Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is the sequel to the collaboration between the prolific Japanese developer Level-5 and the legendary Studio Ghibli - which was not officially tied to this game but several of its staffers have credits. As with the previous entry, this game presents a fairly straightforward tale of good versus evil. The game’s protagonist, Evan Pettiwhisker, sets out after his tragic ouster as king in waiting to found a new kingdom where all can live happily ever after.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a standard tale, and Ni No Kuni is most certainly that. Evan and his cadre travel to different kingdoms to slowly build up allies and eventually smash the big bad evil. As a stark contrast to real life, international strife and prosaic concerns alike are solved with equal parts overabundant optimism and just asking nicely. Unfortunately, that has also meant that the character growth one normally sees from overcoming obstacles is hardly around.
Since Evan is only defined by his enthusiasm and desire to establish this new kingdom, his characterization is a bit dull. Unfortunately, the other characters are little more than sketches themselves. Roland, who in the opening scene we discover tragically loses both his family and the country he led in a bombing, never actually has his issues addressed until a brief mention toward the end of the game. The rest of the characters, from the lovingly spunky Tani to the ingenuous engineer Bracken offer little to drive the narrative forward once their recruitment arc is over.
In many ways, Ni No Kuni feels like a game lost in time. Young Pettiwhisker has a budding kingdom at his disposal and yet he is still being sent on fetch quest after fetch quest. The game occasionally offers glimpses of side stories that could really help flesh out the narrative, but rarely dive deep enough to feel satisfying. This feels commonplace to JRPGs of earlier eras, but feels like a long series of missed narrative opportunities when released in 2018.
Similarly, Level-5 introduced several other mechanics that were clearly inspired by other games but did not incorporate the improvements released in their respective genres over the last decade or more. The kingdom building mechanic feels like a clunky combination of Suikoden and Level 5’s own Dark Cloud series. There is also a new light strategy based minigame in which Evan takes his budding army out to squash bandits or engage in mock battles with his newfound allies. The battles are simple rock paper scissors affairs but never ramp up the difficulty or variety in a way that encouraged me to play with the new squads I recruited throughout the story. Lastly, there are now procedurally generated dungeons hidden throughout the world that mostly capture what other games have done well but failed to add anything new to the mix. All of these additional gameplay elements definitely sell the narrative of Evan learning to rule a new kingdom, though it is odd that a budding king does not delegate some of the more mundane tasks so he can get on with more important tasks.
Part of what makes Ghibli movies so appealing are narratives constructed to appeal to both young and old alike. Even if barebones, this is where Ni No Kuni really shines in taking inspiration from the movies. Hydropolis features a police state with a giant all seeing eye affixed to a tower looming over the cosmopolitan water city. While a touch hamfisted, it makes it perfectly clear to the younger crowd that something is amiss and contrary to my overarching concern - the sidequests flesh out the damage done by an overbearing government. Broadleaf introduces a workers’ rights story arc, which was a nice surprise and definitely on the forefront of my mind. Here the side stories undercut the main plot though, especially as you help the company nutritionist develop a super food that can get employees right back to work. But the proverbial icing on the cake comes from Ding Dong Dell. Without going into spoilers, the city’s arc teaches younger players about the importance of trusting in your friends while older players are treated to a story about the hard work needed in overcoming racial adversity. It is really good stuff!
With respect to the art, the game is still rendered (mostly) in gorgeous cel-shading. The overall quality of the cel-shaded presentation has markedly improved on the already stunning original. But the weirdly developers opted to build the over world in a completely different style and with deformed character models. The switch between the two is jarring and I have no love for the new style even as a standalone idea. Frustratingly, Evermore is the only city rendered in this new ugly style. I knew coming in that there was a kingdom building mechanic, so I was very excited to walk through my growing base in all it’s Ghibli styled glory. But that dream was very quickly dashed.
But there is more to Ni No Kuni’s charm than just it’s cel-shaded visuals. The localization team clearly had a field day with the puns and I especially loved the ones with citizen names such as Peachy becoming Pi Chi from the eastern inspired city of Goldpaw. More than just borrowing the art style, Level-5 has also littered Ni No Kuni with references to other Ghibli movies. In particular, I smiled as I caught references to Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind - which remains among my top 3 Ghibli movies. I also loved the care put into making each kingdom feel unique. Each ruler had a central driving motivation which ultimately led to their downfall. I was particularly fond of the dog king who grew up poor and wanted nothing more than his kingdom to flourish but his ambition blinded him to the harm he was causing..
Battles have been rebuilt from the ground up, changing from turn-based fare to snappy, responsive action. The changes in partner AI are also a welcome improvement from the first entry. There are plenty of systems behind the combat from the ever improving weapons and spells to the timing of when to drop abilities or switch weapons or what food to eat. But the difficulty curve is so shallow that you can play stupidly aggressive with no thought to the consequences. I never felt any need to tweak my party beyond switching to the next strongest weapon until I faced the the “true” final boss and the last monster hunt.
Even if the difficulty encouraged me to tweak all my gear, the tedium in improving my armory would turn me right off. Modifying or making new weapons requires that you apply a growing number of materials in the process. You can purchase many of them in your kingdom’s general store, but roughly halfway through the game the materials you need for stronger weapons are no longer readily acquired. Instead, you can set your citizens to gather materials in your various mines, hunting camps, or farms. You can expedite this process by hunting for the materials yourself or trading in the special currency you earn from Swift Solutions errands. But all three avenues of resource collection stick you on a fetch quest treadmill.
In terms of continuity, I do not feel that Level-5 necessarily had to keep every element from the first game but they make some strikingly bizarre choices. I went back to check the map of the first game only to find that the continents have been completely rearranged. And many of the towns and people I came to love in the first world are almost completely wiped out. The game’s narrative treats the previous entry as a legend, including as a literal fairy tale in an early puzzle filled dungeon, so it at least fits the narrative that the map is completely different. But I cannot help but feel like a lot of lovingly crafted worldbuilding was thrown out to no benefit.
Exacerbating the issue, the previous entry’s wonderfully varied monsters are instead replaced by a severely limited set of opponents augmented slightly by color-swapped variations. Moreover, familiars have been replaced by Higgledies - pictured above. These elemental spirits are super charming and I love them, but I do not understand why the developers abandoned such lovable critters as the Totoro-like Tokotoko or the Mayan inspired Godsun. As I approached the end of the extra dungeons, I became increasingly worried that the final boss would not have its own unique model, as so many of the special bosses in the game were just enlarged versions of normal enemies. Thankfully there was something unique there for me to enjoy but I would not have described it as memorable. Level-5 has gone far afield from the menacing Dark Genie of its Dark Cloud series. I do not miss the grinding needed to beat that old purple terror, but I cannot say that we are better off in this new direction.
Despite my numerous reservations, I did find myself enjoying my time with Ni No Kuni and was sad when I was done with the game. While the game does not change up the classic JRPG formula, it is comfort food for someone who grew up on the genre. There were plenty of improvements including the welcome combat overhaul and impressive iteration on the cel-shaded art. Described briefly, I feel that Ni No Kuni got all the ancillary details of what makes a charming, timeless JRPG but did not iterate enough on the core mechanics or spend enough time expanding on the narrative. Ni No Kuni is at its core a well constructed fairy tale, but with a 60 hour playtime I wanted a bit more depth than what felt like a collection of bedtime stories. There’s a lot here to love here, but looking back I can’t help but wonder if I was in love with what the game actually offered or if I was just filling in the blanks of what I imagined as a sequel to the much better first entry.
(This review was made with a copy on the PS4. We have no direct experience with the PC port, but we have mostly seen positive reception with respect to its performance and graphics options.)
Score: 4 out 5 (Recommended)
Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom was created by Level-5. It is available on Steam and PS4 for $59.99.