When the announcement of a sequel to Ni No Kuni was entering production without the involvement of Studio Ghibli, many were skeptical if the game that had sold itself on its strong connections to the famous Japanese animation house could stand on its own. Looking at the shift toward more visceral and violent combat, it’s easy to see why Studio Ghibli moved away from the franchise, which had previously used puppets for conflicts to keep things child-friendly. Still, Level 5 are established JRPG developers with a long list of titles already under their belts and Ni No Kuni 2 should be in safe hands.
Ni No Kuni 2 ‘Revenant Kingdom’ retains the Ghibli art style, but loses a little of the imagination that was displayed in the original title. Former Ghibli character designer Yoshiyuki Momose and longtime music composer Joe Hisaishi, both of whom worked on ‘Wrath of the White Witch’, reprised their development roles and this goes a long way toward bridging the thematic gaps between the two titles, but the biggest shift is most certainly a focus on the target player’s age. Whilst Oliver was a child and the original game, though dark at times, had a child-friendly tone, the new character of Roland is middle-aged at the games outset and de-ages to his late teens, providing a bridge for older players that resonates thematically throughout the games length.
One would think that having jumped a console generation onto more powerful hardware, the successor to one of the PlayStation 3’s most beautiful games would look even more amazing than its forbearer. Sadly the reality is that the game’s textures appear to be a little less vivid for the sequel and some of the lingering squared edges on smoothly rounded characters is still evident. It very much feels like a game rushed out in an older engine that’s not been optimised for the shift from JRPG to Action RPG and struggles to cope with the change in speed. The character models themselves are still excellent and have the design sensibility of a Studio Ghibli production, but environments are less intricately crafted and have a very empty feel, some of which are a chore to navigate. There are some imaginative bursts on display that raise the game above its peers in terms of design, but for the most part Ni No Kuni 2 struggles to develop a new distinctive look or live up to the original games’ level of beauty. This feeds across into the menus as well, which fell much more standard in design and execution and could slot into any other Action RPG on the system without a tonal clash. Text is a real pain here, as much of the flavour text is delivered voiceless as you navigate and appears as very small fonts that can be hard to read without a significantly sizable screen.
The very first thing that will strike players is that Ni No Kuni 2 has made the shift from fully voiced dialogue to using only sparse voice snippets at the start of longer dialogue strings. Some cutscenes are still fully voiced, but for the most part characters give sparse, single-line exclamations before launching into page-long explanations to set a tone for the scenario. Whilst what voice talent present is employed successfully in their roles and do a great job bringing their characters to life, it does make the title feel somewhat lacking for a modern facing RPG, especially at a premium price tag. The musical score is well orchestrated and has some excellent spins on older themes (the main theme’s reinvention as a hard paced, driving tone to fit the more combat heavy world is excellent) and mixes these with solid new material to good effect, whilst sound effects carry a sense of anime-inspired weight that keeps things feeling grounded when what’s on screen defies reality.
The narrative of Ni No Kuni 2 is extremely fast paced in its opening hour, taking very little time to set up characters or world and this is perhaps an intentional part of the tonal shift between a softer JRPG experience to an action driven style. Within this period we meet our protagonist (or at least POV character), a middle-aged governmental president from our world called Roland who is caught in a missile attack and pulled into the fantasy realm where he at first believes he has died as he’s form has regressed to that of a younger man in his early 20s or late teens. Here he meets the boy-King Evan, who rules over the kingdom of Ding-Dong Dell (which we previously saw as a much smaller location in the original game, implying that time has moved on significantly). The same moment as Roland appears coincides with a coo that sees Evan’s attempted assassination and the rise of the lower-class rat people to power in a predominantly cat themed kingdom. Roland helps smuggle the king to safety, evading the guards and the powerful black knight before witnessing the sacrifice of Evan’s handmaiden to seal their escape and defeat. In the aftermath, Roland embraces the concept of remaining in this strange new world and sets about helping Evan retake and restructure his kingdom. It’s a solid, well-paced storytelling but doesn’t take a great deal of time to establish things before brushing them away in a storm of change. As incentive to keep playing however, it’s flawlessly executed. What follows is basically Evan’s story as he sets about the creation of a new kingdom that he’s earned rather than inherited, learning valuable lessons along the way.
Gameplay takes on a number of different modes, with the predominant one being the Action RPG that sees you controlling a party of 3 characters inside 3D space, two of which are AI controlled but can be switched to at will for direct use. Here you have a variety of attacking and blocking options as well as a special attacks and both close range and distant weapons. You can quickly cycle through three close range weapons at any time and dodge-roll or jump in the best Action RPG tradition. This play method takes place for overworld travel in chibi form as well as inside the games dungeons. Adding a great deal of character to these battles are small spirits who run around the battlefield and group from time to time, allowing you to run into their area and action a trigger effect that can do anything from healing to summoning a cannon to fire wildly in all directions in the middle of the battle. These spirits are collected as the game progresses and used for puzzle solving outside of combat too. You’ll also spend a considerable amount of time signing up characters and nations to join your cause in a manner not dissimilar from the ‘Suikoden’ series, and like that flagbearer, a colourful version of large scale battles is also included to give the game a sense of scale. In this instance you take to the field as Evan, who is surrounded by parties of up to 4 different troop types which he rotates around him to deal with assaulting and repelling waves of enemies on a battlefield. Unlike Suikoden, you will also be researching and building your kingdom to a greater extent, and this can be quite a time sync with a wealth of options available that expands as you progress. The game provides you with an interesting option in the form of a page of buffs and debuffs that you can pay accumulated points from battles to upgrade, allowing you to tailor your experience to a degree, tweaking elemental weaknesses and defence on a party wide scale and increasing other more general mechanics. Hardcore players can choose to ignore this to raise the difficulty, but it does make some encounters significantly easier.
Overall, there’s a wealth of options available in this sequel to one of the PS3’s best JRPGs, but it has lost a sizable chunk of its charm and original attraction in the shift to a slightly older and more action driven tone. Fans of the original may find themselves a little disappointed, but we advise them to stick with the title past its first few hours when the extra systems really start to come into effect and make the game feel like a fuller experience.