"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.