Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

"Ni no Kuni II is a brilliant second attempt that keeps what worked from the original and fixes what didn't."

Once upon a time, there was an unexpected but exciting collaboration between JRPG developer Level-5 and the legendary animation company Studio Ghibli. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch combined the visual design and heartfelt story of a Studio Ghibli classic with the quest-filled and turn-based battle structure of a JRPG. Reception to this new IP varied, with some falling absolutely in love and others wanting to love it but finding their experience soured by one thing or another, but the idea behind this new venture was clearly a success. Five years later, we have a sequel in the form of Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. Can it appeal to both fans of the original and those left unsatisfied?

The short answer is yes. Ni no Kuni II is a brilliant second attempt that keeps what worked from the original and fixes what didn't. It's not perfect, of course, but for those who wanted to love the original and couldn't, this game is absolutely worth your time. And for those who did love the original Ni no Kuni, warts and all? Well...this game is different, but no less worthwhile.

Ni no Kuni II takes place in the same fantastical other land that we were introduced to in the first game, but now it's hundreds of years after Oliver's adventure. There's no direct connection between the two stories or any mention of the events of the first game, so those who never played the original don't have to worry about spoilers or finding themselves lost. Players are immediately introduced to Roland Crane, the president of an unnamed country who finds himself mysteriously transported to this other world. There, he meets Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, a boy recently crowned as king of Ding Dong Dell after the death of his father. Evan's rule is sadly cut short by a coup d'état, which forces both president and king to flee in order to survive. Evan resolves to build a new kingdom free from war where "everyone can live happily ever after" (get used that one; he says it a lot), and Roland decides to stick around and help. Along the way, they gather allies, forge alliances between nations, and even confront an ancient evil that threatens to destroy the world. The plot isn't particularly deep or complicated, and it never strays past messages like the power of friendship and naive faith in the goodness of others, but it is sweet, earnest, and feels right at home in a series meant to evoke the look and feel of classic Studio Ghibli films.

Speaking of Studio Ghibli, they aren't formally involved with Ni no Kuni II, though you'd be forgiven for thinking they are thanks to the character designs of Yoshiyuki Momose, a former Ghibli animator. The main cast is colorful and expressive, environments are bright and beautiful, and outside of some frame pacing issues in 4K mode, everything runs buttery smooth. There's no hand-drawn animation this time around, but the game really doesn't need it when the cel-shaded graphics look as good as they do. The one issue I have with the visual design of the game is the little chat boxes that pop up with short bits of conversation between your characters as you explore new areas. The text in these boxes is entirely too small and they also disappear too quickly. There were plenty of times when I wasn't able to finish reading what one box said before a new one popped up, which got a little frustrating. It's definitely a minor issue though, in light of the otherwise gorgeous visuals.

As Evan and company travel from place to place, there are all manner of monsters that need quelling. Combat is the area I was most concerned about before playing the game because it's the thing I liked the least about the original Ni no Kuni. The awkward combination of real-time and turn-based combat never sat well with me. So I'm pleased to report that, for the most part, Level-5 got it right the second time around. Combat is entirely action based now à la the Tales series. You have free movement around the arena and can attack enemies with light and heavy strikes or up to four customizable skills or spells. Each basic melee attack increases the Zing Gauge on your weapons (you can have up to three equipped at a time), and when it hits 100%, your next skill or spell will change appearance and do extra damage. Switching between your equipped weapons is as simple as pressing a button, though you can also have the game switch for you where appropriate. On the defensive side of things, you can block incoming enemy attacks for reduced damage or avoid damage entirely by nimbly dodging out of the way. It's all very fast and flashy, and I had a lot of fun with most encounters. The difficulty curve definitely skews a bit too easy, though. Things ramp up in the last few chapters, and there are optional encounters that provide a decent challenge, but it's not uncommon to find yourself mopping the floor with your enemies, and I wish this had been addressed with either a steeper curve or a difficulty setting in the options menu.

The cute, Pokémon-like familiars from the first Ni no Kuni are no more. Instead, players are introduced to the even cuter Higgledies, which are described in-game as basically bundles of elemental energy that sprouted legs and started walking. They're a very Studio Ghibli kind of weird-but-adorable, but they're also quite useful in battle. Every Higgledy you recruit has stats and a series of abilities they can use in combat. As you hack and slash your way through enemies, your Higgledy allies will launch their own attacks, heal or buff your party, and sometimes gather in one place and beckon you over. When you get in range, you can press a button to trigger a special skill. This could be a Higgledy cannon that pelts your foes, a healing circle that gradually restores your HP, or a buff that improves your resistance to particular elements. You can have a max of four Higgledies in your current party, and which ones you choose to bring along can have an impact on your skills, which can also be powered up by (temporarily) absorbing Higgledies of particular elements. You'll find a lot of Higgledies in the wild, hiding in Higgledy stones just waiting for someone to show them an item they like, but if you don't have the goods, you can also craft them in your kingdom once you've built the proper facility (more on that in just a bit).

For those interested in battles on a larger scale, Ni no Kuni II introduces skirmishes, an RTS minigame where Evan leads troops into battle against various enemy forces. Every unit falls into a different weapons category, and the minigame employs the tried-and-true Fire Emblem weapons triangle: swords beat hammers (no axes here, apparently), hammers beat spears, and spears beat swords, with ranged weapons falling outside the triangle. As you move across the field, which is presented in chibi form like the overworld map, you'll have to react on the fly and make sure to rotate troops so you have the advantage when encountering the enemy. Evan can also use a consumable resource called Might to do things like move his troops along faster, utilize the special skills of his units, or call for reinforcements. These missions can be quite fun, if a little chaotic, and if you enjoy the few required by the main story, you'll be pleased to know there are many more skirmishes to undertake, some simply waiting on the world map and others unlocked via side quests.

Side quests, by the way, are quite plentiful, although you don't get access to them until several chapters into the game. They're also, sadly, quite forgettable. Most are fetch quests of either the item-hunting or monster-killing variety, and those that aren't tend to be skirmish quests. I did find one quest that involved some backstory for Roland, and I presume that similar quests exist for the rest of the party too, but it's not obvious which quests these are or how to unlock them, and after dozens upon dozens of more generic quests, I lost the motivation to keep trying to find them. I would have appreciated the opportunity to get a bit more development for the main cast, so this is unfortunate.

There's one side activity that is meaty, gives you a lot of things to do over the course of the game, and is a ton of fun: kingdom building. After Evan and company found their new nation, you are tasked with literally building it from the ground up. Once you have the required resources, constructing facilities is as simple as highlighting a plot and pushing a button, though I was a bit disappointed to learn that you can't choose what goes where; every plot can only be one set thing, and you just decide when to build things rather than how your kingdom is configured. But this is a minor complaint in the face of how addictive the whole process is. Each facility can be staffed by citizens, which improves productivity and allows you to research various topics that can assist you in your journey. You recruit citizens by picking up side quests from around the world, and while the quests themselves may be rather formulaic, the people you get from them are unique characters with special skills that make them well suited for particular industries. Citizens, facilities, and even your kingdom as a whole can all be leveled up to boost productivity, unlock more research, and expand your territory. What starts as a humble hamlet with only a dozen facilities will expand to an expansive empire with more space than you know what to do with by the end of the game; in fact, you'll likely want to keep working on your kingdom even after you finish the main story — it's well and truly that much fun.

As I'm wrapping this review up, I'll say a few brief things about the audio in Ni no Kuni II. First, Joe Hisaishi returns to score the game's music, and the gorgeous main theme from the original Ni no Kuni is back as well. There are definitely some great pieces to listen to, but there are also pieces I wish I hadn't heard as much, such as the various dungeon music. Hisaishi's compositions strike me as better suited to film than video games, but there's nothing outright bad about what's presented here — it's just not very memorable outside of the main theme. Second, voice acting is pretty strong all around, but there's just not enough of it. Fully animated and voiced cutscenes are short and sporadic; the vast majority of the story is told through text-box cutscenes, most of which are silent. It's not a deal breaker by any means, but it is a little odd for a major release in this day and age.

All in all, Ni no Kuni II is a fantastic sophomore attempt from Level-5. It fixed all my issues with the first game, and while it introduced a few new ones, they're easy to overlook in favor of everything the game gets right. Whether you're a fan of the original or someone like me who tried and failed to love it, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is definitely worth checking out.

This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.

© 2018 Bandai Namco Entertainment, Level-5. All rights reserved.

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