Ni No Kuni II: A Review

Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom released to the general public on the 23rd of March 2018 to much fanfare and anticipation from the JRPG community, but was cloaked to the masses by a stream of more mainstream releases, particularly the latest entry in Ubisoft’s long-running Far Cry series. As a sequel to the highly-praised Wrath of the White Witch, Revenant Kingdom underwent some serious changes to really take steps forward from its predecessor and make the most of the technological advances that have occurred in the interim. The most noticeable of these changes is the addition of real-time action-oriented combat and the removal of the Familiar system that gave the original a Pokémon-like appeal.

The Story

Ni No Kuni II follows the story of Prince Evan, the young king-to-be of fantastical nation Ding Dong Dell, who survives a coup thanks to the timely intervention of an interloper from our world, Roland Crane. Roland, a President in his own right, immediately becomes Evan’s mentor as he sets out to fulfil his childish dream of creating a kingdom without war where ‘Everyone can live together in peace.’

Evan’s power awakens

While the premise isn’t as out of the box as some JRPG titles try to be, it does set the framework very nicely for a rich mix of Kingdom building, military strategising and despot destroying. It is quite a shame then that the story itself feels like dipping a thin biscuit into a well-brewed cup of tea. Despite the positive framework and a large glorious world rich with lore from the first game, Evan’s journey never leaves behind the naive realms of childlike fantasy.  What could have been a moment of real growth for the young king – as he realises that the princely bubble he’s been living under all these years has left him weak and vulnerable – is instead replaced by the protective arm of a complete stranger whose back-story never really develops beyond the opening scene. Furthermore, rather than seeking vengeance on the man who stole his kingdom, murdered his father and took the life of the woman who raised him, Evan seems quite content to just get on with his little adventure and build a new kingdom elsewhere.

Although naive from the opening dialogue through until postgame, the story doesn’t really start to fall apart until Chapter Six, mostly because you’re traversing the land discovering new and exciting kingdoms which really helps overcome the narrative issues. However, just after the game’s half way point certain events take place that really rely on the player feeling attachment to the six main characters, a feeling which doesn’t ever occur. Three chapters later, as the credits roll I still feel nothing for any of the main party members and even Roland – the character with the most potential for development – is vastly underwhelming when all is said and done. Any moments of tension or angst that there are in the story don’t stick and I’m sure this will be a game no one is going to walk away from overly impressed with the narrative. I was really on the fence about the voice acting too, some bits are okay, and some… you’ll want to mute. It does feel like those responsible were a little bit indecisive about whether or not to go all in on the localised voices, and in turn we have a game that is about ‘half’ voiced. I’ve played plenty of games without voice acting, and plenty with, and Ni No Kuni II just needed to pick one and stick to it rather than hop on and off as it pleases.

In spite of the poor storytelling and the shallow character development that goes hand-in-hand with it, there’s a breath of Ghibli in the artwork that makes the world of Revenant Kingdom a wondrous place to explore. (For those unfamiliar with the works of the animation studio, Ni No Kuni II can also be likened to Dragon Quest, in particular the art-style and the really out-of-the-way item naming and descriptions that make you wonder just how hard they tried to not call the healing items ‘potions’. There’s also something Dragon Quest-esque in the character design, which is gorgeous by the way. I’m running the game on a regular PS4 and it is god-damn beautiful, so those of you with access to stand-up PCs and PS4 Pros are in for a hell of a treat.

Not quite Shenron

This holds particularly true for the character models, both those of Evan and his party and the people you meet in various cities around the world. You get the feeling like each one has been placed there for a particular reason or purpose and that they were individually crafted.

It turns out, they were.

Gameplay

 

The world of Ni on Kuni II is epic and vast with roaring seas and chilly mountains packed full of traditional JRPG monsters just waiting to be smashed apart and treated like the loot-piñatas they are. But as you head off on your adventure to turn Evan from wimpy Prince to glorious King you’ll notice that he’s turned into a Pop Vinyl figure on the World Map. I found this a little reminiscent of early Final Fantasy titles as you explore the world as a tiny version of yourself and then return to your fully-proportioned bodies when combat starts. To be honest, I know this really bothered some people. Why build a glorious world of cell-shaded people and hand-drawn figures if you’re going to have to explore it in this Overworld view? From a design point it makes perfect sense as rendering the entire world in colourful hand-drawn artwork would have taken far too long, and I had very few issues with them putting something like this in the game. I know it’s a highly divisive topic, but once you get playing you’ll realise that it doesn’t take anything away from the game’s functionality.

The technological Broadleaf

Similarly divisive were the addition of Skirmish battles which take place in this same ‘World Map’ view where everyone’s heads are four times bigger than their bodies. Skirmishes are like playing a Real Time Strategy game that has been dumbed down as much as possible. There’s a rock-paper-scissors (Sword-Hammers-Spears) element to combat and each group of units has a level which greatly affects their fighting strength. In essence, these fights are to symbolise those times where Evan really is in command of huge armies doing battle on a large scale – as any fantasy-based King must be, of course. These were few and far between in the story, which I know is a relief for some people, but they are a fun side-activity which is a well executed, but ultimately shallow, system that relies far too heavily on unit level to decide the outcome of these fights. It doesn’t matter if your swordsmen are weak to spear users, if your swords are a high enough level they’ll cut them down anyway. As a result, the whole thing feels a little improperly balanced, but it’s not quite gamebreaking and levelling up these units isn’t as simple as grinding the same mission over and over – usually. I will say that the way that these missions refresh on the map is random and there is a steep difficulty spike between the tutorial and one of the first unlockable side missions that require it, which can dull the experience of playing these Skirmishes if you’re unlucky enough to come across new ones at the wrong time.

Most of the actual ‘real’ combat takes place using the properly proportioned characters as you see them in cutscenes and in towns. If you approach an enemy on the world map, you are transported to a small ‘arena’ in which the fight takes place, whereas in dungeons fights occur more organically as you don’t start in Pop Vinyl mode. For the most part fighting in Ni No Kuni II feels great, it’s reactive and fast and lets you have the right amount of choice without overly confusing you. Like any RPG you can farm or create rare gear and spam items to get past tricky encounters, but it all feels really smooth – even when pausing to eat food or heal. On the downside, these encounters are short. Consistently short. You spend more time in the loading screen than you do the actual fights and most enemies can be splattered by a few quick lashes with the square button on your controller. Most of the monsters you’ll engage in combat with can be finished in fewer than ten seconds without using skills, spells, higgledies, food buffs or the tactic tweaker, all things you can use to increase your effectiveness against the colourful and aggressive creatures of the world.

I really liked the mechanics at play in Ni No Kuni II, but if there was ever a game that was crying out for a ‘hard’ difficulty it’s this. If you start throwing things like top-level-rarity items and improved weapons and armour into the mix, you can one shot most non-tainted or boss enemies that are at or below your level. Indeed, the only challenge this game ever presented in my 60-hour-long completionist run was in the end game Dreamer’s Door. Most of my party were level 68 and consistently fighting level 107 enemies. It’s a nightmarish mis-match waiting to happen, but finally, it was a challenge. Even neglecting the aforementioned combat buffs and helpful mechanics this was just a grind, with no real challenge other than dodging their fairly predictable attacks and using the occasional heal. If nothing else, Ni No Kuni II does have a difficulty spike between the final boss and its true end-game content, but after 40 hours of consistently battling for eight or nine seconds at a time this difficulty leap can feel steep, particularly if you neglect the time-consuming Kingdom Building aspect of the game while you power through the story. However, the opposite is true if your Kingdom stays in line with your game and gear progression, and you can often find yourself once more in situations where you’re hacking away at enemies like an angry gardener at an unruly hedge-row.

Citizens improve as time passes

The aforementioned Kingdom Building takes up a lot of time, REAL world time. It’s essentially a mobile-game style formula where you build and improve structures and staff them with the citizens you recruit to grant you certain functions or perks. Now, I hate mobile games. I mean, LOATHE them. Not because of their real-time concepts or their ease of access to any idiot who can afford a smart phone and the has enough free time to skip past the tutorial, but because they never stop asking you for real-world currency, and they gate a whole lot of the progress and cool stuff so that eventually you HAVE to pay to win. Ni No Kuni II took all the good bits, and ripped out the constant advertising and pay walls to make the Kingdom Building a fun pastime that provided a welcome alternative to farming low-level materials and items. Furthermore, it also gives a purpose to the side quests and missions. You’re not just getting a handful of food items or coins as a reward, each quest could lead to a new citizen to join your workforce, and this helps distract you from the fetch-quest nature of 90% of the side quests. Managing and building the Kingdom is oddly satisfying, although it is very exploitable. As it’s a part of the game that progresses as time moves forward, rather than as you progress the game’s story, you can leave your console on for a few real-world minutes to generate produce while you’re essentially doing nothing in the game. I’ll admit, I needed some items in game that I didn’t want to endure relentless four-second long encounters with low level enemies for, so I just reassigned some of my citizens to the mining camp and left my console on for an hour while I went to the shop. Upon my return, I had those items: simple.

For all I liked about Kingdom Building, I feel it artificially elongated the time the game takes to complete. Because parts of progression rely on certain buildings and people being built and recruited, you do have to wait for time to pass in the real world before you can move on or get a new item. Had this mechanic been dependent on player activity I don’t know if it would have worked, but I would have a smaller number on my completion time.

The main change between Ni No Kuni and Ni No Kuni II was the removal of the Familiars which served as a primary method of combat. The closest Revenant Kingdom comes to Familiars is sprite-like creatures called Higgledies. Unlike Familiars, the player has very little direct control over these and instead they act mostly on their own in battle, helping and assisting the player’s team of three heroes. They have special abilities which can be triggered, but as I already mentioned, combat is over very quickly a lot of the time, and Higgledies don’t contribute as much as equipping a stronger weapon or better armour would. They are collectibles, and some people may say they’re cute mascots, but for me at least, they were an unnecessary part of the game that feels like it needs developing more. Yes, they can do cool things and can be VERY helpful in combat if you need them to be, but combat was far too easy without them, why would you need the help?

A Pop Vinyl Kingdom

Perhaps on a similar note the Tactic Tweaker, a key gameplay element introduced early on, allows you to improve the party’s damage output or resistances to certain types of monster or types of attack. You can also slightly-affect the drop rates of particular types of items and provide static buffs to certain elements of your characters as you level it up. Further to my comments about the ease of the game, I saw no need to increase damage output or increase resistance, but I really liked the ability to tweak my drop rates, particularly when you can effect four things: Experience, Guilders (money), Rare Materials and Equipment. Each can receive up to a level two boost, but you must sacrifice something else in turn. For example, everything starts at level one, but in turn for reducing the drop for Experience you can buff your drop rate for Guilders. Once you figure out the game is material heavy, you can buff those drop rates to level two, and leave Exp and Equipment rates at level  1 with the buff to Guilders at 0. Note that these are buffs to drop rates; turning Guilders to 0 doesn’t mean that money doesn’t drop, it just means you’re without the standard level one boost. That’s not a problem, as if you’re hoarding equipment and materials you can always sell the ones you don’t need to make some cash. That said, money has limited uses once you pass the mid-game point and you’ll get plenty without much effort anyway.

Sidequests and time-filler

Like many JRPG’s a lot of Ni No Kuni II‘s content outside of the main story falls into typical side quests and errands. Apart from the 80 or so that unlock new citizens for your Kingdom they are entirely optional in terms of gameplay and give no benefits other than in the experience or items they give you. For the most part the side quests are quite easy. More than a few require you to hand over items that you’ve already collected by just being out and about in the world. Only a few require you to go and collect a quest-specific item that won’t spawn unless the mission is active. While I particularly like this, as a hoarder of materials myself, there is very little in the way of variety for these quests, they all fall into the standard ‘bring me, collect me, kill me’ requests that we’ve seen in countless games before.

Roland Crane

There’s also an entirely optional set of constantly renewing side quests called errands. Perhaps even more so than the listed tasks, these require you to bring, collect and kill more common items and things in exchange for Tokens of Gratitude which can be traded for items and citizens for your Kingdom. It’s a fairly simple, yet effective, feedback loop that offers an alternative route to acquire hard-to-get items for your in-game Kingdom, but is something you’ll be able to optimise later on in the game to get what you need and then never use again.

 

Conclusion

Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is an adequate and competent sequel to Wrath of the White Witch and will no doubt be a ‘must play’ for every JRPGer who’s been crying out for a new, quality title since Persona 5. However, I can’t help feeling that the game does have some flaws that I can’t just overlook. The story and related narrative elements are average at best and all the game’s systems feel a little underdeveloped. I do think that all the components it does have are useful and serve a purpose, but in attempting to hit all these other elements of ‘other’ gaming-styles, including Real Time Strategy and Kingdom Building, and then marry them into the traditional JRPG, undercuts the value of each as an individual part. Remove just one of them and reallocate that time spent developing it into the rest of the game and the other parts could have some real depth. At the moment there are a lot of different things to play with, but nothing is so enthralling that it makes you want to focus upon it and really dive in deep – mostly because there’s not enough to dive into. Personally, if the skirmish battles were removed in their entirety and all that effort was reallocated into the Kingdom Building system, it could reach a greater level of depth and potential customisation. Your Kingdom could become a military power, or a thriving hub of culture and instead of having to build specific buildings for story reasons, you could have had branching narratives at specific points in the game giving you a choice on how to develop Evermore, to really make it your own.

As things are Revenant Kingdom is fine, there’s the foundation of something great which I hope Level-5 get the chance to build upon in (potentially) Ni No Kuni III, but throughout my play through, which now includes a Platinum Trophy, I couldn’t help but feel that everything was too simple, too easy, too… naive. The story, the characters and the simplistic and shallow core gameplay systems all point towards this game being aimed at people younger than myself. I’m in my mid-twenties and have been gaming for two decades, and this game provided no challenge. The story felt very much like a bedtime story told to a young child by a caring father. PEGI gave it a 12+, but even that feels a little strict in an age where you constantly get ten-year-old gamers who can 360-no-scope you on COD. If you’re a gamer between the ages of eight and 15 Ni No Kuni II will be an excellent first game (or first JRPG) to play. It’s forgiving, kind and simple enough for children to understand. If you’re in your late teens or older this feels patronising and cheap. I did have moments where I was genuinely surprised that the grown men and women writing the story or developing the game systems would have the nerve to really make things this… simple. Was there something really obvious I had overlooked? Was there a way to change the difficulty that I just haven’t found yet? Eventually, I realised that maybe I’m not the audience this game was trying to attract, maybe Persona 5 really ruined by ability to accept anything but perfection from JRPG games, or maybe – and this is probably the truth – Ni No Kuni II was intended to be a light-hearted fantastical story which left the characters in no real peril and could be the modern equivalent of a father weaving a bedtime story to tell his infant son, and not wanting to ruin his perception that the world is a wonderful place where dreams and ambitions really do come true.

If so, this just goes to prove how much real life has crushed my sense of childlike innocence. If Ghibli-inspired artwork can’t be a guiding light, then I guess I’m living in the dark. That said, there’s so much light here it’s more likely to blind you than guide you, and for all the praise showered upon the game by overwhelmingly inflated mainstream reviews, it’s clear that they too, were blinded by wonderfully prismatic palette that was splashed across our screens.

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