For their new RPG "Ni no Kuni", developer Level 5 have brought to the world of gaming not only famed animation studio Studio Ghibli, but also frequent Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi, composer of such films as Laputa, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Hisaishi embeds his orchestral score for Ni no Kuni Original Soundtrack with many of the qualities of his classic Ghibli works, though only occasionally matching his very best.
The majority of the score's worth lies in its two main themes, both of which deservedly receive the reprise treatment. In album opener "Ni no Kuni Main Theme", you can sense Hisaishi removing all restraint in making a full-on game theme, shifting with hardly a beat between a blaring, majestic brass fanfare and a wispy, idealistic flute theme for the game's adolescent protagonist. Its more march-like reprise "To the Decisive Battle" doesn't vary that much, but the source theme is so enthralling you'll still love every second of it. The other major theme lies in the game's ending vocal piece "Fragments of Hearts", which has a pure, almost angelic quality akin to Final Fantasy III Eternal Legend of the Wind's "Roaming Sheep" and Ico's "You Were There" - not quite as moving as those two classics but beautiful nonetheless. Even better is its instrumental arrangement "Field", which like the soundtrack's main theme balances the bold brass of a daring adventure with the gentle strings and woodwinds of adolescent innocence, and more than any other track exhibits the magic and wonder found in Hisaishi's best Ghibli works.
Aside from the two main themes and their reprises, only a couple other pieces really stand out individually. "The First Morning" sounds exactly like its title, with fluttering flutes and gentle strings painting grassy green meadows akin to the naturalistic pieces in the Viva Pinata soundtracks. "Neko Kingdom Castle Town" is also perfect for its name, combining that wispy flute that surfaces throughout the soundtrack with folksy violins and regal trumpets, reminscent of Final Fantasy XII's Rabanastre themes.
The rest of the soundtrack takes qualities of Hisaishi's previous Studio Ghibli works and tailors them to the game's scenarios. "Shizuku" and "Imargen Battle" have that eccentric mystique found in Howl's Moving Castle, while "Imperial March" and "Final Battle" sound patterned after corresponding pieces in the Princess Mononoke soundtracks. However I wouldn't say the Ni no Kuni pieces demonstrate anything particularly new or notable over those previous works. The quirky theme that leads "Hotroit" is promising, but after its brief intro appearance sadly fails to reappear. In this and several other pieces, you get the sense that were Hisaishi composing for more than the two to three minute span that most tracks are limited, he could have developed them into something more significant.
From the opening "Main Theme" to not quite the halfway point of the soundtrack at "Nekko Kingdom Castle Town", Ni no Kuni progresses much in the way I would hope for a highly anticipated new Ghibli soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi. The remainder, however, I find mostly forgettable, with the exception of two very nice reprises. To someone new to Hisaishi's work I imagine the entire soundtrack would sound entirely novel, but really someone new to Hisaishi's work should begin with one of his even better anime efforts (Princess Mononoke and either Howl's Moving Castle Image Album or Studio Ghibli Symphonic Suite being my personal recommendations). As for those familiar with Hisaishi's work and eager to hear more, Ni no Kuni provides that opportunity, as long as a good Hisaishi score and not a consistently great one will suffice.