The first Ni no Kuni game was the result of a dream collaboration between the prolific game development studio Level-5, the legendary music composer Joe Hisaishi and Studio Ghibli; the acclaimed animation house behind modern classics like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro.
This combination of robust JRPG gameplay, rousing score, charming story and anime inspired art style resulted in a magical game that received high critical acclaim and was one of the bestselling games on both Nintendo DS and PlayStation 3. Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom aims to recapture the magic by revisiting the charming universe of the previous game.
The game takes a lot of inspiration from the first Ni no Kuni and carries over a lot of its themes and mechanics. At its core, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is a 3rd person JRPG, containing the traditional combination of an open overworld filled with cities to explore and dungeons to conquer. The game also retains the same jolly vibe in its narrative and art design.
However, Ni no Kuni II also changes a lot of important things from its predecessor. It takes a new spin on the series by introducing new characters, new settings, new enemies, new gameplay mechanics and tries to utilize the power of the current generation hardware to provide impressive visuals despite its move away from Studio Ghibli.
Since the partnership between Level-5 and Studio Ghibli and the resulting art style was the primary draw for the first game, how does the absence of Studio Ghibli from this equation affect the graphical prowess of Ni no Kuni II?
Since Studio Ghibli ceased functioning as an animation studio, Level-5 made a lot of its former animators and character designers part of Ni no Kuni II’s creative team. Therefore, despite not being officially partnered with Studio Ghibli, the game does a nice job of recreating the trademarked style of Studio Ghibli designs and animation.
Ni no Kuni II is full of wonderfully animated characters; bright, flashy magic and adorable creatures populating its lush, colorful world. The game’s cell-shaded graphics perfectly recreate look of a high-quality anime movie, as its art style still stands out and is absolutely striking to behold.
Similarly, the returning compositions of Joe Hisaishi assures that Ni no Kuni II continues the tradition of pleasant and melodic music all cross the game; though some might notice that there is a little too much repetition of score from the first game. Similarly, while the voice work is topnotch, the manner and frequency with which the game switches between voiced and text-only dialogue, is quite jarring.
Unfortunately, occasionally there will be a second of stutter on overworld or at the start of enemy battle, which really pulls one out of the game and diminishes the otherwise polished presentation. However, these dip in framerates are never long enough or frequent enough to affect gameplay.
While graphics, art style and visual presentation are an important part of the formula, it is actually the story and the characters that play a vital role in success of any role-playing game. This is doubly true for a game following the traditional JRPG model.
The original game’s story had a fairytale-like feel to it. It focused on the innocence and pure heart of its protagonist to guide through fixing the problems of the world. It was a tale that was grand in scale but was kept very personal due to the strong motivations of its central character. Ni no Kuni II’s story plays like reading chapters of a fairytale book and retains the focus on innocence as the central theme.
Set hundreds of years after the events of the first game, the new story follows a boy-king named Evan, in his light-hearted and idyllic journey about making a new kingdom for peace. Ni no Kuni II offers a diverse cast full of colorful and charming characters. The game ensures that there is never a dull moment, as there is always an interesting character to provide the player with a wild new errand in order to poach them off as a new denizen to grow your kingdom.
One place where the story slightly stumbles is that unlike first game where the whole narrative was bound by a common thread of dealing with loss and grief, Ni no Kuni II’s story fails to establish depth in the character motivations that justify the grand journey taken up by the main characters. Conversely the game does a good job of establishing solid personalities of a hundred plus side characters that the player gets to interact with along the way.
While the first Ni no Kuni was a mixture between traditional JRPG gameplay of games like Dragon Quest and Dark Cloud series and the familiar catching and battling mechanics of Pokémon, Ni no Kuni II does away with the Pokémon-like familiar system and completely overhauls the series’ combat mechanics.
The game has moved away from the hybrid turn-based system and shifted to a more traditional action RPG real-time combat, where the player takes direct control of the character and the accompanying party members during battle. Characters battle enemies through fast paced melee attacks as well as utilizing long ranged projectiles and spells.
It’s a more involved combat experience that combines hack and slash elements with strategy of exploiting weaknesses and using the game’s new “zing” mechanic to swap out weapons mid-battle. There is also a Tactic Tweaker that allows player to add modifiers to team’s in-battle strengths, resistances, abilities and rewards.
Ni no Kuni II replaces the cute familiars of the previous game with new, and equality adorable, creatures called Higgledies. These Kodama-like sprites can be collected through various means and can help the player learn new spells as well as be mix-matched to form a team of four to assist the team during battles with heals, buffs and additional attacks.
In addition to the traditional dungeon crawling and monster battles, Ni no Kuni II also introduces a new Skirmish System to the series. Skirmishes are army battles that allow player to guide their troops across the battle field in real time, in order to tackle enemy regiments and dwindle their numbers.
The Skirmish System functions like a simplified version of Total War games and follows a rock-paper-scissors approach to unit combat, where swords beat lances, hammer beats swords, and lances beat hammers. This not only involves maneuvering the type of units, but also keeping track of placements and tactics.
Another new addition to Ni no Kuni II comes in shape of the Kingdom Management mode. This allows Evan to shape his new kingdom by building new facilities and recruiting new citizens to add to realm’s supplies and expand its territory and influence.
If the Skirmish System is a simplified version of Total War games, then Kingdom Management plays like a simplified SIM City. It allows player to add and upgrade facilities like workshops, markets, barracks, lodges, monuments, farms, mines and lumberyards; each of which can be manned by number of citizens, each with their own skills and specialties.
While the Kingdom Management portion of the game may seem optional at first, it can become a roadblock in late-game if one has not spent enough time doing side-quests to recruit new citizens and upgrading the Castle and the facilities within the kingdom.
Thankfully, unlike its predecessor, Ni no Kuni II does not feature huge difficulty spikes. While that means that the game does not offer any serious challenge, it also means that it does not require players to waste their time needlessly grinding enemy battles only to level up their characters.
Ni no Kuni II’s main story campaign takes around 40-50 hours to complete, however, the game offers a lot more in terms of exploring its large world, which is full of hidden caves and shrines, optional boss battles, around 100 citizens to recruit and near limitless amounts of side quests to complete.
While not perfect by any means, there are precious few games that look like Ni no Kuni II, this wonderful presentation, idyllic narrative and fun gameplay more than makes up for any of its minor flaws. The game is full of charm that will most likely strongly appeal to any fan of the first Ni no Kuni, as well as anyone in the market for a fun, lighthearted RPG with gorgeous presentation.