Next up in a series of games that I have had sitting on my PS4 for literal years and have just constantly put off getting around to playing for no good reason: it’s Ni no Kuni II! I think in this game’s case it was largely because the original game, while still a fine JRPG, didn’t inspire great waves of adoration in me. Despite the connection with the vaunted Studio Ghibli, Level-5’s game was hampered by the constant appropriation of mechanics from other (often better) franchises and then not really doing anything exciting with them, although I still enjoyed it – a fine JRPG is a fine JRPG, after all, and I’m a sucker for that. Ni no Kuni II, then, was forced to languish, untouched on my console until now, lest it commit the sins of its predecessor.
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Switch)
Released Mar 2018 | Developed: Level-5 | Published: Bandai Namco
Genre: Action-RPG, JRPG | HLTB: 39 hours
This threw me at first but Ni no Kuni II seems to be a sequel largely in name only. I don’t know why I found this odd – plenty of great and venerable JRPG franchises eschew linking their games’ narratives, such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest – but Ni no Kuni II doesn’t quite do even that. Instead it opts to give us some connections to the previous game but not only are they sometimes very minor and oblique, but they also typically seem almost vestigial, as if the idea was at first to make a sequel but then the story was written and the continuation of the world and its grander narrative was pushed aside.
I’ll try to explain. Ni no Kuni is predicated on the idea of alternate, parallel worlds. In the first game our hero, the young lad Oliver, lived in a quaint pre-50’s Detroit-esque haven before finding himself drawn into the other world, a magical fantasy land, after the death of his mother. Although these worlds are separate and different, one of the core concepts was the notion of soulmates, individuals who are linked between worlds and who can unknowingly affect one another’s lives. In Ni no Kuni II, our protagonist is Roland, a man who lives in a more modern American-style setting who also is transported to this other world. In fact, both characters end up in the same place, the idyllic kingdom of Ding Dong Dell, and early on in the game Roland learns of a legendary hero who is a very clearly mythologised ideation of Ollie. You’d think then, that the games are obviously linked and that this is the same place but a long time on from the events of the first game.
Yet, other than those two things, Ni no Kuni II might as well be a completely different world entirely. There’s a new world map, new races inhabit the various lands of the other world, and references to the previous game are all but nowhere to be found. It’s a little unsettling, if I’m being totally honest; I was kind of expecting a closer link to make itself apparent the entire time I was playing. One reference to the notion of soulmates does crop up towards the later stages of the game but it feels almost inconsequential, compared to the prime place of importance it has in the first game. Still, it’s probably for the best that the two games aren’t strongly connected as it makes it much more accessible to new players, and despite being a nominal sequel, you absolutely don’t have to have played Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch to enjoy Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom.
In fact, in many ways I think Ni no Kuni II really trades on how different it is from its predecessor. Everything is much darker and more bleak, for a start, which is impressive given the first game begins with a child’s mother dying. Ni no Kuni II opens with a bang, literally – we’re introduced to Roland, an old man who is President of some analogous nation to the USA, who watches helplessly as a city before him is nuked into oblivion. As the blast radiates out and tears his motorcade to shreds he vanishes and wakes in the unfamiliar stone walls of Ding Dong Dell. He can’t catch a break though as the castle is under attack; he’s arrived in the middle of a violent coup and, along with the bewildered and naive young prince Evan, he has to escape.
Don’t worry, we do get a bright spot to keep our chins up after all this. Evan and Roland become fast friends as the young prince resolves to found a new kingdom and begin a process of uniting the other realms under the banner of a declaration of interdependence (har har, very clever). It’s like empire building, but nicer. It’s as this plot develops that Ni no Kuni II returns to follow in the footsteps of the first game as it builds on a safe and familiar foundation of JRPG tropes and easily recognisable narrative movements, and much like the previous game this is both a strength and weakness. Certainly it helps Ni no Kuni II sit in that sweet spot of accessibility for a wide-ranging audience, and the odd darker moment gives it a similar feel to older Disney movies – it’s definitely playable for a younger player but it’s not averse to touching on tougher themes. Equally, because of the distance it establishes from the first game any returning fans expecting something similar should be pleasantly surprised as Ni no Kuni II forges ahead on its own path.
Central to its story are Roland and Evan, and the relationship the two construct as Roland uses his experiences as a President to help mould Evan into a model ruler for his new kingdom. Although an old man in his world, once Roland arrives in the other world he finds himself magically returned to his prime (presumably so it feels a bit more believable when he’s swinging a sword acrobatically around in combat), and it makes him cut a more worldly figure, seemingly wise beyond his apparent years in the other world. He doesn’t really have much in the way of faults it seems: he’s kind, patient, and even aware of when it behooves a leader to be cunning and savvy, and he imparts all of this onto Evan with nary an askance eye at the young king’s throne. You’d think this makes him eye-rollingly Mary Sue-esque, but cleverly the game throws a bit of a bait-and-switch for us; although we start with Roland, by only a couple of chapters in, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not the main protagonist, and Evan steps more and more into the spotlight.
Evan, in contrast, has plenty of flaws. Most of these stem, naturally, from the trauma of his father’s murder and the loss of his kingdom at the outset of the game. His young age begets naivety, and he holds onto a seemingly impossible ideal of founding a new home that eliminates the need for war. Roland steps into his shadow as an advisor and friend, and so much of the game becomes about realising Evan’s substantial personal growth. Although the tropes that Evan embodies at the start may make some folk – indeed, myself included – balk and groan at the prospect of dealing with this child for the next 30+ hours, I actually found Evan’s arc to be a fantastically satisfying one, and both he and Roland remained permanent fixtures in my party because of it. The same, regretfully, can’t be said of the rest of the cast, who, while fine, don’t really get any kind of character moments beyond perhaps the chapter they’re introduced in. Most fall prey to being designed with one or two personality traits and then left, and this extends even to the other party members. It really is just Roland and Evan’s journey, and the rest of the cast are along for the ride.
But what a ride it is! Ni no Kuni II changes up almost everything in terms of gameplay from the first game, and anyone going in (as I did) expecting things to be a bit similar will be greatly surprised. For a start, the weird, stilted combat from the first Ni no Kuni, where you gave orders to your familiars and watched them get on with it is entirely out, and a faster, more hack-and-slash style action system is in. Random encounters still happen on the world map, but once you’re in you’re given direct control over one of your party members, and you can attack with impunity using both melee and ranged attacks. Each character equips 3 melee weapons, and you can cycle between them during combat; the reason for this is because each weapon comes with a gauge which, once full, can be spent to use a special attack. Once that metre is spent however, you can switch to a weapon with a more full gauge and continue the chain of unleashing power moves. The game even has an option to give you more or less control of this, letting you switch between manually moving between weapons or letting the AI take over and switching automatically to whichever one has the highest gauge, which is a very neat option to have. Because of this, the combat is much more frenetic and fast-paced, and fights against random mooks can be over very quickly, which is precisely how random fights in JRPGs ought to be, in order to facilitate less time spent grinding.
Familiars are also replaced. Gone are the systems letting you tame wild monsters and deploy them in battle alongside you; instead Ni no Kuni II offers us the use of Higgledies. These are elemental sprites, visually reminiscent of the kodama from Princess Mononoke, who accompany the team into fights. Up to 4 different ones can come along, and each one has their own elemental typing and moveset, meaning you’re encouraged to mix and match in order to find which Higgledies work best for you. Randomly during fights they’ll all clump together to try and do a big special move, which the player has control over when or if it goes off; keeping an eye on them in the midst of a melee can be tricky, and sometimes the things the Higgledies do are less than brilliant, but they can certainly help change the tide of combat when you need them to.
Ni no Kuni II also really loves giving you loads of loot. Every fight, right from the start, positively showers you with random bits and bobs. At first they seem utterly pointless but once you found your kingdom their use becomes clear as you can start to use them to upgrade your weapons and armour. Similarly, you can also funnel materials into crafting and upgrading new Higgledies in order to further customise your party. Along with upgrade materials you’ll also get a ton of weapon drops; in fact, I got so many that I found buying weapons was an obsolete notion, and just using whatever dropped from enemies saw me through the game.
The founding of Evan’s kingdom marks a turning point in the game. By chapter 4 (of 9) Evan takes the throne of Evermore, and the game finally introduces its city-building mechanic. However, for anyone expecting an in-depth, medieval-themed Cities Skyline, you’re going to be sorely disappointed as building Evermore is actually (and surprisingly) on quite tight rails. By amassing and then spending Kingsguilders you can pick a plot of land and build on it, but each plot only has one specific building that can be created for it – for example, immediately outside your castle are two spots, for your weaponsmith and outfitters respectively. Anyone hoping for a bit of creativity to your city might be left a bit put out by this; everything has its place so by the end my city will look the same as any other players’. Buildings and features can be upgraded, letting you amass more Kingsguilders for more builds, as well as letting you craft or generate higher quality resources and equipment. However, buildings also need to be staffed, which ties into one of the longest running side-activities of the game: recruiting!
As you complete sidequests Evan can recruit various people from across the other kingdoms, poaching them to come live at Evermore. Each person comes with their own skills and competencies, meaning you have to deploy them in the right facility in order to get the most out of them. If there’s any real issue with the city-building, far more than the linearity, it’s that the entire process is laborious. In order to generate the wealth needed to upgrade stuff, you have to wait in real-time for your coffers to refill; in theory, you’re supposed to go off and play the game a bit, and then check back in, but in practice I suspect most players will occasionally just leave the game running while they go do stuff in real life, before coming back to manage things for a bit and leaving again. While I do think it’s commendable that in this modern age of constant monetisation Level-5 didn’t take the obvious path of making Kingsguilders purchasable, I also think there could have been a better way of doing things than taking the mobile game route of real-time waiting.
In general, although Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom brings a lot to the table, there is a broad sense of it all lacking quality and depth. In that respect, Ni no Kuni II takes after its predecessor; like it, it lifts a lot of mechanics and ideas from other, perhaps better, games, but crucially it recreates them with a lot of heart. I admit that I went into Ni no Kuni II with only middling expectations, but the more I played the more absorbed I felt. A lot of that came down to the pleasing arcs of Roland and Evan, not to mention the enjoyable combat which even made grinding a relative joy. Ni no Kuni II was never a bad time, which is pretty good going for a 30+ hour RPG, and I’m definitely happy to recommend it.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.