Game Review

by Branden Johnson,

Ni no Kuni II:Revenant Kingdom

Playstation 4

Description:
Ni no Kuni II:Revenant Kingdom
The long-awaited action RPG sequel to 2010's Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.
Review:

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was a bit too traditional for me. As a lover of RPGs and the films of Hayao Miyazaki, I figured it would be right up my alley. An RPG that looks and sounds like a real Studio Ghibli film is basically a dream come true. Unfortunately, I found the pacing of its traditional random battles a bit too slow for my tastes. Like most, I assumed developer Level-5 would be adding some refinements to the sequel, but that it would largely follow the same design philosophy, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it's rare when a sequel breaks as far from its predecessor in terms of style and substance as this one does.

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom tells the story of Evan, the heir to the throne of Ding Dong Dell. Surviving an attempted coup thanks to the help of a mysterious friend from another world, Evan sets out to create his own kingdom. He has a lofty goal: to unite the entire world in peace. To do so, he must travel to each kingdom and broker a treaty with their governments. Along the way, he'll make good friends, fight ferocious battles, and come face to face with an ancient evil long locked away. In broad strokes, the plot adheres to standard JRPG tropes. What elevates it, though, is its characterization and its focus on smaller stories. Each character who joins your team is an interesting person in their own right, and the lands they come from provide the backdrop for intriguing and surprisingly relevant plots. Like the kingdom with a corrupt government that brazenly steals from its people. Or the people that find themselves locked in a terrifying surveillance state. Or the nation that is basically a giant corporation-turned-country fighting for workers' rights. You wouldn't come into a fanciful game like Ni no Kuni II expecting hard-hitting social commentary, but you'll get it. And believe it or not, it's handled quite well. Nothing heavy-handed or annoying, just texture that makes each land feel real.

All that texture would be better served in an actual Studio Ghibli film if there weren't strong game mechanics behind it, and fortunately, this is where Ni no Kuni II really steps things up from its predecessor. Whereas the original game was a traditional turn-based RPG, this time around the developer has opted for an action RPG approach, something more akin to Kingdom Hearts in execution. With an active party of three heroes, you'll make your way through open environments and engage with foes directly on screen -- no cutaway battles here (though this changes on the world map, where you'll see enemies wandering but dive into a battle screen when you touch them). When you engage a group of enemies, a battle arena is drawn around the area, restricting you to a large, circular section in which to duke it out. Each character can equip three melee weapons and one long-range weapon, and switching between them is vital to mastering the battle system. Weapons build up a charge, and when they're full, they provide more hitting power and more oomph behind your special and magical attacks. Along with your companions, you can bring along up to four Higgledies, tiny sprites that fight with you. Each has its own distinct style and personality, and balancing your group of Higgledies is important. You'll want aggressive attackers and helpful healers. Finding a party style that works for you adds another fun layer to the combat.

This might already sound like a lot, but there's even more than what I'm describing here; fortunately, the game does a great job of introducing you to each new system one at a time, giving you an opportunity to practice with it before dropping more on your plate. Level-5 has succeeded at completely shaking up the gameplay, creating something that's just pure fun to play. Bear in mind that there's a hefty difficulty spike about halfway through the game. Since it's an action RPG, you can survive longer by developing your dodging and blocking skills, but battles are so chaotic, it might be in your best interest to do a bit of grinding to catch up. The fighting is fun enough that this never feels like a chore.

In addition to grinding through standard enemies, you'll face a variety of epic bosses. They all provide a decent challenge, and several of them even have battle-specific gimmicks. Some of these work, such as one battle that finds you equipped with a Higgledy-powered gun to take down an airborne foe. Some do not, such as one boss that ends with a frustrating platforming sequence. But the effort made to mix things up and keep it interesting is appreciated.

Beyond a completely new combat system, Ni no Kuni II adds a fairly robust kingdom management system and a quirky but unnecessary large-scale battle mode. I'll talk about the latter first. Evan has the ability to recruit soldiers and build an army, and at various points in the game, you'll lead your troops into battle. Controlling Evan, and flanked on all sides by your troops, you barrel into enemy forces. Each unit of soldiers specializes in one type of weapon, be it bows or swords or hammers or spears. There's a simple rock-paper-scissors mentality to these battles, with spears having the advantage against swords, but being weak against hammers, and so on. While these battles mostly crop up in various side quests, they do come about during the main campaign on occasion (including, inexplicably, in the final sequence of the game), so you'll want to invest a bit of time in leveling your troops. There's not a lot to love in these skirmishes, but they're not horrible, either.

As for the kingdom management portion, it's a fun addition that gets bogged down by its necessity. Once Evan has established his new kingdom of Evermore, he sets to work finding the best and brightest to run things. This amounts to a nigh-endless series of side quests and errands to placate needy people and convince them to join up. You'll earn special currency that you then use to build new structures, most of which provide you with the opportunity to earn some direct gameplay benefit, such as increased experience points or new weapons. Every citizen you recruit has a particular area of strength, so assigning them to the appropriate job is important if you want to maximize your returns.

I'll admit, in the beginning, I found the whole thing charming enough that I didn't mind that I was being sent on mindless fetch quests. But where Ni no Kuni II drops the ball is by making this kingdom builder mandatory to progress in the game. At a couple of points, you'll need to have developed your land to a certain level before the story is allowed to progress. The game threatens, in its final chapters, to undo all the good will it's built up along the way, by forcing you into what should be optional side quests. The pacing of the plot, not to mention my patience, fell apart after my third hour of straight kingdom building.

If this game had been snatched away from me at the 20-hour mark, and I were forced to write a review of my experience to that point, I would have given it a solid A. But the back 10 hours of the game are such a slog, such a boring series of fetch quests that it really brings down the whole experience. If that sounds harsh, it's only because Ni no Kuni II displays such quality otherwise, such promise, and it lives up to that promise -- most of the time. Because it's such a smooth ride for so long, these late-game speedbumps really wreck the undercarriage.

Speaking of shining, this is a stunning game to behold. If you're able to play this on a PlayStation 4 Pro, with a 4K HDR TV, do it. It feels like they've perfectly recreated Studio Ghibli's, and the soundtrack by Ghibli veteran Joe Hisaishi is equal parts moving and hummable. The voice acting is solid overall, with only King Evan being a bit grating -- though I think that's more due to his “oh shucks” pre-teen boyishness than the actual performance. One thing I found odd was how little voice acting there is. A handful of important scenes are fully voiced, but the vast majority are text only. It's a bit of a rough juxtaposition, with the sweeping score, the gorgeous graphics, and the old-school text box crowding out the bottom of the screen. The production values elsewhere would have suggested a fully voiced game, and the text-only scenes are robbed of some of their dramatic potential. Plus, sticking voiced scenes in the middle of seas of text makes the game feel strangely uneven.

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom shows a developer willing to take risks and move in directions no one saw coming. While this entry relies too heavily on fetch quests to drive its story along, the bones are good and solid this time. Maybe by the time the inevitable Ni no Kuni III launches, they'll have found an even better balance. Or maybe they'll turn it into a real-time strategy title or a first-person action/platformer. Who can say? When a developer is this bold, anything can happen.

Grade:
Overall : B
Graphics : A+
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : B
Presentation : B

+ Beautiful graphics and music, charming characters, addictively fun battles
Fetch quest-focused kingdom building sim is mandatory, kills the last third of the game

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