It is an odd day when a legendary movie company is the big name thing behind a major game release, but this is exactly what happened with Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch when it released on consoles. An enhanced remake of the Japan exclusive DS title Ni no Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn, Ni no Kuni was a game that heavily featured the animation and character design of the world famous Studio Ghibli. It was also developed by Level-5, famous themselves for several different games spanning various genres, such as DS puzzle series Professor Layton and the cult classic PS2 RPG Dark Chronicle. All of this is basically to say that the game was an obvious hit with critics and was insanely popular with many, many people. Well, the game has finally gotten a sequel, and the hype is real despite the lack of much involvement from Ghibli.
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is a game about the president of America going on a journey with a young boy and trying to make him king. Seriously. Well, okay, in fairness, it is never stated that the country in question is actually America, but the city in the beginning looks suspiciously like New York, and since the man carries a handgun on his way to political summits, America makes the most sense. Like the last game, the story concerns someone from our familiar, mundane human world being transported to a parallel world of magic and strange animal/people hybrids.
Despite the similarities with the last game, the story is a lot less grounded in reality this time (strange, I know). You’re barely in the real world for a few confusing seconds at the start of the game before the narrative dramatically shifts focus to follow Evan Pettywhisker, boy/cat king to a kingdom in the process of being usurped. Once you help him escape his burning kingdom, you set out to forge a brand new kingdom with an impressively naive world view totally to be expected from a children’s animated film or storybook.
While that description of the story might have sounded like a criticism, it really wasn’t. While the game has lost some of the ‘Ghibli’ magic which the studios heavy involvement lost the last time around, it still has a lot of its own charm to back up the slightly twee backing story. While the story has very few, if any, challenging concepts involved, it is at least fun to just lose yourself in it and take yourself back to a time when all you demanded from your entertainment was that it was bright and colourful. Obviously, the graphics match this feeling, being mostly bright and colourful. Even when they stray into more evil/dark tones, the colours are still very vibrant and overly saturated, making the entire experience feel like you’re playing an animated movie.
So your goal is to build a new kingdom, take over the world and bring peace to the people who live in it. To do this, you must travel the land, helping people to gain new citizens for your fledgling kingdom. You battle opposing armies, build up your city and generally act like a real king about 20% of the time.
The characters that join you on the course of your adventure are many and various, although fortunately, only a few of them actually matter. You start out on the journey with Prince Evan and Roland the wayward President, but it’s not long before you’ve collected a cast of characters which you can switch between during battle and who play their own part throughout the story. Most of these characters are interesting enough in their own ways, and a fair few manage to have a few funny moments, but there is one who manages to stand out as a token inclusion: Lofty. In the last game, one of the standout characters was Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies, with his regional dialect and strange lines managing to be both hilarious and endearing in equal measures. Lofty can basically be described as the anti-Drippy. He’s got a similar regional accent, is a tiny character with similar a design/role and tries to be as funny but with mixed results. It just feels like Lofty is a character that exists because the devs decided they needed a Drippy for this game but didn’t want to just re-use the same character from the last game.
The RPG combat from the first game has been given a bit of a makeover, aiming more at an action-based system over the usual menu-based system that a lot of games use. When you initiate battle, instead of a strange transition screen, you are simply locked into a small radius around your enemies until you’ve defeated them. You swing your weapons with light and heavy attacks and can use up to one of four special attacks to defeat the enemy monsters as quickly as possible.
As with the last game there is a slight ‘Pokemon-esque’ feature, although this time it feels much less intrusive, which is nice. Instead of micro-managing individual monsters that you use to cast different elemental spells or attacks, you have little groups who automatically attack or perform support actions and have specials you can trigger yourself. This system is much easier to get along with than the last one; each character you controlled in the last game felt like they were almost playing last fiddle to the monsters, since the monsters were automatically summoned at the beginning of each fight. This time they play more like background support, meaning that most of the work with them is carefully selecting from your roster of strange little monsters.
As well as the tiny monster friends, you can also swap between the main cast of characters during battle, or at least the three of them that you have in your active party. Interestingly, the different characters all feel very distinct when you’re controlling them. Roland moves at decent speed and does decent damage, basically running as a decent all-rounder character. Evan moves quite slow and does low damage, but he also does high magical damage, meaning that his physical attacks are basically engines to power his magical attacks. As you play through the story, you also unlock new characters as you go along, all of whom come with different variations of attack speed and attack strength, as well as other ranged support attacks.
The biggest difference beyond the changes to the standard RPG combat has been the introduction of two new gameplay elements: kingdom management and skirmishes. The kingdom management works in a very similar way to those mobile games that have you running your own kingdom, with the very obvious difference being that there is no premium currency to purchase that you can use to speed up development. You spend money to build newer production buildings, which in turn allow you to research things that can help you during the various gameplay elements out in the rest of the world. These benefits range from better weapons to more health in combat, etc., etc. You have to wait in real world time for these various upgrades to unlock, but they can be sped up by using in-game currency, so if you’re in a hurry, there are at least options.
The skirmishes are another new element that are used to represent the large-scale battles between you and other factions that work against your kingdom’s interests. These skirmishes function like simplified RTS sequences where you control all of your units at the same time, spinning them around your main character so that those at the front will fight the enemies that you run into. Each unit has a certain type, and these types have a rock-paper-scissors mechanic were each one is weak to one type and strong against another. By carefully picking who you have up front, you can destroy your enemies’ units quickly and ensure that most of your units survive long enough to take out the rest of the enemy army.
As well as simply smashing your force into the enemies like a child with two rocks, you also have three abilities that help you to take them down. The first is a rapidly recharging gauge that you can use to either increase your units’ attack strength or marching speed, depending on the situation. Next up you have special attacks for each unit, which can be deployed at any time to do massive damage, or they can affect the state of the battlefield in other ways by spending a finite mount of might points you have in each battle. You can also spend these might points to replenish your units’ numbers when they’ve been damaged so you can live to fight another day. The last ability you have is ‘shock tactics’, which basically amounts to hitting the triangle button so that your soldiers get a burst of strength, become strong against all enemy types, and, once upgraded, do a chunk of damage immediately. Proper use of this ability can basically turn a terrible situation into a definite win in mere moments.
There aren’t many issues with the gameplay on the whole. Everything feels fun to take part in, and there is a minimal grind throughout most of your time in the game. There is, however, one big glaring flaw, aside from the missing Ghibli magic, and that is the fact that the gameplay has about as much bite to it as an octogenarian who’s missing their dentures. You can breeze through the entire game with very little difficulty, even when going toe-to-toe with the ‘super’ enemies that are dotted around the landscape. It is very possible that the game was made this way intentionally so as not to roadblock the younger players, but that is an issue that could have just as easily been fixed by giving the player several options for difficulty settings from the outset, meaning that the game could have still been easy as all hell for the younger crowd without being a total washout for the older fans.
The music presents another oddity as well. While none of the music is bad, and you’ll probably end up humming it after playing it for a long time, some of it just ends up sounding strange. The first time a player enters the Cloudcoil Canyon, the music starts playing this very intense and dark tune, sounding like something akin to a boss fight or at least a late game area with high level monsters. Just to point out, Cloudcoil Canyon is the first real area of the game that you explore! The music isn’t even bad, it just seems weirdly placed or has weird moments. There are several times throughout the game where the music features weird beeping noises that come across as a little jarring; half the time they don’t even sound like they’re coming from the same place as the rest of the music. Regardless of these oddities the music has, it is still very well made, and who knows many hardcore fans of the game might end up wanting a copy of it in their collections?
At the end of the day, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is still a mostly excellent experience. The story is a little childish, as is the gameplay, and of course, without the involvement of Studio Ghibli, the game has lost some of its animated flair, but the underlying experience is still immensely enjoyable. Is it as good as the first game? Well, the answer to that question might not be that helpful. While the art style is similar, they just feel like different types of games. If forced to answer, our guess is that most people will say “no”, that Revenant Kingdom is not as good as Wrath of the White Witch, but they also probably wouldn’t be able to adequately explain why. Ni no Kuni II may appeal to a different type of gamer, but that sort of feels like the point. It is highly possible that an entire generation of gamers out there will grow up with this game being one of their childhood favourites thanks to its action-packed gameplay and upbeat story, and thanks to that, the game becomes hard to hate.
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platforms: PS4, PC
Release Date: 23rd March 2018