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On the horizon


In an astonishingly short period of time, Japanese developer Level-5 has transformed itself from a small developer operating under Sony's wing to one of the premier independent game companies in the world. They've set the bar high, releasing a series of highly polished, well-crafted RPGs, including the under-appreciated Dark Chronicle, Dragon Quest VIII, Rogue Galaxy, and Jeanne d'Arc.

In 2007 Level-5 released Professor Layton and the Curious Village, a departure from its RPG-exclusive focus, and a flag planted firmly in the soil of Nintendo's portable juggernaut. Between now and the end of 2010, Level-5 will release 15 more games for the DS, including Dragon Quest IX and two more Professor Layton titles. Time will tell if the developer can sustain its standard of excellence across so many releases.

Tucked in among those forthcoming releases are two games that have captured my attention, despite precious little information available about them: Fantasy Life and The Another World. I know the gap between pre-release excitement and post-release reality is often wide and sobering, but a few things about these games make me think we have good reasons to be hopeful. Level-5's involvement is one of them, but there's more.

Fantasy-Life Fantasy LIfe is a collaboration between Level-5 and Brownie Brown. For some of you, that may be all you need to know. Brownie Brown (along with HAL Laboratory) developed Mother 3, a game I consider one of the finest RPGs ever made. It also features a soundtrack by the renowned Nobuo Uematsu, composer for the Final Fantasy series.

That's an impressive pedigree, but what really excites me about Fantasy Life (and it sure ain't the generic name) is Level-5 president and lead designer Ahihiro Hino's description of the game as a "slow-life RPG." The game presents a persistent world ala Animal Crossing in which the player creates a character and then selects one of 20 lives to lead - such as guard, merchant or miner - and then goes about daily life accomplishing tasks associated with that chosen life, slowly attaining happiness.[1]

The player can live in two fantasy kingdoms; one populated by NPCs, and the other by other players living their own lives via wi-fi connection. Fantasy Life won't appeal to everyone. But to a player like me, for whom games like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, and The Sims hold a strange allure, the concept of a "slow-life" experience in an evolving virtual world that I carry in my pocket? Bring me that game.

The-Another-World The other forthcoming Level-5 game is potentially even more exciting than the first, and again pedigree is a factor. The Another World is a collaboration between Level-5 and the legendary animation house Studio Ghibli.

This game represents Studio Ghibli's first foray into games, and while details on the game are sketchy, we know the game will include a magic book containing various spells activated using drawings with the stylus. The game will also include an actual booklet that is meant to represent the magic book from the game and is required to play the game.[2] Early screenshots and artwork suggest Studio Ghibli's loving touch.

The November issue of Nintendo Power revealed that Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke) is composing a fully orchestrated soundtrack, which will require the game to be released on a 4-gigabit cartridge, the largest ever used for a DS game. Once again, I say bring me this game.

FYI, Gamasutra recently ran an interview with Level-5's Hino in which he discusses the keys to his company's success. It's well worth your time, if only for Hino's explanation of what he calls "boom triggers."

Here's hoping at least one of these games delivers on its promises. But, hey, why not both?