A beautiful and nostalgic journey into a storybook land
When it released in 2011, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch floored players with its fantastic, Studio Ghibli-crafted visuals and touching narrative. Now, seven years later, legendary JRPG developer Level-5 is poised to take us to a vibrant fantasy world with Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. And while the wait for this hugely anticipated follow-up has been a long one, trust me when I say it was worth it.
This sequel brings with it a number of new and exciting features to spice things up, including the addition of addicting new Skirmish battles and a surprisingly robust kingdom building mechanic that allows you to preside over a bustling metropolis, with each upgrade offering a tangible reward in the adventure portion of the game. These new features, in addition to a sprawling new land to explore and colorful cast of characters to control, make for a game no self-respecting JRPG fan should miss.
A King Without A Kingdom
Ni no Kuni II tells the story of Evan, the young king of Ding Dong Dell who has just taken the throne following the untimely death of his father. However, shortly after taking over the reins of his realm, he’s unseated in a violent coup. After barely escaping with his life with the help of Roland, a president from Earth who has been mysteriously spirited away to Evan’s world, the diminutive ruler sets off to build a new kingdom and unite the land under a single banner. This won’t be an easy task for Evan and his newfound allies, however. A shadowy force has been plaguing the land, twisting the minds of the leaders of its great kingdoms, and it’s not about to sit idly by and let any meddling do-gooders spoil its diabolical machinations.
No, Ni no Kuni II‘s story isn’t the most ambitious out there. In fact, the narrative seems like it could have been ripped from an RPG of the 16-bit era. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t tell an enjoyable tale, because it absolutely does. But those expecting to find the same emotional payoffs found in Wrath of the White Witch may find themselves wanting a bit more. Still, I found the writing and story to be delightfully straightforward and nostalgic, proving an RPG doesn’t always need walls of weighty exposition to spin a good yarn.
Swords & Sorcery
Building a kingdom from the ground up is no small task. And, as you’d expect, Evan and his pals will cross paths with innumerable baddies during their travels. The combat in Ni no Kuni II is a considerable departure from that of its predecessor. While the previous game featured a hybrid action/tactical system that had the player summoning creatures to fight in their stead, this time around things are more akin to that of a hack-and-slash action game.
After you encounter an enemy, you can move around the battlefield freely to approach your enemies and evade attacks. Each character has a light and heavy melee attack, as well as a ranged weapon. Also, holding down the R2 button pulls up skill wheel that gives you access to up to four special abilities. Casting these costs skill points, which are acquired from attacking the enemy, much like in Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana.
While you only control one member of your party (unless you die, then you’ll take control of one of your allies), a handy tactics tweaker tool does give you some freedom to adjust how your party members behave. Additionally, plucky little familiars called Higgledies run amok around the battlefield. These little guys allow you to use area-of-effect skills to attack enemies. They can also shower your party with helpful buffs. And, when things look especially grim, even bust out the heavy artillery to tip boss fights in your favor.
All told, Ni no Kuni II’s combat system is incredibly streamlined. And while I quite enjoyed it, I have to admit that it does feel a bit mindless at times. The same strategies I used against the earliest enemies in the game worked just fine on late-game baddies. Yeah, this lack of a challenge is admittedly a bit disappointing. Still, I found the brisk pace of battles and punchy combat kept the frequent encounters from wearing out their welcome. Additionally, boss battles can be pretty exhilarating. They almost always pit you against monolithic monsters whose attacks can fill the entire screen.
Out of all the new features introduced in Ni no Kuni II, building up your kingdom is probably the most engrossing. When you first take the throne, you’ll initially only be able to build a handful of shops and resource-gathering structures. As the story progresses, you’ll encounter a wealth of NPCs who are willing to move to your kingdom – that is, permitting you can complete a quest for them. Thankfully, they feel like much more than busywork. They’re presented as a healthy mix of entertaining vignettes, monster hunts, and large-scale skirmishes that will take you from the neon-saturated streets of the gambler’s heaven of Goldpaw, the sun-bleached aqueducts of Hydropolis, and everywhere in-between.
Each person you recruit has their own proficiencies. Some make better shopkeeps, while others can be used as shipbuilders, strategists, or explorers. These talents are then used to upgrade your facilities. For example, those with a high proficiency in combat can research new unit tactics to use in the Skirmish mode. Armorers and weaponsmiths, on the other hand, can research and fabricate new gear to outfit your party members.
This constant beat of finding new recruits and building up your town is incredibly addicting. And it’s really satisfying to watch your budding town expand into a massive kingdom, complete with shipyards, grand plazas, and a towering castle.
A Call to Arms
Skirmish Mode is another fun addition to the Ni no Kuni formula. Best described as a weird fusion of an RTS and Pikmin, players control up to four groups of troops who rotate around Evan. Like rock, paper, scissors, each unit has their own strength and weakness, with red units beating green, green beating blue, and blue beating red. To win, you’ll need to carefully position your squads to counter their opposing unit types in the field – a feat which can prove very tricky when the spit hits the fan.
Just like during regular battles, each unit has a special attack that can be unleashed on your enemies. These include air strikes, electric shocks that stun the opposition, defensive buffs and more. You can even rebuild enemy encampments and gun emplacements to blast them to kingdom come.
Overall, the Skirmish Mode is charming enough. But I feel it pales in comparison to the game’s utterly absorbing Kingdom Building component. The battles simply don’t have that much variety to them thanks to the limited unit types you’ll encounter. Also, it can also be pretty frustrating trying to find a battle that suits your armies’ level. This is mostly because of the seemingly random way they’re spaced out around the map. Still, these melees are entertaining in short bursts and are largely optional.
Long Live the King
When all is said and done, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is one delightful JRPG. The lush visuals are astounding, the motley cast of characters is lovable, and the world is so charming that I genuinely wanted to explore every last inch of the map. And with tons of optional side quests at your fingertips, you’ll have good reason to do so.
While I do wish the game’s battles posed a bit more of a challenge and the story was more impactful, these minor gripes do little to take away from what’s one of the most genuinely fun and engrossing role-playing games I’ve played in years. Simply put, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is an outstanding adventure that no JRPG fan should miss.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC ; Publisher: Bandai Namco ; Developer: Level-5 ; Players: 1 ; Released: March 23, 2018 ; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: A retail copy of Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom provided by the publisher.