I’ve reviewed a lot of games over the years, but I realized recently that I had never taken pen-to-paper (so to say) when it comes to JRPGs. Sure, I had written about them as a “secondary” reviewer when EGM print went back to old-school multi-person reviews a few years ago, but I had never been the primary reviewer. And, admittedly, the genre is a bit hit-or-miss for me. While I’m not a big Final Fantasy person, I do love the Tales series, and I also really enjoyed Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch a few years ago. So, in order to fill in that blank spot on my reviewing career—and also get my hands on the much anticipated sequel early—I was more than happy to take a crack at Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. And, I can attest that it did not disappoint.

Players take charge of an elder statesman named Roland who is mysteriously teleported to a new world when a cataclysmic event befalls his. Roland is shocked to find his youth restored, and that he now sits in the royal bedroom of a newly-crowned king in a medieval world. Roland’s timing could not be more fortuitous for this would-be king named Evan, as a coup by Evan’s chancellor has just begun. Bewildering situation put aside, the two resolve to escape the castle, and thus begin an adventure that will leave both their worlds feeling the ramifications for generations.

It should be said right off the bat that you could jump right into Ni No Kuni II without having played the first one, as there is almost no connection between them given each is a stand-alone story. The only similarities between the two games is the fact that they each share a significant artifact called the Mornstar—similar to how the Sorcerer’s Ring can be found in many of publisher Bandai Namco’s Tales games—and the kingdom of Ding Dong Dell returns. It could make you wonder if this game takes place in the far-flung future of the first game, but there are few other similarities present except one: that people in one world sometimes have a doppelganger in the other with which they are inextricably linked. This point is far more muted here, though, as unlike the first Ni No Kuni—where main character Oliver would bounce back and forth between the two realms—we remain in Evan’s world for the entirety of this game, with only passing references by Roland to his previous life.

No matter whether you played the first game or not, it’s easy to appreciate the stellar storytelling present in Ni No Kuni II. Evan soon composes himself after his escape, and steels himself for the trials ahead. He doesn’t just wish to regain his kingdom, but also create an entirely new one called Evermore than shall unite the world under a single banner to the betterment of all peoples. It’s the kind of wish that a child would make, but the fact that Evan doggedly sets off to do so continues the storybook theme the game takes on from its very beginning, as it empowers a child to do amazing things for both his world and himself.

Evan’s undying optimism and youthful exuberance gives this adventure a tone that gamers of all age groups can enjoy, as he is a refreshing change of pace when it comes to most protagonists in modern games. Continuing the enjoyable-for-all-age-groups aspect is that—as much as I didn’t want it to end as I absolutely adored exploring the world—Ni No Kuni II should clock in for most gamers around the 50-hour mark, a far cry from the norm in the JRPG genre. But, there’s an efficiency and natural fluidity to the storytelling here that games in this genre typically lack, and this, too, was refreshing. Sure, there are a few fetch quests, but none of them felt like they were forcibly bloating the game, instead continuing to serve Evan, Roland, and the rest of the party in their character development.

Another aspect of Ni No Kuni II that gives it a fantastical feel is its art style and music. Although Studio Ghibli did not collaborate with developer Level-5 on this game like they did on the first Ni No Kuni, character designer Yoshiyuki Momose does return in the same role here. His art style clearly permeated every character in the game, giving them all a distinct feel, but also a familiarity to those in tune with his work. Composer Joe Hisaishi also returned for Ni No Kuni II after his work on the first game, and whether it was trumpets triumphantly announcing another success for Evan or the individual themes of each new kingdom I visited—feeding into the character of each of these worlds within the world—the music breathed a special kind of life into Ni No Kuni II that kept a smile plastered on my face.

As much as the style has stayed the same between Ni No Kuni games, the substance—or in this case the gameplay—has seen some major overhauls. The first and possibly biggest change is the removal of Familiars. These friendly sidekicks would fight alongside Oliver and his crew in the first game, where leveling them up was a critical element to finding yourself victorious in battle. However, many labeled the idea a knock-off Pokémon-esque mechanic that required you to keep catching more of those Familiars as the game went on. In Ni No Kuni II, they’ve been replaced by sprite-like beings called Higgledies. These cute critters aren’t nearly as prevalent in the world as Familiars were; you can only take four into battle at once, and although they may offer some nice buffs, a little extra AI controlled offense, or even some elemental firepower, they take a huge backseat in combat, as they’re very much a “set ‘em and forget ‘em” element that simplifies combat tremendously.

There are other changes to the combat besides the removal of Familiars, however. The real-time combat system where players control a single character (out of the three you can set to your party at a time), hacking away with that character’s weapon of choice or magic, does remain reminiscent of the first game. One extra little nuance, though, is that you can carry a projectile weapon into these mini-arenas to fire at enemies who get out of range, or switch between three different melee weapons on the fly. This allows you to carry weapons with different element abilities or buffs into battle in order to keep your strategies fluent, as you rotate them at a moment’s notice with a tap of one of the shoulder buttons. There’s also a charge system which you build through consecutive attacks. You can perform more powerful magic if your melee weapons have a one-hundred-percent charge, meaning swapping between weapons of different charges is another strategy to be mindful of. It may sound complicated here, but after only a battle or two, it became second nature to rotate Roland’s three swords, and helped keep the hack ‘n’ slash aspects of combat from becoming monotonous.

There are also a few changes to how Evan and company are represented in the world. When in dungeons or villages, you’ll see either Evan or your chosen party member (depending on the scenario) from a third-person behind-the-back view. When you go into the overworld when traveling between all these places, however, your party takes on a chibi-fied look, almost like little Pop! Vinyl figures of themselves moving around. When you come across enemies in dungeons, a circle surrounding the conflict will appear, and you’ll brawl right there; alternatively, when in the overworld, you’ll be transported to an impromptu arena to do combat. It’s a curious way of doing things, having these two distinctly different ways to represent your characters, and it kind of reminded me of The Legend of Zelda II: Adventure of Link in how that game’s camera and representation would change based on where you were. It was a bit jarring at first, but I realized later on why there is this distinction between how the characters are portrayed on a micro versus macro level.

And that leads to possibly the most intriguing gameplay element of Ni No Kuni II. In order for Evan to build his own kingdom—a major crux of the story laid out to us—the game introduces real-time strategy mechanics such as collecting resources, building your kingdom up, assigning villagers to different tasks, and even waging war against bandits, thieves, or even other nations. You can watch as your chibi-fied people mill about on the world stage as they work in lumber yards, research new magic, build armor and weapons, or just relax at your inn (after you build all these things, of course).

This element of Ni No Kuni II was both one of my most- and least-favorite elements to the game. When this weird RTS aspect was introduced, I loved working towards growing my population by doing the bevy of side quests that were introduced. Sometimes I’d have to bring someone an item, kill a monster, or just build my kingdom’s renown enough to have those people join my burgeoning population as I tried to become a world power on Ni No Kuni II’s stage. As Evan grew into the role of a king and I got more resources and followers, my kingdom grew along with it, opening up even more potential side activities. And the more I did for my kingdom, the more my subjects could in turn do for me in combat and travel.

Of course, trying to bring the world together leads to inevitable conflict, and it was here—especially as a way to introduce some of the game’s more important chapters or as a precursor to some major conflicts—that Evan would have to lead his armies against other armies. I could pick up to four different unit types and then have to meet a series of objectives to overcome the opposing armies, and it was at this point that this RTS experiment fell apart.

You see, combat in a typical RTS requires precision and knowing exactly what your units will do and when. In Ni No Kuni II, this element felt far too haphazard to be fun. Evan’s units would never attack at a consistent pace, and they would never leave the commander’s side on the field. I’d be stuck moving Evan around the world with these four mini-commanders basically attached to his hip like I was driving around in Mario Kart with a trio of green turtle shells around me, running into enemy forces and hoping they would hold out longer than the AI does—because if they don’t, Evan is awfully vulnerable all by his lonesome.

My units could level up, but one of the other few problems with Ni No Kuni II in general is just that the game doesn’t do a very good job of letting you know exactly when this would happen. Sure, both your armies and your party on the micro level have numbers for attack, defense, magic, and so on. But the armies themselves don’t have any sort of indicator as to when they would level up (leading to some late-game grinding, let me tell you), and my party only had a vague XP bar next to their names, which would’ve been far better served with some actual numbers to let me know how many more wyverns or whatever I need to bash to hit the next level. In the grand scheme of things it’s a minor annoyance, but a little more clarity could’ve gone a long way here.

Ni No Kuni II may not have many direct links to its predecessor, but it is indeed an improvement in many ways. There is a ton of side content that feeds into the main story in a natural and engaging way, while the world, characters, music, and the journey the story takes you on are all beautiful. Combat has also seen some sharp improvements, both via addition and subtraction. The only thing holding it back were a few questionable decisions with those RTS elements, but thankfully those skirmishes are few and far between and they do not mar what is otherwise a stellar Japanese RPG.

Publisher: Bandai Namco • Developer: Level-5 • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 03.23.18

8.5

Ni No Kuni II is full of some tremendously creative decisions that make this unlike many other Japanese RPGs, as well as a clear step above an already good game in the original Ni No Kuni. However, some additions like the RTS elements left me scratching my head. Despite this, Ni No Kuni II tells a beautiful story that’s set in an even more beautiful world, and should be enjoyed by most JRPG fans.

The Good

Beautiful world, music, and story that all other JRPGs should aspire to.

The Bad

RTS-like combat scenarios to mimic large-scale nation-vs-nation battles that sounds great on paper but were poorly executed.

The Ugly

The obsession that developed over making sure each citizen of Evermore had their happily ever after.
Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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