Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment (world wide), Level-5 (Japan)
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Available on: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
In 2011, Level-5, developers of such games as Dark Cloud and Rogue Galaxy, teamed together with animation giant Studio Ghibli to give us the enchanting JRPG Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. The game transported us to an alternate world with connections to our own along with Oliver, a boy who has tragically lost his mother. Oliver meets a fairy named Mr. Drippy, and travels this fantastical world capturing monsters and healing people’s hearts. The story resounded on a personal level, and Studio Ghibli’s animators created beautiful cut scenes to highlight that story. The game was a success with critics and fans alike, and it was inevitable that we would one day see a sequel.
Flash forward seven years, and that sequel has now arrived. Level-5 is going it alone this time without Studio Ghibli (though some of the animators from the animation powerhouse were reported to have worked on the game), and while it may not quite match its predecessor, Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is still charming in its own right. It maintains the look of the original, though fully voiced cut scenes have been scaled back, and the game is not as long (my completion time was just under 47 hours, while it took me 80+ hours to finish the main story in the first game). The characters are all likeable, though not as well fleshed out. Combat is now in real time instead of turn based, and gameplay has been expanded to include both strategic and kingdom building sim elements. The resulting mix makes for a fun JRPG that is worth diving into.
The story this time around focuses on Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, a young grimalkin (half human, half cat), who is about to become king of Ding Dong Dell. A twist of fate snatches Roland, the United States President, from our world after a nuclear strike, and sends him to Evan’s world. Realizing a coup is underway, Roland helps Evan to escape. Evan vows to make his own kingdom, a place where people can live happily ever after. His goal becomes to unite the nations under a Declaration of Interdependence, but there is someone lurking about who would stop such a union. Doloran has his own plans, and they make him the villain of the tale. The story has some nice twists and turns, and is fairly engaging, despite the generic feel of the overall main quest. We’re introduced to plenty of characters who join Evan in his quest to unite the lands, and they’re all fairly likeable, though none are quite as fleshed out as they could have been. The story does have a satisfying ending, and there is a nice post credits scene.
It helps that this tale takes place long after the events of the first game, so those who didn’t get to play it on the PS3 (Sony, we could use a remaster!) won’t be lost here. The story is self contained, so while they certainly could go forward with a third installment, this one does wrap things up nicely. For those who played the first game, there are plenty of callbacks fans will recognize. Even Lofty, Evan’s kingmaker, recalls Drippy from the 2011 title. But the art style and lore are the only real connections to the original. Gameplay has been tweaked. Where the first game focused on monster collecting and turn based combat, this one moves to real time action. Thankfully, your AI companions are fairly competent in handling themselves. You still get aid in combat from being called Higgledies.
The Higgledies are adorable, element based beings, and you can equip up to four groups of them to accompany you into the fray.. The Higgledies act on their own for the most part, but when they form a glowing circle you can activate a special power. These can include a healing circle of light, a cannon, or a large blast of dark energy. Higgledies can be leveled up (their cap is level 10) to make them stronger and more responsive in battle. Once your kingdom is established, you can even create your own Higgledies in addition to finding them in the wild. Out in the world, you must entice them from special Higgledy stones with a special treat they crave. It doesn’t have the same “catch ’em all” feeling of Pokemon or the first game, but it is nice to get a diverse group to aid you in combat.
Combat itself feels smooth, with a strong and light attack. You can equip up to four magic based attacks, but you need to have the game’s version of mana available to use them. Each character also has a ranged attack. Weapons can be both found throughout the world as spoils from combat, purchased in shops, and once you’re kingdom is up and running you can create your own. There’s a nice progression in weapon strength from the beginning of the game to the lands you reach towards the end, though you do need to pay attention to each weapon’s stats. Some may give you a higher attack power while lowering your defense. It’s worth noting, though combat really doesn’t get very challenging until you hit chapter 6 (there are nine chapters total). Even then, you can be way under a creature’s level (I was easily beating foes with levels of 70 or greater while I was at level 50) and still emerge victorious. The exception to that will be the tainted monsters you come across (beasts surrounded by a purple cloud that have greater strength) and some late game bosses. You still need to pay attention to administering healing items, as the characters won’t do it themselves.
There’s also a tactics tweaker in your menu that allows you to adjust how strong you are against certain elements, or if you value strength over dexterity. You can ignore it completely (I didn’t use it often), but it’s a nice little micromanaging tool in addition to how you outfit your characters. You’ll go into combat with a party of three, through your three companions waiting in the wings can also benefit from your combat experience, so no character is left too far behind. Completing quests, both main and side, as well as errands for the Taskmaster at Swift Solutions, also gain you experience points to aid you in leveling up.
Speaking of side quests and errands, this is one JRPG that makes them more useful than in most titles in the genre. Completing side quests, whether they be of the fetch variety or dispatching a certain beastie, can entice a character to join your kingdom of Evermore. You will need followers to increase the level of your kingdom, something that is necessary by the game’s final chapter. Fortunately, the kingdom building part of the game can be quite addicting, and it’s easy to get sidetracked adding new buildings, assigning personnel, doing research, and filling your coffers. Research may require certain personnel to have a specific knowledge, so you need to choose carefully where you place your subjects. It’s a neat addition, and though your kingdom level caps at 4 (it takes a good chunk of time to do this), you can continue to play around with Evermore post game. It makes for a fun diversion, and it’s a welcome addition to the gameplay.
Also added in this time around are skirmishes. skirmishes act as a strategy component, as you can take up to four armies into battle. These armies come with certain recruits to your kingdom, and will only level up if you use them. Each army has specialized attacks to be used provided you have enough might (you can gain some during combat). Pre-battle menus allow you to bolster your armies to make combat easier (you can also choose a hard mode if you are in need of a challenge), inspect your forces to see how they compare to the enemy’s, choose which army you wish to use, and finally launch your attack. For the most part skirmishes are optional, but there are parts of the main story where you’ll need to play this mode. Indulging in it does have your troops ready for the endgame, so it helps to dive in here and there. It’s easy to use and again, makes for a pleasant diversion.
There are also trip doors, which can be used as a fast travel system, even if you’re in a dungeon. You’ll also get a ship for traveling on the ocean and up rivers, as well as zeppelin to reach those otherwise inaccessible heights. These three items, once you unlock them, are a valuable addition and save plenty of time moving across the map. Backtracking now is no longer a chore, as it’s easy enough to use a trip door close enough to your destination, once it’s unlocked. There are also optional Dream Doors, which challenge you to complete different trials in a maze. There are nine scattered across the world, and again can be an interesting way to side track you from the main story.
For all the nice additions, Ni no Kuni 2 still falls short of its predecessor. While Oliver’s story had a more personal feel, Evan’s feels more generic. Lofty is a pale imitation of Drippy, and not nearly as helpful. The sparsity of fully voiced cut scenes also hamper the story, as we don’t get the same sense of character as we did with the 2011 game. The cut scenes are still nicely animated, and are still pretty to look at. The voice acting is your standard anime English dub- serviceable, but nothing outstanding. Cut scenes can’t be skipped, which can be annoying if you’re retrying a boss battle or doing a new playthrough. There are also some text boxes that pop up which are small and hard to read. I’m glad I sit close to my TV while playing, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to see what they say. The camera for the most part is fine, but there are some instances, especially during combat, when it is not your friend. Nothing is rendered unplayable due to this, but it can be a nuisance when it occurs and can bring about some cheap deaths, especially during the final boss fight. Speaking of that final battle, while it is an epic fight the additional health bars make it feel a tad cheap. It helps that the ending is a satisfying one, so this doesn’t detract from the game too much.
In all, Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is a solid and charming sequel, though it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the masterful Wrath of the White Witch. Evan and Lofty don’t bring the same dynamic as Oliver and Drippy did, and while Roland serves as a good mentor for Evan, it removes the child-like innocence and wonder of the first game. This game’s tone is darker overall, with its focus on war and betrayal. It’s never so dark as to make it inaccessible to younger players, but it is a much bleaker tale, despite Evan’s optimism to make a kingdom where folks can live “happily ever after”. There are some nice twists here and there, though some may figure them out before their reveal. The game is missing those big emotional moments, though there are a couple that are touching. Still, the characters are likeable enough to rise above this.
Gameplay additions, along with the tweaked combat, are what prove to be the stronger points of this sequel. Combat is fun and flashy to look at, despite its relative ease. But hard combat isn’t the main focus of the game, it’s there to move the story along. The skirmishes can be a nice diversion for those wanting to indulge in some light strategy, and the kingdom building sim can be a bit addicting and fun to watch how Evermore grows. Side quests have a purpose for a nice change from other JRPGs, and at least motivate you to complete far more of them than you normally might do in a title of this genre. Ni no Kuni 2 may not be the masterpiece its predecessor was, but it’s still a charming sequel that’s worth your time. Now, I need to go attend to my subjects. A king’s work is never done.