A lot of people really like the art style in this Ni no Kuni game, but to me- similar to when you see the CG ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast, or the bird in A Bug's Life- it just looks really outdated. It's in a kind of Uncanny Valley where it ALMOST looks like an anime, but is stil so far away from that goal. So to stop me raining on everyone's parade in every comments section: I'll just make one thread and that can be the home for all my parade-raining.
FRAMES PER SECOND
Cartoons on television and in movies run at 24fps. Most of the time, an animation team drawing everything by hand will draw 1 new image every 2 or 3 frames- so basically an anime is animated at 12, sometimes 8, sometimes 6 frames per second. The typical Japanese animation studio isn't as well funded as a Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon affiliate, so they've made really good use over the years of adapting to a low framerate. Characters hold their poses a lot, there's way more talking than there is action, etc. This is super clear in anime TV shows, but also informs the low framerate that you can see in this trailer.
So that's my first point: Videogames run at 30 or 60fps none-stop. For as long as they do that: They're not moving like an anime. FUNNILY ENOUGH THOUGH, Shadow of the Colossus actually does have a really low framerate. So that game does stagger and jitter around, and it's subjective whether or not you agree, but I actually think it works. Notable mention: DoubleFine's BRAZEN prototype tried some animation tricks to emulate a different style. It's not anime, but it's a creative idea. Instead of having the computer generate everything inbetween Frame 1 and Frame 100, I'm guessing they had the animator actually go in MAYA and set each frame individually... Anyway next point:
POLYGONSHand-drawn animation can have as much fidelity in the curves as it likes. It's just pencil on paper, basically. Real-time rendered animation can't do that, each circle and sphere has to be MADE OUT OF STRAIGHT LINES. So the sad reality is that everything in this game is made out of straight lines. Don't get me wrong, it's not just this game- If you made a game out of The Simpsons you'd have the same problem.
I think games like Catherine and Valkyria Chronicles can get away with this more easily, because those styles are already built on straight lines:
This kind of Ghibli art is not that, and infact most of their mascots are literally just circles, or teardrop shapes, or weird squiggle fairies. You'd think they'd avoid close-ups right? Putting an outline around everything emphasizes this limitation.
A game to check out, on this topic, is Zone of the Enders 2. It's a game about giant robots that goes for an anime style. The giant robots are designed to be really angular, and look great in the game engine because they're not trying to simulate any curves. The HUMAN CHARACTERS are all hand-drawn animation for 100% of the game though. They're never rendered in polygons, because the art director recognized these limitations, and knew that they'd lead to the kind of dissonance that I think Ni no Kuni has.
SIMULATIONThis is a pretty basic one: on pen and paper you can draw literally anything doing anything. If you wanna have 10 characters who each have a fluid, billowing cape that stretches a mile behind them: go nuts. This game struggles to animate 1 cape for about 3 feet.
Of course that's every game- The guards' long trench-coats in Dishonored are actually pinned to the back of their legs, because they can't simulate air resistance on all of them. It'll take up too much RAM and gigabits and so on. So this character's low-poly cape doesn't really BILLOW so much as it just stretches, skews and waves.
You've got the same problem in just the 3D animator's toolset. Gainax animation (FLCL, Gurren Lagann, Dead Leaves etc) is famous for twisting and ripping their characters to pieces. If you wanna curve a character's arm 20ft behind their body, and twist their face into a skullamungo grimace, then you can draw that:
For games that spend more research and development on animation tools, check out: Team Fortress 2, Heavy Rain.
WORK AROUND IT!Remember how I mentioned Zone of Enders 2 before, how they made a game about pointy, angular robots and only ever showed the humans in 2D? They carved a path out where they wouldn't bump into as many of these limitations. Ni no Kuni has:
A) Chose the Studio Ghibli drawing style, which is as round as it pretty much gets
B) Came up with mascots that would be a huge struggle to recreate polygonaly for basically all of the above reasons:
C) Included ACTUAL CEL-ANIMATED CUTSCENES just to remind you what it's ACTUALLY SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE at annual checkpoints in the game... It's like showing the amazing cutscenes for Wold of Warcraft next to the actual models.
D) Chose to take the studio famous for animating humanistic life and expression into it's characters, and bring it into the medium that's famously bad at that.
E) Gave their main character a cape... he might as well juts be holding a sign that says "I'm rendering this as best I can, please use liberal suspension of disbelief".
F) Keeps doing close-ups of it's low-poly flat-shaded characters, even though the oil-painting backgrounds actually look great!
G) They tried to make a game that looks like an anime, knowing full well that you can't get 100% of the way there. At least not yet. I think other games have actually done a better job at that, like I've mentioned.
and long-story-short: ran straight at everything videogames are typically bad at doing, and smacked right into it. I'm not saying don't try anything ever... I'm just saying there are ways to make your shortcomings less visible.