therefore Ni No Kuni is to be savoured and treasured, deserving only the highest praise. It's enervating to have a modern-day composer draw on the grandest Hollywood traditions; what's surprising is that it's a Japanese composer doing it.
The score has so far had a limited release in the West, being restricted to import copies on Amazon and available on other outlets such as this link on Play Asia. If your preference is to order from the UK or US Amazon stores, then try these links for Import CDs: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.