Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom - Review  

Boiling the Ocean is Quite a Challenge
by Charalampos Papadimitriou

40-60 Hours
+ Original and fantastical world full of charm
+ Beautiful and engrossing visuals
+ Strong soundtrack
+ Unparalleled variety of unique game systems...
- ... but many of them are rather shallow.
- Limited voice acting and sloppy early story
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   After a few delays, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, the latest entry in Level-5's charming RPG series is finally here. Much has changed from the previous entry; Ni no Kuni II is not a direct sequel, but in terms of style it is a true spiritual successor, maintaining the same magical fantasy feel of the original, and the same high quality presentation. But Ni no Kuni II is also not Ni no Kuni I in terms of game mechanics. With an overhaul of the combat system and the addition of RTS-type gameplay and numerous other game systems, certain aspects offer both great variety and much increased accessibility. For all it offers in breadth it can sometimes lack in depth, and may at times overwhelm players with needless complexity. Still, its focus on breadth provides many things for players to enjoy and works well overall.

   Ni no Kuni II stars Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, a boy king who is overthrown during the opening scenes. With the aid of Roland, a strangely dressed man who fortuitously appears at the castle during the coup, Evan is able to escape. Though shaken by the coup, Evan's fear and uncertainty quickly give way to strength fuelled by naive optimism, and he sets out to establish the kingdom of Evermore, where everyone can live happily ever after. The game is set in a world brimming with creativity and inspires wonder throughout as players continue to uncover it. The story, while not particularly original, is very well executed. What it lacks in novelty it makes up for in style and presentation, and feels like a fantastical fairy tale adventure. Similar stories may have been told before, but Ni No Kuni II succeeds in immersing players in it, and wrapping it in a package that delights the imagination. Unfortunately, the first part of the story is somewhat sloppy. With the exception of Roland, some of the characters who join Evan early on lack real motivation to do so. The supporting cast is one-dimensional and underdeveloped, often speaking in overly cliched dialogue and never telling us much about their past, or their hopes for the future — though much can be inferred from their unique designs and personalities. On the other hand, the core antagonists and protagonists are much better developed, and feature strong personalities that will resonate with players. The plot as a whole is well-paced and remains engaging despite its simplicity.

   Most of the gameplay revolves around exploring the world map and progressing the story, and players can take breaks at any time to focus on building and growing Evan's kingdom. World exploration is very reminiscent of classic JRPGs, down to the chibi graphics. Ni no Kuni II goes a long way to reward exploration, with a world map teeming with a myriad of items to find and secret locations to uncover. As players work through the story, they gain access to more and more areas through use of boats, airships, and a variety of abilities. For the kingdom-building portion, players can choose to construct various buildings, which can then carry out research to unlock a variety of craftable items and abilities, provide combat bonuses, or speed up kingdom growth. In essence, kingdom building is a form of character development, and it's very effective because this part doesn't rely on combat or experience. It's a fresh take on character progression that complements standard experience-based leveling very well.

   Kingdom building is designed to require attention, and this is enforced with numerous caps on kingdom development that can only be removed by player action. For example, the amount of kingsguilder that can be generated, a currency necessary to upgrade the kingdom, is capped until a player manually selects to collect it from storage. This means that progress is halted unless players stop their adventure to visit and take care of the kingdom. On the one hand, this works to nicely break up story progression and provide a multitude of fun activities that produce meaningful character upgrades. In this way, the system is really unique, much more impactful on gameplay, and more rewarding to take part in than RPGs that have tried similar systems in the past. On the other hand, those who neglect the kingdom for too long may be forced to wait idly for a bit while kingdom development catches up. The game also features simplistic RTS-type battles in which Evan, surrounded by four accompanying army units, moves around a battlefield and can rotate units so that the correct unit-type is pit against the enemy units in rock-paper-scissors matchups. These battles aren't particularly engaging, but they are infrequent and quick to finish — and they do help with immersing the player in the role of kingdom builder by adding military management to the list of kingdom features.

We can do it, you guys!. We can do it, you guys!

   The combat system is much more streamlined compared to its predecessor. Like in the original Ni no Kuni, a three-character party takes part in active combat. Players can switch the character they control at any time, and the remaining two are controlled by the AI. Characters can execute fast but weak attacks or strong but slow attacks. MP can also be expended to use abilities assigned to one of four button combinations, similar to the Star Ocean and Tales series. While characters have a very shallow MP pool, it can be quickly recovered by using standard attacks or items, and encourages continuously alternating between regular attacks and abilities, keeping combat from getting monotonous. Players no longer collect Familiars to do battle, and instead can find or create Higgledies. Up to four can be brought into battle, and each has an ability that can be triggered, as well as a few abilities that trigger on their own every so often. While this mechanic does provide some degree of customization, it pales in comparison to the Familiar system and is too random to be reliably used in combat strategies. Another unique feature of the combat system is that characters can equip up to three weapons, and switch between them in real time. Weapons charge up over time, and abilities can be powered up by expending some charge of the currently equipped weapon, thus providing incentive for characters to switch between different weapons throughout encounters.

   The AI is also improved in a sense, and AI-controlled characters are much more effective at surviving thanks to some adept dodging and blocking, and mostly avoid engaging enemies altogether. Enemy AI also tends to target the player-controlled character more often. This makes combat easier to manage, but at the cost of making the AI-controlled party members often become bystanders. Because success is determined far more by the level difference between characters and enemies than anything else, it can also feel shallow at times despite the many innovative systems. Overall though, combat is fast-paced and fun, with many options to keep players actively occupied.

   The graphics in Ni no Kuni II are stellar. The many varied environments featured in the main story are full of detail and charm, and even though Studio Ghibli is not directly involved in development, players will still feel fully immersed in its Miyazaki-style world. Character designs are also best-in-class, speaking volumes about the characters' personalities and personal stories. Animations are very fluid, with much attention to detail, including clothing animations, seamless transitions between attacks and battle actions, and even specialty animations like running down staircases. The cel-shaded, vivid aesthetic is perfectly executed and the visuals continue to impress throughout the game.

   The musical score is technically strong, and features many high quality tracks. Diverse in mood yet consistent in style, the music fits the graphical design and is reminiscent of what one might expect from a Disney film. There are a number of memorable tracks that never get old to listen to, including the main theme and the battle theme — though the game also has its share of more forgettable tracks. Ni no Kuni II also features strong voice acting and, consistent with the visuals and music, is in the style of a children's fantasy movie. Evan's naive determination and Roland's kind yet rational nature really come through, bringing characters to life. Unfortunately, voice acting is often only available for short sections, with most text not being voiced. Instead, most text includes single-word or phrase voiceover effects that only capture the characters' general mood but not the content of the text. For example, Evan will often voice "Excuse me!" whenever his dialogue conveys confusion, despite what the actual dialogue is. The game switches from full voice acting to these single-word voices quickly and frequently, creating a very jarring and distracting experience that feels somewhat cheap.

A city of dog people who love to gamble and make all important decisions by rolling a giant die - sure why not. A city of dog people who love to gamble and make all important decisions by rolling a giant die - sure why not.

   Ni no Kuni II sets a very high bar in terms of the quality of its core content and presentation, but its philosophy is one of quantity over quality when it comes to many of its systems and optional content. For example, the game's focus on rewarding exploration with secrets is somewhat diminished because many of the hidden and optional dungeons — if they can even be called that — are extremely short, and obviously built from modular rooms and hallways that are frequently reused. This can eventually break the sense of wonder that finding a new secret location would typically instill. And though it offers many optional bosses to tackle, most are re-skinned higher level versions of standard monsters with a few new attacks. Similarly, there are a slew of items to craft and customize with a variety of abilities, but new items are found and replaced so quickly and often that it's never worthwhile to invest or get attached to any single item. The worst offender is perhaps the side quest system. While there are hundreds of side quests available, most have no real depth and only consist of fetching items or killing monsters. Characters involved in side quests are never developed and seem to have no role in the world beyond that specific side quest task they are there to give. What makes this worse yet is that many of the side quests are mandatory to level up Evermore, which is itself required to progress the story. While these negatives are present and noticeable, they mainly affect optional content and can mostly be avoided. Ni no Kuni II's focus on quantity also pays off in many ways by keeping the game feeling fresh. Though improvements could have been made, most of the game's numerous offerings are enjoyable, and it offers much more to do than other games. Players' ability to readily switch their attention from one type of task to the next at any time helps the game to never feel stale.

   Ni no Kuni II offers a fully immersive world, and takes players on a wholesome and fun adventure that is sure to appeal to the inner child in everyone. With stunning visuals, a strong soundtrack, action-packed combat that is streamlined and accessible, and a whole host of unique mechanics, it has something for everyone, and is undoubtedly a worthwhile experience. The kingdom building concept offers a great new way of progression that works well on multiple levels, being much more involved than simply buying abilities from a menu and allowing development without combat, while also solidifying Evan's role as a king — though it can also on occasion lead to forced downtime. The vast amount of content to explore and multitude of game systems to experience make for a great game throughout that doesn't get stale. However, this variety comes at a cost of some of its systems being simplistic and underdeveloped. By focusing on a smaller set of deeper and better integrated systems, the experience could have been even better. But with its attempt to boil the ocean, Ni no Kuni II falls just short of being truly amazing.

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