The first console Ni no Kuni title, Wrath of White Witch, arrived on the scene in 2013 and boasted an art style rivalling the best of Studio Ghibli (and indeed featured animated cutscenes made by them). Bursting with vibrant colour, gorgeous vistas and adorable characters, Ni no Kuni was a simple, awkwardly-titled but inescapably delightful JRPG. Five years later we’ve been graced with Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, a confident sequel that features a lot of the same elements that made the original so great, but one that ultimately arrives as a strikingly different package. The combat has more in common with Action RPGs like Nier: Automata or Bayonetta than it does with its predecessor, there’s a Suikoden-esque kingdom-building system, real-time skirmish battles with mini-armies reminiscent of Little King’s Story or Pikmin, and the characters, world and story are entirely separate to those of the original. Ni no Kuni II is a game that promises no shortage of things to do, but is it fun to actually do them, or is it all just busywork?
The narrative wastes no time getting started. Within minutes you’re controlling Roland, president of an America-equivalent in a world similar to our own, who suddenly finds himself in another world altogether as a much younger man. He meets Evan, prince of Ding Dong Dell, whose father King Leonhard has recently died and whose kingdom is now being usurped by the evil Mausinger and his cronies. Together, Evan and Roland manage to escape Ding Dong Dell and set off on their journey to rebuild what they’ve lost: an entirely new kingdom, one of their own making where everyone is happy and there’s no war. Certainly not an unfamiliar premise, yet what sets Ni no Kuni II apart is that this goal of building a kingdom is far more than a story beat, it’s something the player actually has a hand in. Citizen by citizen, building by building you are able to found a new nation, gathering to your banner all those who want a fresh start, or those who, just like Evan, have lost everything.
Everything in Ni no Kuni II is tied into the kingdom-building mechanic. What you have here is essentially a customisable town that over the course of the game you will fill up with the people you meet who you can put to work in the facilities you build. Using a unique currency called Kingsguilders, you can research various upgrades for your party, your armies, or even the management of the kingdom itself. Then there are the various buildings that allow you to, over time, gather resources that are used for quests, crafting, research and the like. Each building and the kingdom itself can be levelled up by spending Kingsguilders, with citizens levelling up for free after a certain amount of time. Maxing out everything is going to take you a long time, definitely longer than it’ll take you to complete the story, but the system also allows for specialisation. Need a particular kind of fish for a side quest? Chuck some citizens into your fish market to speed up its resource gathering. You get back as much as you’re willing to put in, and aside from a few story specific tasks, the game doesn’t force you to invest a huge amount of time in building up your kingdom if you don’t want to.
Now, this sort of thing may not be to everyone’s taste but I found it incredibly gratifying. One of the best things about RPGs is getting that new weapon or outfit, seeing how much more powerful it makes you in combat and how cool it looks on your character. Building up my kingdom gave me that exact same feeling only on a bigger scale. The majority of side quests in Ni no Kuni II are simple in nature. Go to this cave or forest and find this item, kill this monster, or talk to this person. Go win this specific skirmish battle. Go kill this particularly difficult monster. Granted, the quest design is not winning any awards. However, when a large number of these quests are given to you by potential citizens and the reward for completing them, along with an item, some gold and some XP, is having said citizen join your kingdom? Then just like the search for a new sword, I’m hooked. The script and character design play no small part in making these side quests worthwhile. The quests may be simple, but when the person in need is a badass dogfolk warrior with scars on her face, you’re damn right I’ll go kill Tough Monster #36.
The combat is rather different this time around. It’s in real-time and involves three members of your party who you can rotate between by pressing up or down on the D-Pad. There are light and heavy melee attacks available and timing your dodging/blocking is essential. Hitting R1 will use the characters ranged weapon (a wand, gun or bow depending on who it is), you don’t have to worry about collecting ammo but these attacks do consume MP. Naturally, spells also cost MP and range from your standard fireballs, water blasts and whirlwind sword attacks, to healing spells and defensive buffs. Each character can rotate between three melee weapons and this, of all the changes, is probably the most redundant. The idea is that each of the three weapons charges up (from 0 to 100) as you use it, with a fully charged weapon allowing you to cause more damage when casting spells. The problem is this never felt necessary as I triumphed in 99% of the fights in Ni no Kuni II without really ever having to acknowledge this system exists. There were some fights I struggled with, but this was due to being 10 levels lower than my enemies as opposed to my ignorance of all the games systems.
The combat could be more challenging and less ‘busy’, but it also has a lot of things going for it. Firstly and perhaps most welcome, is how quick the transitions into combat are. In a dungeon, it’s a simple matter of approaching an enemy and bam you’re in combat. Kill everything and you’re right back to exploring. When you walk into an enemy on the world map there is a transition from the chibi-like character models to regular combat, but it’s smooth and snappy. You’ll be doing a lot fighting over the course of this game, so making it a painless experience is a huge plus. Party AI is greatly improved over the first Ni no Kuni. Very rarely did one of my companions die, refuse to heal, or stand still in what was clearly an extremely powerful attack. It’s nothing special, but sometimes an invisible AI is a good AI. On a few occasions, as part of the main story, Evan and friends will encounter bosses that shake things up a little. I won’t go into detail to avoid spoiling the surprise but rest assured these encounters feel appropriately special.
The story Ni no Kuni II tells is a straightforward one. Evan’s party members are all endearing in their own way, and there is some time spent fleshing them out, but they do feel rather underutilised. Given you can build your own kingdom, it would’ve been nice for each of your party members to have their own unique haunts or houses that Evan could visit. Being able to see where a character lives is a great way to make them feel more alive, and an easy avenue for an exploration of their background. One way Ni no Kuni II tries to add some depth to its characters is through LeafBook, which is the social media platform of Evan’s world. I concede that on paper this sounds atrocious, but it’s actually rather charming and a clever way of making the world feel like a living, breathing place where the characters actually respond to the events taking place. One character loves uploading photos of monsters, with various commenters saying things like “wow this one’s terrifying!” and “how’d you get so close?!”. Your party members use it too and will comment on each other’s photos as well as their own progress through the story. It’s silly and completely unnecessary, but I for one am glad they put it in.
Visually the game is stunning, with the character and environment design equalling the films of Studio Ghibli. Nothing brought this point home for me more than the design of Ni no Kuni II’s female characters, however. The women and girls Evan encounters out in the world, as well as those that join his kingdom and his party, are all dressed in a way that makes sense and are treated as equals for the duration. There’s no arbitrary hot spring scene, there’s no older male character that’s constantly hitting on a younger female character, no ridiculously sexualised outfits and no bizarre story quests involving maid costumes. Ni No Kuni II is above all that. Not once did I roll my eyes or cringe at the treatment of any of its female characters. There was even one side quest in the kingdom of Broadleaf (the most technologically similar to our world) where three weapon-loving women were discussing how hard it is to be heard in the workplace, and how they’ve adopted militaristic language as a way of getting ahead. When compared to other JRPGs and indeed a lot of Japanese games in general, Ni No Kuni II is feminist as hell and I love it.
The music is a little hit and miss, while it is produced well, a lot of the towns feature tracks that are far too bombastic for the length of their loop. Sometimes exploring a town and talking to the NPCs was like trying to read a book while a smoke alarm is going off. This game is in dire need of some longer, lighter, more ambient tracks. The English voice acting and localisation is really very good. The commitment to conveying different UK accents in text-form is extremely impressive. I did find it jarring and a little perplexing how frequently the cutscenes jump from purely text-based dialogue to fully voiced cinematics, to voiced in-game conversations and back to just text again. As a whole it disrupts the flow of certain pivotal moments in the story, lessening their impact.
I played on a PlayStation 4 Pro and while it does aim for 60fps at 4k, I found there were too many dips for me and switched down to 1080p. The fans were also running louder than I’d ever heard them. There is supposed to be a day one patch which notes improvements in this area so it may be that, come launch day, this won’t be an issue.
Ni no Kuni II is a strange mix of deep and shallow. There are plenty of different aspects to dive into and while every attempt has been made to make these elements connect up in a meaningful way, there is something about it all that doesn’t quite click. The kingdom building is a lot of fun and will no doubt keep me coming back for a long while, but it could’ve been better implemented into the narrative. Skirmish battles are interesting… to a point but unfortunately there’s only so much mileage you can get out of the scissor/paper/rock match-ups. Regular combat has certainly been improved but the low challenge fails to inspire any strategic creativity.
There is definitely a lot to love here and at first it seems Ni no Kuni II is overflowing with different things to do and unusual systems to delve into. As I spent more time with the game, however, I began to realise that none of these individual elements is fully realised which amounts to a final product that falls just shy of brilliance.
Ni no Kuni II was reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro with a code provided by Bandai Namco.