Cat and mouse
Ni No Kuni did not mess around. Near the very start of its narrative, the plucky young Oliver has just witnessed the death of his mother after suffering a near death experience himself. While some of you may equate the Level-5 and Ghibli project with cute monsters and Pokemon aspects, the secret, subtle, and constant hurt of Oliver stuck with me.
I didn’t have that same emotional reaction with Ni no Kuni II, but given that it’s somewhat of a collective of what Level-5 has learned so far in their storied career, it works well enough as a follow-up.
Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom (PC, PS4 [reviewed])
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Released: March 23, 2018
Without any sort of teasing or dilly-dallying, Revenant Kingdom begins. Suddenly a presidential figure in a limousine is rocked by a missile attack on a major city, and a second later he wakes up in a magical kingdom under siege by mice.
Right away Level-5 seeks to create a dichotomy between two rulers — one learned and mature president from “our” world, and another boy prince with an anime cat twist. Roland, the former, is charismatic and likable enough to carry his scenes straight away, but Evan, the latter, is a bit grating, and not in a “he’s supposed to grow up eventually” sort of way (the English vocal performance of Evan doesn’t help).
You can tell that Revenant Kingdom is going to be a different sort of coming of age tale, one that isn’t as impactful. I really miss the boyhood framing of White Witch, as the brief time we spend with Oliver in the previous iteration tells us everything we need to know without lingering, and Evan kind of just appears, in position of power, with immediate council to help him along.
Roland also brings his sidearm with him, creating a whole new tone right away as players are put in the driver’s seat of a capable avatar. Shooting a rat in the face with a handgun has a whole new feel to it but the magic of seeing Oliver cope with his family issues was something that was rarely, if ever replicated in the modern era of gaming. The White Witch and her ilk also had an imposing presence and creep factor that the usurping mice can’t replicate. That’s not to say that Revenant Kingdom is devoid of emotion. Later when characters like an evil Steve Jobs are introduced, things get more interesting and there’s plenty of opportunities for tears to be shed.
The whole game is more centered around immediacy, which works against it at points. Combat now has a more straight-up hack and slash tint, including a real-time dodge and block, heavy and normal attack differential, and abilities to trigger. You’ll also have to manage “weapon zing,” which fills up when striking foes and works independently from mana management, boosting skills when triggered after you have a full 100% zing meter. To help govern this you’ll equip three weapons, all of which have their own zing, with the option to use automatic, semi-automatic, or manual weapon swapping.
All of those little things aren’t going to come up often though, as you don’t really need to grind to make it through the main campaign (post-game still has its moments). Because of the action combat spamming an area-of-effect power (which most characters get immediately) is enough to take care of most trash fights. Party members also are tougher to manage, as they can be a bit stubborn at times (particularly when different levels of elevation are involved).
There’s a mild amount of customization to be had, mostly with gear and affinity swapping, but again, it’s not really needed for the bulk of the game. Higgledies , the Kodamas of Revenant Kingdom, take over for monster party members, which offer basic powers like healing periodically on the battleground. It’s streamlined, but I’m okay with not doing the whole Pokemon thing over again.
It’s a milder complaint, but equipment can be messy and convoluted, mostly due to the whole “three items per character” thing, which, depending on your party makeup, can get even messier with overlapping optimal gear. I’m sure some folks are going to be thrilled with the more action-centric system (I was, in theory), but the instances in which tactical nuance can flourish are few and far between. The first few bosses, lack weight and devastation. There are special inter-dimensional beasts that are few and far between that actually do add some danger into the mix, but still aren’t formidable enough when it comes down to to it.
Perhaps the reason why Revanant Kingdom feels so spread thin is that it tries to do so much in an effort to back up the narrative of Evan’s reclamation myth, perhaps best realized through its kindom building aspect. Immediately bringing back some fond Dark Cloud memories (hey, that was also created by Level-5!), your kingdom, Evermore, collects resources in real-time, which are used to buy services, upgrades, and buildings.
It’s a fun little meta-game that rarely ever gates off the campaign, provides respite, and ties a meaningful sense of progression to sidequests as many happy errand taskmasters will join your kingdom as working citizens. Revenant Kingdom is a rich world full of life, and connecting with NPCs, even by way of small errands, then living with them in perpetuity is emotional enough of a connection for me.
Then there’s the whole business of world map fighting — and I’m not talking about walking into a skirmish while exploring. It’s a full-on real-time strategy-esque affair, with different types of rock/paper/scissor style troops, skirmish-specific abilities, and its own level-up system. All of that is independent from going on major quests, and depending on your perspective these gaidens either create more busywork that slow critical path progress or serve as worldbuilding.
It’s taxing, thinking about all of the different facets coming together in Revenant Kingdom, and whether or not they succeed. Even while breezing through some boss battles I was doing it with a smile on my face, and having to wait 20 minutes to earn the currency for a shipyard (so that I could upgrade my vessel and continue on with the story) was offset by finishing a few errands and scoring some new crucial members of my kingdom’s workforce. I know it’s rote, it feels rote, but I never felt like I needed to take a break or shut off the game.
One thing no one needs to worry about is the amount of care that went into re-creating the magic of the first game. The score is fantastic and moving, and the visuals are incredible as are the character designs. Ghibli as an entity might not be working on this sequel directly, but a few members of their team did help bring it to life. With the exception of Evan, the English performances are fine, but since you can swap to Japanese on the main menu from minute one this isn’t even something worth thinking about longer than it takes to tick a menu box.
Level-5 is more than capable of dumping out healthy portions of its secret sauce on top of its games, but the combat of Ni no Kuni II and its attempt to do so many different things can hold it back. From the first hour I was mesmerized and captivated, willing to see its tale through until the end. While it does fall into some genre trappings and doesn’t feel quite as epic in scale compared to the first, Level-5 has the uncanny ability to keep the memory and magic of the JRPG alive.
[This review is based on a retail version of the game provided by the publisher.]