Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is an upcoming role-playing video game developed by Level-5, published by Bandai Namco Entertainment, and is scheduled to be released on March 23rd, 2018 on PC and PS4. I reviewed this installment of Ni no Kuni as a new player; I hadn’t heard of the series prior, and I had only known of Level-5 off hand due to Dark Cloud, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Anime games are no longer my forte, or at least what I personally look for.
I experienced something amazing, inspiring even.
Let’s dive right into this. To get the obvious out of the way, with the art and music so strongly resembling Ghibli movies, you’d think Studio Ghibli had a hand in the game’s development. Surprise! While technically the studio was not officially involved in this installment, they were involved in its predecessor, Wrath of the White Witch. Former Ghibli character designer Yoshiyuki Momose and longtime music composer Joe Hisaishi reprised their roles for Revenant Kingdom. These Studio Ghibli qualities are not only beautiful and well polished but are also easily the most powerful asset in setting the tone for the game. It’s a very sweet and slightly bitter tale catered to all audiences, mixed in with all the over-the-top fantasy that Ghibli is known for. Being a game designed for children first and the rest of us second doesn’t rob anything substantial from the story, though we’ll get to the specifics in a bit.
Though the complete party has six playable characters, the story has two main characters: Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, and Roland Crane. The story follows the adventure of young Evan, learning to stand on his own two feet and growing into a kind and great king in a new land after a coup forces him out of his home. Wise Roland acts as his mentor and guide with his experience of being a world leader from the world he was suddenly torn from. The story surrounding Evan’s exploits as a young king really ground this game as one that should resonate with children and as one that legitimizes children’s agency. Roland, on the other hand, is written to engage older audiences, being the mature voice of reason that takes care of Evan during his journey.
As mentioned, the overall story begins with a coup. However, the player’s perspective begins with Roland, detailing the circumstances that bring Roland into Evan’s life. I won’t spoil a lot of the game’s plot, but the story opens with a pretty surprising bang. The short-and-sweet summary is that Roland was the President of probably the United States and found himself magically transported to a strange new world. The first weird thing he discovered after being whisked away was a young boy with cat ears, Evan, pointing a knife at him. The second weird thing he discovered was that instead of being old with grey hair he was young again with a ponytail. Having the political expertise to recognize a coup, he helps escort the young and scared king out of the deadly clutches of the back-stabbing advisor. He becomes acquainted with the young king and his mother-figure, then settles on helping Evan fulfill his promise to become a great and kind king.
Which, all things considered, if I was suddenly torn away from my home through a magic portal with no explanation, was 18 years old again, and was introduced to a sad child with crazy fantasy characteristics who needed the help of literally anyone, I too would accept the circumstances at face value and help the sad kid. I wouldn’t feel like I’m in a position to ask questions; I don’t know, the kid doesn’t know, and anyone that could know is dead or wants the two of us dead. The game introducing everything to you as Roland really helps you accept the fantasy as reality.
Evan, during this, is the young king nervously preparing to officially take the throne after his father died from weeks of struggling against a seemingly incurable illness. Unbeknownst to him at this time, the king’s advisor Mausinger has been plotting against the Tildrum line for some time. He’s the one who killed Evan’s father and staged a coup to take the kingdom of Ding Dong Dell away from the grimalkin (the cat people) and give it to mousekind (the mouse people). Roland’s sudden appearance scares Evan into accidentally stumbling into the coup, but the way this plays out suggests whatever force brought Roland over did this by design, as now Evan has somebody that can protect him through the armed guards out of the castle.
There’s a bit more that takes place here and definitely afterwards, but I don’t want to rob the story of too many beats in this review. This is the kind of game that really relies on its plot being engaging and surprising, or tense and emotional when it needs to be. Everything about this game supports and props up the overall narrative as something truly engaging. I would hate to rob you of that with a bunch of text on the internet that tells you the equivalent of “Rosebud is the sleigh.” (Editor’s note: Delete the Harry Potter spoiler. It’s probably still too early.)
That said, there is one very important part of the overall plot that needs to be addressed, if I’m going to hype it up at all. The plot isn’t “deep.” It’s not complex in the story it weaves, nor is it nuanced in the ideas it tells. It could have pulled the heartstrings a little more. It could have explained the mechanics that bound Roland to this world better. It could have given stronger character arcs to the other playable characters. It could have gotten a bit philosophical with the grand ideas Evan had as a king. It could have done any or all of these things. However, criticizing the game for these things would be to forget that the story the game does tell is told beautifully. It was surprising when it needed to be, and it was tense and heartfelt at the right moments. While in hindsight the resolution to each conflict felt straight-forward, they felt right for the way it wanted us to experience Evan’s journey.
This story of Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum wouldn’t stand on its own as a book or as a movie, but in this video game, Evan’s story felt genuine and real. It’s a simple story, where the young are inspired to become strong, and good overcomes evil. The game knows that it’s simple and embraces it. Its lessons about life are short and sweet. While our real world may be too bitter and complex to apply them directly, they act as ideals to inspire the young and the old to be compassionate and strong for everybody.
Now let’s talk about how the core gameplay does a great job supporting that plot.
There are three main modes of gameplay. The adventure mode, which is the mode you expect from your RPG. There’s also the skirmish mode, which is a very light RTS game with army missions scattered throughout the main plot and the overworld. And then there’s kingdom mode, which is about managing your kingdom and finding happy work for each citizen. Adventure mode is the most important of the three; it’s how you play with Roland in the opening hour, and how you’ll deal with most problems through each chapter of the game. Let’s talk about that first.
If you’re returning to Ni no Kuni from the previous installment, it’s the same combat system. For new players, the core combat of Ni no Kuni II is primarily a free roaming hack-and-slash, similar to the original Kingdom Hearts. The combat is broken up by having its vast open word traversed by smaller, chibi figures of your characters, with enemy monsters running at you to attempt to trigger the battle. This forces the combat into an arena, large enough for you and two allies to fight against up to 10 different small mobs or one large boss monster that leaps around the battlefield. The different perspectives between travelling and fighting enable the player to take in the grand scope of Ni no Kuni, the vast and open gameworld, while focusing actual combat into more approachable spaces. Enemies that think they can overpower you will run after you hoping to take you down, but if you are about 7 levels above the mobs they’ll remain peaceful. Because of that, the game never bogs you down with tedious low-level fights.
When you enter a dungeon, you travel much like you did in the beginning of the game, with individual enemies walking around with no load screen standing between them and your very-clawable-face. Weak enemies will still avoid you, but it’s much easier to accidentally stumble into conflict. Especially with the game’s mysterious Dream Mazes, where you run blind through randomly generated floors against ever dangerous mobs.
You level up and grind much like a traditional RPG, and the design of the open world enables players to stumble across enemies long before you’re fit to fight them. This gives you a chance to prove your determination beyond the intended difficulty of the game. Between how swift your fast attacks can be and how useful your dodge is, with strong doses of patience and skill, one can conceivably take down those Lv.50 Wyverns the game taunts your Lv.10 Roland and Evan. Although, I regret to inform you I did not attempt this (you see, the thing is I’m a baby).
Every playable character runs with three melee weapons, a ranged weapon, and four pieces of armor. Through Roland you’re introduced to the arm band, the narrative justification for any character holding so many weapons at once as well as why Roland can suddenly cast spells. You can equip up to three melee weapons to your arms band, allowing you to switch between them in the heat of battle, though only one ranged weapon can be equipped. Hitting an enemy with your melee weapons recharges your mana as well as gradually builds up the Zing Charge for all your melee weapons. The core loop within a fight is building your zing and mana through swift combat in order to spend both to unleash powerful versions of your spells. Ranged weapons serve as anti-air utility instead of a competing combat style, since ammo for any ranged weapon uses up mana.
There are six playable characters by the time you earn unlimited access to the open overworld by sea and sky. Between them there are three different melee weapons and three different ranged weapons: swords, spears, and hammers for melee, and guns, magic wands, and bows for ranged. Each weapon type has quirks in how it handles; the hammer is slower and stronger, contrasted to the spear that has a farther reach. These quirks ultimately boil down to how you, the player, feel best when maximizing the core gameplay loop of managing your spells.
You only control one character in combat, and you’re accompanied by two others who act as your second and third lives if you fall in battle, with the remaining party placed in reserve. The game warns you that any characters held in reserve will gain less experience from battle. However, after spending the entire campaign neglecting two characters after I earned the higher level members of the party, I can tell you reserve characters earn enough experience points to be comparable to whoever you main.
However, because Evan and Roland are the two main characters of the game, it’s important to keep yourself familiar with their spells and personal quirks. Both have two moments in the main plot each where the game forces you to control only Evan or only Roland, such as the opening while you play as only Roland.
You can, however, get away with playing any available cast member at any other point during the game, including the final boss. I was suspecting the game was going to force you into Evan, but no, I was permitted to gun down the big bad of No ni Kuni II with Roland and his gun, which was immensely satisfying. This is also me admitting that I mostly played Roland. Any advantages the game offers in letting you pilot any character falls flat when considering the two main characters, Roland and Evan, are both sword users and you’re forced to play with them during most of the game by design. You’re used to the blade, and the game wants you to connect with one of the two, so it’s fairly easy to fall into the trap of playing the same character forever.
All your characters are accompanied by a secondary party list, the “Higgledies.” Acting as the cute pseudo-mascot for the game, these small creatures act as support for you and your allies in combat, offering gimmicky and bizarre abilities when you call on their aid in battle. They also function as extensions of your spells, as compiling a party of four Higgledies of the same breed will improve the strength of certain spells depending on the character you play. This further incentivizes min-maxing into playing one character all the time. Which is Roland, because Roland is the best.
Besides chests, loot drops from enemies, and items such as potions are purchased through stores. The item system of the game is clever, allowing you to carry as many flavors of healing items as you can afford or find, but only allowing you to use a limited number of them in the middle of a fight. For example, you can only use 10 soreaways and 8 three-leaf soreaways in a single combat. While you can work your way into being permanently stocked up for battle, limited healing forces you to keep your wit tight when the monsters get tough.
The game also has a brilliant design in the Tactic Tweaker, a secondary level up feature that applies to your party as a whole. Throughout the game you’ll unlock experience points for just the Tactic Tweaker, which allows you to adjust various statistics surrounding combat, such as element resistances, extra damage against certain enemy types, and combat rewards. The clever twist is that you don’t invest into a specific boost, but rather into what broad category of boost you wanted. Early game, I dumped my points into earning experience faster, but once my level is high enough I can easily turn off experience boost for increased rare material rewards or increased money rewards. I invested some points into increasing the damage output of heavy attacks, but when I discovered I mostly just use quick attacks to exploit spells I easily turned my heavy attack bonus down in favor of more invincibility while dodging. I bounced back and forth between having increased damage output against fae type and nature creatures and having increased damage output against constructs and reptiles depending on where I was exploring.
With every application of the Tactic Tweaker, Ni no Kuni II does a great job in balancing overpowered decisions as well as easy novice mistakes. You can’t accidentally purchase any wrong feature that can’t be somewhat undone, and no feature is so obviously correct that makes it a must buy, except maybe better dodge rolls. It even offers you the ability to buy back all spent experience points with a hunk of cash, so even if you regret investing only in resistances you can undo the damage. It rewards planning by tuning extra damage against your expected target but never offers you so much that you can steamroll the entire game. And the literal stat increases you can get apply only to particular strategies; extra defense only works if you actively block, and extra damage only works if you do heavy swings. It never straight-up defines your statistics, but is an empowering tool that keeps you feeling in control.
Playing your characters and powering them up through gameplay very clearly demonstrates character growth, but this is also the type of game mode you’ll mostly be in when performing quests for potential or active citizens of your kingdom. This is the game mode that lets you demonstrate your kind kingliness on a personal level, as you watch Evan and the gang help person to person with their lives.
Also, did you know there are other modes of play? Remember when I said that?
Skirmish Mode is a very light RTS style of play that has you control Evan as he leads an army against an enemy in the overworld map. It has bases and towers and walls that generally define an RTS game mode, but is basic in what your options are: you only ever control Evan, and the four units you go into battle with are always by his side, save for a few special abilities. Each of the four units offer a different special attack to the table, but are generally categorized in one of three types; swords, spears, and hammers. Essentially, the game mode boils down to a rock-paper-scissors hack-a-thon. Of everything the game offers, this is definitely the most shallow element, but as long as you hold square to attack this mode shouldn’t be much of a trouble.
In fact, this is when we start to get into the heart of what makes Ni no Kuni II such a great game. Skirmish mode is used to break up the monotony of the core gameplay loop; the game sparingly uses this as mandatory plot missions right around when you need a break from the hack-and-slash to stay motivated. But even though it’s a break from the core gameplay, it still reinforces the impact Evan’s journey has, since it’s about him leading troops into battle. Much like a very straightforward plot maximizes the story they want to tell, this simple alternative gameplay mode reinforces the struggles Evan faces on his road to be a great king. The game stays focused on its one true narrative, whether you’re running around adventure mode or fighting armies in skirmish mode.
The third mode of play is also pretty shallow and serves a break from the core gameplay loop, but its utility is more obvious. Kingdom mode puts you in the king’s chair, and has you manage the kingdom with research and citizens jobs that best fit their skills. Throughout the game, after building your kingdom, the game brings you back to Evermore often enough to get you in the habit of checking up on it, collecting the kingdom-building currency and reaping the rewards of research in arms or magic. This game mode lets you consider the citizens that have agreed to populate your kingdom, those you have helped along your journey, and lets you place them in jobs and positions that empower them to be the best person they can be.
The game also uses kingdom mode as a mandatory break in grinding through the core gameplay. There are four tiers of prestige your kingdom can reach, and the game won’t let you research two important plot points without climbing to the second and third tier respectively, with the fourth presumably being the reward for acquiring all potential citizens. Word of caution, stay up to date on side quests and your kingdom throughout play. The most frustrating part of my experience with the game was when the game needed me to upgrade to Tier 3, but that required doubling my citizen count. I spent hours toiling with side quests trying to find people to live in Evermore when this would have been better as a single hour detour at most. Once you have Evermore, double back to every town you’ve already visited to collect side quests, and always walk through every town after they’ve signed your treaty to net more quests and potential citizens.
Every mode of play reinforces the narrative of Evan’s royal journey, and the game wastes no moment in reminding you of the challenges and skills Evan has to develop in order to succeed. The game lets you play in many different ways, many more ways than other titles I’ve recently reviewed. However, every mode of play is consistent with the story it wants to tell, and the story it wants to tell is very clear. This game is never distracted, and neither is the player, whether they’re indulging in secrets of the forest and mountainside or building powerful armies to take on bandits and thieves. You’re always working to make Evan and his council stronger, smarter, and kinder.
And that’s… really what this game’s about. Evan’s kingly journey, and the climb he takes to succeed. It executes this beautifully. While no individual piece of its design stands out as some intensely engaging yet hyper-rewarding innovation, everything it does do works beautifully because each piece not only stands on its own two feet but ties into every other piece as well, with every feature tying back to the core of Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum. There’s no distraction from the game’s purpose, and every angle the game takes towards that goal is well polished and fun.
It could have committed to any of its stronger assets more, such as the story or the dungeon crawl. The fact that it doesn’t will probably dissuade some people from looking fondly at this game. But when considering the story Level-5 wanted to tell, they go above and beyond with the game they made. It’s one of the best games I’ve played in a long time.
Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is this perfect execution of an RPG that I haven't experienced in a long time. It's grand in its vision and, while simple in the execution, the execution it delivers is nearly flawless nonetheless. There are moments where I wish the game paced itself better, toned down the threatening music, or attempted to tug at my heart a bit more, but the game was fun and charming and worthy of praise. Buy this game.