This is the second part of my three-part retrospective series on Japanese game developer Level-5. You can go back and read the first part where I cover the founding of the studio and the first games they worked on here.
Professor Layton, Level-5’s First Independent Project
In the mid-2000s, after the release of the Nintendo DS, Hino was inspired by both a book of brain exercises by Akira Tago and the popularity of Nintendo DS staple, Brain Age (known as Brain Training outside of North America), to make a new puzzle game. Hino even teamed up with the author in order to make this new title, but when they realized that the rights to Tago’s book were owned by another company, Hino suggested they have characters solve puzzles along a Sherlock Holmes inspired storyline, using said puzzles to help solve mysteries. In 2007, Professor Layton and the Curious Village — celebrating its 12th anniversary not too long ago — was released for the Nintendo DS and grew to be a massive success. In an interview with Glixel, Hino attributed Professor Layton‘s success in the West to the elements they took from European animation and movies, appealing to many people across different cultures. Additionally, in an interview with Eurogamer about Level-5’s 20th anniversary, Hino stated that the success of Professor Layton as Level-5’s first original IP gave them confidence that their artwork and video games could have a significant impact not only in Japan but also worldwide. The series has seen many sequels since then as well as a feature film, anime series, manga, and novel series. The most recent title, Layton’s Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires Conspiracy – Deluxe Edition, an enhanced Nintendo Switch port of the 2017 Nintendo 3DS and mobile title of the same name, was released worldwide just last year.
Jeanne D’Arc Marks Level-5’s Debut on PSPSomewhere around 2006, in addition to their upcoming Nintendo DS debut, Level-5 began development on their first game for the PlayStation Portable which was rumored to be a simulation game based on historical figure Joan of Arc — but with some fantastical elements– and published by Sony themselves. Later revealed to be a strategy RPG called Jeanne D’Arc, in an interview with RPG Land, it was said that the decision to develop a game in that particular genre was based on the strengths and features of the PSP while also having staff who had previously worked on other games in the genre. Level-5 also decided to design Jeanne D’Arc as the type of strategy game that would appeal to both veterans and newcomers in order to have a wider appeal. Jeanne D’Arc released in Japan on November 26, 2006, while it reached North America on August 21, 2007. After release, Jeanne D’Arc gained mostly positive reception, with critics praising it as a more competent strategy RPG than its contemporaries at the time.
Inazuma Eleven Kicks Its Way Into Japan and Europe
In 2008, Level-5 released its first entry in soccer RPG series Inazuma Eleven, a game that North America wouldn’t see until it received an enhanced port on Nintendo 3DS in 2014 and to this day is the only game in the series to ever reach North American shores.
The three main Inazuma Eleven games were all released for Nintendo DS in Japan and Europe, with later games each having two separate versions, and all three later received updated versions in a compilation for the Nintendo 3DS in Japan in 2012. The second series trilogy, Inazuma Eleven GO, were all released in Japan between 2011 and 2013, once again having two versions for later entries, and with only the first two receiving European localizations in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Several anime series and movies based on Inazuma Eleven have also been created, surprisingly including an English dub of Inazuma Eleven available on Amazon Prime Video as well as an English dub of Inazuma Eleven Ares that finished airing on Disney XD in 2019, with the first episode and some highlights available on their YouTube channel.
Despite not being as popular as Level-5’s other IPs, Inazuma Eleven games are still being developed by the studio. The most recent games, however, have seen multiple delays in the past few years. While the mobile title, Inazuma Eleven SD, was released in Japan on January 3, 2020, the next core title in the series, Inazuma Eleven: Heroes Great Road (originally titled Inazuma Eleven Ares) originally had a 2018 launch window for both PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch but experienced several delays as well. Heroes Great Road eventually changed its launch window from 2018 to 2020. These delays were frequent enough that the Inazuma Eleven Ares anime series finished airing, both in Japan and worldwide, before the game was finished. Even the sequel series, Inazuma Eleven: The Seal of Orion had finished airing in Japan in September 2019. This may have been the reason why Level-5 changed the game’s title and is reworking certain features. In an issue of Famitsu after the most recent delay, Akihiro Hino stated, “Our development for games keep getting delayed, so it continues to make all our fans worry, but I want to properly build up titles we’re currently working on.” In that time, a North American localization for the game was confirmed, but during the Level-5 panel at Anime Expo 2019 (which I attended myself), speakers declined to comment on whether the game would receive a Western localization when asked. Since then, there hasn’t been any official word about Heroes Great Road seeing a release outside of Japan. Luckily, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch don’t have region lock like the Nintendo 3DS does, so international fans will still be able to play the game even if it isn’t localized, although it may be more difficult to play for those who can’t read Japanese. In April 2020, Level -5 announced that Inazuma Eleven Heroes Great Road had once again been delayed, this time to 2021.
According to a translation by BlackKite and JapaneseNintendo, Level-5 CEO Akihiro Hino stated in a blog post that there have been some difficult problems in development, including rising online criticism and declining staff motivation. Hino also stated that the team almost completely gave up on the game, but decided to restart development instead. This new Inazuma Eleven game is planned to utilize the development system and engine used for recent titles in the Yo-Kai Watch series, to make sure it maintains the high level of quality Hino would like Level-5 to be known for. This new Inazuma Eleven will also be a “brand-new title with a new feeling” and will not be directly tied to an anime series as it was previously. That being said, it is expected to be more beginner-friendly and have a higher degree of freedom, possibly integrating features from previous series installments while also still adding some new ones.
While fans will have to wait longer for the next Inazuma Eleven title, it’s also possible that the upcoming international release of Captain Tsubasa: Rise of the New Champions could give players a renewed interest in the series, with Inazuma Eleven resembling a cross between Captain Tsubasa and Dragon Ball Z.
Tiny Battling Robots Reappear in Japan with Little Battlers eXperience
2008 was also when Level-5 started development on another series as well as its first take on the mecha genre known as Little Battlers eXperience (or Danboru Senki in Japan). Little Battlers eXperience features small customizable robots battling each other in special arenas, which sounds similar to a few other games which came before it. It wasn’t until June 16, 2011, that the first Little Battlers eXperience title would see its release on PSP in Japan. After the release of its debut title in Japan, Little Battlers Experience went on to receive several sequels on the PSP as well as the Nintendo 3DS. It wasn’t until 2015 that Little Battlers eXperience would see its first and only release outside of Japan with LBX: Little Battlers eXperience on the Nintendo 3DS in 2015, which is a remake of the first game in the series. Like Inazuma Eleven, Little Battlers eXperience also received several anime as well as manga adaptations. Oddly enough, the one anime series to be dubbed into English, Little Battlers eXperience W, is based on one of the games that never released outside of Japan. The most recent game in the series, Little Battlers eXperience Wars, was released for Nintendo 3DS in Japan on October 31st, 2013. As of writing, there has been no official word on whether the series will return.
Returning to Dragon Quest Once More
While Level-5 had been developing all these new projects, they were also working on the next mainline Dragon Quest title, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, with Hino directing once again to help revolutionize the series a second time. Hino actually convinced Horii to develop Dragon Quest IX exclusively for Nintendo DS, due to the success of Professor Layton and the widespread popularity of the console. According to Tom Magrino of GameSpot, Square Enix had hoped to broaden the international appeal of Dragon Quest by having Dragon Quest IX feature more action-oriented gameplay. Dragon Quest IX was notable for being the first entry in the series to feature a completely customizable main character and party, as well as the only entry to be exclusive to handheld and to feature two to four-person local co-op multiplayer. Dragon Quest IX also happens to be the only main Dragon Quest entry to contain a single save file. In an article by Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku, Ryatarou Ichimura claimed this was due to the size of data, also citing the amount of freedom given to players for this entry. Another reason was so that there could be back-up data in case the Nintendo DS battery died. Dragon Quest IX was also notable for having an increased difficulty over its predecessors. Dragon Quest IX also contains an infinite number of randomly generated treasure maps players can use to find valuable materials and utilized the Nintendo DS StreetPass function so players could trade maps.
Dragon Quest IX also experienced several delays, originally planned to release in 2007 but was later pushed back to 2008 and then 2009, with both Square Enix and fans worried it would negatively impact the release of Final Fantasy XIII. Once Dragon Quest IX was finally released in Japan, it sold over 2.3 million copies in its first 48 hours, selling even better than its predecessor. For its international release, it was the top-selling Nintendo DS game for two weeks after release as well as the eighth best selling game of July 2010, selling over a million copies in the U.S, and Europe by the end of the fiscal year. Dragon Quest IX went on to receive positive international reception and several awards both before and after its international release. Famitsu even gave it a perfect 40/40 score, making it the 10th game to receive one.
While Level-5’s involvement in the development of Dragon Quest IX hasn’t been discussed as much as it had been with Dragon Quest VIII (at least in English), the developer had largely the same role with each game. In 2019, Akihiro Hino actually appeared alongside Yuji Horii for a live stream celebrating the 10th anniversary of Dragon Quest IX. During the live stream, the two discussed the possibility of an enhanced port for the Nintendo Switch. While nothing was officially announced, it’s at least notable that it was taken into consideration.
A Disappointing Debut on PlayStation 3
Sometime prior to the launch on the PlayStation 3, Level-5 started working on White Knight Chronicles, an action RPG as well as the studio’s first game for the console. Fans were understandably hyped after the first gameplay trailer was revealed at the 2006 Tokyo Game Show but were eventually disappointed when the final product didn’t turn out like what was originally advertised. The first game in the series was released in Japan in 2008, with an updated version in 2009, and a localized version launching in Western territories throughout early 2010. White Knight Chronicles received mixed reviews, with many praising the combat system but criticizing the online multiplayer aspect. Despite the less than positive reception, White Knight Chronicles went on to have a sequel on PlayStation 3 known as White Knight Chronicles II. The sequel also received mixed reception, and slightly lower scores than the first due to having only subtle improvements, disregarding reasonable criticisms of the first game, and a lackluster single-player mode. A prequel for the PSP known as White Knight Chronicles: Origins was released for PSP in Japan, Europe, and Australia in 2011 and did not receive a North American release. White Knight Chronicles may have been a letdown for Level-5, but they were about to bounce back with their next PlayStation 3 title.
Level-5 Teams Up with Renowned Anime Studio for Ni no Kuni
Besides the debut of Inazuma Eleven, 2008 also marked the year that Level-5 began its partnership with Studio Ghibli to create a new JRPG titled Ni no Kuni, which featured animated cutscenes by the latter and utilized graphics imitating Ghibli’s signature art style, even featuring a soundtrack by Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi. This collaboration was somewhat of a feat within itself, due to Ghibli previously not wanting video game adaptations of their work, but once Hino proposed the idea of Ni no Kuni to the studio, everything was set in motion.
The first version of Ni no Kuni wasn’t the PlayStation 3 title beloved by fans worldwide, however, although it was originally the first version planned. In Japan, the first title in the series was released on the Nintendo DS as Ni no Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn in 2010 due to the large Nintendo DS user base in Japan at the time. As opposed to the slightly more action-oriented gameplay of the PlayStation 3 version, Dominion of the Dark Djinn was fully turn-based and had a third-person view with your party on the lower screen and enemies on the top screen, with the ability to place characters in different spots for strategic advantages. Dominion of the Dark Djinn also utilized the Nintendo DS touch screen by having players draw different symbols to cast spells, while still also featuring the same Imajinn taming system to add monsters to your party and evolve them.
The enhanced PlayStation 3 version, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, was released for PlayStation 3 in Japan in 2011 and worldwide the following year, receiving international critical praise. Ni no Kuni even saw the release of a remaster for PlayStation 4 and PC, as well as a port for Nintendo Switch just last year.
The sequel Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, still used the same style as its predecessor, but was not produced in conjunction with Studio Ghibli and no longer featured traditionally animated cutscenes, due to the animation studio not being active at that time. In an interview with The Verge, Hino stated that Level-5 directly approached many people who worked with them on the first Ni no Kuni including former Ghibli animator and character designer Yoshiyuki Momose as well as composer Joe Hisaishi, further clarifying that the staff who worked on the sequel is largely the same as that of the first, but with different legality and organizational structure. Ni no Kuni II featured much more action-oriented gameplay than either of its predecessors, featuring an emphasis on real-time combat, which according to Hino is more of an international design rather than the Japan-focused design of the first game, where players don’t have to focus as much on the action. Although Ni no Kuni II wasn’t quite as beloved as the first game, it still received critical praise despite the different gameplay elements and lack of traditionally animated cutscenes. While it’s currently unknown if a third core Ni no Kuni game will be made, the franchise is still going strong to this day in other forms. The upcoming mobile MMORPG, Ni no Kuni: Cross Worlds, will be heading to mobile phones in Japan sometime in the second half of 2020, and a new movie based on the franchise but loosely connected to the games was released in Japan in 2019 and on Netflix in select territories this past January. The first Ni no Kuni may have marked Level-5’s first attempt at a JRPG with creature capturing mechanics, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Make sure to read part 3 too!