Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom
Hands-On Preview
"I've greatly enjoyed my first twenty hours with Ni no Kuni II."

I wanted to love the original Ni no Kuni, but sadly there were a few too many things that irked me, and I eventually lost interest in the game entirely. So when I say that I've greatly enjoyed my first twenty hours with Ni no Kuni II, you can get a sense of how much I feel the sequel has improved on the original. No game is without issues, of course, so let's go over some of the pluses and minuses I've discovered thus far.

First, and perhaps most obvious: Ni no Kuni II is a seriously gorgeous game. Level-5's cel-shaded graphics have never looked better, and thanks to the character designs of Ghibli alum Yoshiyuki Momose, you can't even tell that Studio Ghibli proper wasn't involved with this title. Characters are charming, environments are bright and colorful, and animations are smooth (though I have noticed some frame drops in 4K mode on PS4 Pro). The voice acting that accompanies cutscenes is also very good, which is why it's such a shame that there's so very little of it. Full-motion cutscenes are short, usually used only to introduce a character or boss, and most of the game's story is told via text boxes, the vast majority of which aren't voiced. This is a puzzling and disappointing step backward from the original Ni no Kuni, which seemed more generous with voice acting in its cutscenes.

The dearth of voice acting is kind of a glaring issue for me because while the story thus far has been interesting enough, it would have more of an impact if the characters spoke more often. On the plus side, things get off to a bang in Ni no Kuni II, which should please those who found the original's slow introduction to be tiring. Within the first hour, we meet Roland Crane (a visitor to Ni no Kuni from our world) and Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, the boy king of Ding Dong Dell who finds himself the victim of a coup d'état. The two team up and resolve to create a new kingdom where everyone can live happily ever after. Okay, so it's not the most complex or realistic of plots, but there's a whimsical and heartfelt air about events that feels right at home in a series inspired by Studio Ghibli's classic films.

For me, gameplay is the area where Ni no Kuni II has the most to prove, and twenty hours in, I'm largely satisfied. Combat, in particular, is much improved, in my opinion. Gone is the awkward combination of real-time movement and turn-based actions. Instead, battles are entirely action based, with skills that can be powered up and the ability to block and dodge enemy attacks. I also like the replacement of Ni no Kuni's familiars with the adorable Higgledies — elemental sprites (think Pikmin meets Princess Mononoke's kodama) that you can recruit to aid you in battle with a variety of skills, some automatically activated and others based on player input. It's overall a much smoother and faster experience that still provides the opportunity for strategy.

The one major problem I have with the combat is that it feels too easy. Normal foes just melt in front of you even if you don't use skills or your Higgledies' abilities. Bosses provide a stiffer challenge, and there are also tainted monsters and some optional dungeons that feel more balanced, but it's a shame that this isn't true of all combat. Hopefully, the difficulty will ramp up as I progress further into the game, but right now I feel like I would welcome a hard mode option — a first for me.

Of course, combat isn't all you'll be doing in Ni no Kuni II. After the first few chapters, you'll gain access to kingdom building, skirmishes, and loads of side quests. Kingdom Building has thus far proven to be a fun resource management system. You quite literally build Evan's new kingdom from scratch by constructing facilities (weapon shops, lumberyards, etc.), staffing them with citizens (whom you recruit via side quests), and upgrading them into larger and better structures. You can then use these facilities to gather raw materials for crafting, research new equipment and spells for your party, and even create and level up your Higgledy allies. Skirmishes are fun little RTS quests where Evan and a group of up to four commanders lead troops into battle against bandits and other ne'er-do-wells. There's a Fire Emblem-esque weapon triangle to consider when selecting your units, and by using a finite resource called Might, you can have commanders perform special moves, like bombing the enemy or buffing a unit's defenses. Things can get a bit hectic, but it's a fun little diversion nonetheless. Finally, side quests appear to be pretty standard fare: most task you with defeating a monster, gathering materials, or engaging in skirmishes. So far, they're nothing to write home about, but some provide a bit of character development for your party members, which is welcome.

There's much more to discover in Ni no Kuni II, but anxious gamers luckily don't have to wait much longer to jump back into this other world. Check back later this week for our full review!

E3 Hands-On Preview
"Ni no Kuni II promises to make the most of its impressive pedigree."

Loath as I am to begin a preview by lamenting the past, I cannot begin an evaluation of Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom without reflecting upon what went wrong with its predecessor. The original Ni no Kuni was among my most hotly anticipated games ever, blending the dreamlike sensibilities of a Studio Ghibli film with an interactive RPG world unlike anything that had ever come before it. Yet there was something not quite right about how everything came together; the narrative throughout the second half of the game felt flat, even undeveloped, and the battle system was frustratingly hands-off.

I met the announcement of Ni no Kuni II with restrained enthusiasm. It looked and sounded beautiful, sure. But would it do anything to address my concerns with the first game? I remained cautiously optimistic until I saw that it would come with significant changes to combat, replacing the cute but ultimately cumbersome familiar system with something more action-oriented. That alone did more to renew my interest than any cinematic trailer could — but it wasn't until I got my hands on the game at E3 this year that I realized it was shaping up to be something truly special.

Ni no Kuni was created with the aim of marrying the sensibilities of an animated feature film with traditional JRPG elements. To that end, it largely succeeded. Yet Ni no Kuni II excises Studio Ghibli's anime cutscenes, replacing them with in-engine movies; according to the producers, moving between the two styles created a sort of disparity in visual fidelity that they wanted to eliminate. I never saw it that way, but with how lavish Ni no Kuni II's graphical engine is, little is lost in the transition to fully 3D event scenes. The game is colorful, almost delicate in its restraint, and features expressive character models that benefit from improved shadowing techniques.

I'm head over heels for the pastel key art that was on display at the show, too — much like Hiroo Isono's beautiful work on the Mana series, the sort of environmental illustrations prominently featured in Ghibli works have a unique power to transport the viewer to another place and time. What I'd give to run my hand along those rippling waters, to skip along displaced cobblestones and inhale the dreamy aroma of a well-tended hearth.

In Ni no Kuni II, the player guides Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, the ousted boy-king of Ding Dong Dell, on a journey to prove his worth as a ruler and reclaim his throne. Together with Roland, the president of a country in a separate world not unlike our own, and Tani, a wild tomboy with a talent for archery, Evan undertakes a trial to earn the support of a powerful being known as a Kingmaker. This diminutive spirit embodies Evan's potential as a leader, and the two form a magical pact, the Kingsbond. It is there that the true story begins, and what I've seen has me itching to find out what happens next.

Ni no Kuni II doesn't just look and sound fantastic; it plays better than ever. Combat has been completely overhauled, shifting the focus from Pokemon-like familiars to the characters themselves. Each has the ability to block, dodge roll, and strike enemies with separate weak, strong, and special attacks. They are assisted by hordes of tiny creatures known as Higgledies, who can be commanded independently of the main characters. Higgledies can heal, attack, enchant weapons, and perform special commands powerful enough to stun bosses or act as an opening for Evan's party to rush in. The demo I played pitted me against an enormous dragon, whose attacks I was able to deflect by ordering my fire-aspected Higgledies to create a magical barrier. They're not only useful — they're super-duper adorable, too.

Most intriguing aside from the revamped combat system is the all-new Kingdom Mode. Ousted from the throne at the story's onset, Evan chooses not to wallow in self-pity, but to rally people from around the world under the banner of a new kingdom. Details on this mode are scant at press time, but it sounds like a blend of the base-building system from Skies of Arcadia with the Georama system of Dark Cloud. Evan can even assign work to his subjects, like having them research new technologies, making Kingdom Mode something of a metagame that replaces Ni no Kuni's familiar-rearing system. A ruler is nothing without a kingdom to rule, after all.

With the dream team of Level-5 CEO Akihiro Hino, ex-Ghibli animator Yoshiyuki Momose, and legendary composer Joe Hisaishi at the helm, Ni no Kuni II promises to make the most of its impressive pedigree. I knew it was going to be good, but after its showing at E3, I'm convinced that Ni no Kuni II could be among the upper echelon of games released in a year that will be remembered as one of the best in the medium's history.

© 2017 Bandai Namco, Level-5. All rights reserved.

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