Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom Review
Level-5 has created some of the most interesting RPGs of the last decade. From Dark Cloud to Rogue Galaxy and the original Ni no Kuni, they have regularly set the bar for absorbing worlds with a unique aesthetic. Dragon Quest VIII was, for me, the pinnacle of their output to date — it hooked me in for 120 hours, and to this day I have the soundtrack on rotation while metal slimes haunt my dreams. One area Level-5 never managed to consistently nail down was the story. Arguably the most important aspect of any single-player RPG, most of Level-5's titles have been simple variations on the hero journey, and while the gameplay has been enough to paper over plot shortcomings in most instances, the studio has reached a point where they really need to up their game in this department. Ni no Kuni II: Revenant King does nothing to advance progress here, though it doesn’t stop the experience being enjoyable overall.
Young King Evan flees for his life after Mausinger, the leader of a rodent army, kills Evan’s father and attempts to seize the throne of Ding Dong Dell. Meanwhile, in our world, President Roland is on the way to a summit when a nuclear blast throws him from his presidential motorcade and mystic forces transport him to Evan’s castle. The unlikely duo are thrust together, and must work to find a kingmaker — a giant beast — who can endorse the ousted king, and help him regain his throne. Oh, and Evan wants to make the entire world free from war. You know, by conquering everything.
The story is cheesy, but not without its charm. Localisation of the voice acting is, like many of Level 5’s games, primarily British, and the range of English, Welsh and Scottish accents recalls Dragon Quest VIII, but with less memorable characters. Roland is the standard square-jawed “normal” hero, while Evan is played up to mawkish levels of irony-free optimism. There are cartoonish Cornish pirates, thrifty Scottish woodlanders and daft Welsh creatures. The stereotypes would almost be offensive if the entire story wasn’t hammed up. There is a lot of humour, mostly slight, rarely hilarious, but consistently upbeat. Your journey is essentially a quest to unite all of the world’s nations by getting each leader to sign a treaty, all while a nefarious influence is plotting behind the scenes to stop you. If you’re looking for anything deeper you’ll be disappointed, but Level-5’s traditional mix of bad puns and corny monster and item names (Whamster, Grimchilla, Good Egg and so on) are present and correct. It’s just a shame that the fully voiced sections of the game are so few and far between, relying instead on text to get its message of hope across.
Each area is distinct and colourful, from aquatic lairs to bustling ports, via rocky canyons and glitzy casino towns. The NPCs are fun to chat to, though they rarely offer more than a little local flavour or side quests (more on that later). Heading to the world map turns your party into super deformed characters, with the ability to pick and choose your fights amongst the monsters wandering the land. It is a delight to explore, as treasure chests and powerful beasts abound, giving you the choice of testing your skills against higher level monsters in the hope of getting some top notch loot. Unlike the first game, loot is very much centre stage in Ni no Kuni II. Before long your inventory will be dripping in ingredients, weapons, armour and accessories of varying types, each ever so slightly better or worse than the last, or with some modification or another to make it worth equipping over your current gear. Dungeon-crawler fans will love the approach the game takes in this regard, and it's always exciting to land a purple chest during a battle and learn how it can improve your loadout.
Even though you’ll have equipment coming out of your eyes, the combat itself doesn’t really warrant it. Each party member has three melee weapons and a ranged weapon to switch between, and a real-time hack-and-slash approach can be combined with party skills to easily take out the majority of foes. Larger creatures, bosses and sub-bosses present slightly tougher encounters, but most other enemies are only mildly challenging. Every weapon has a Zing gauge which is filled during normal attacks until it reaches 100%, at which point you can unleash a special attack. Switching between your weapons to make use of these snazzy moves is therefore the main goal to stay on top in combat, which makes it all the more confusing that the game offers you three levels of automation in this regard. You can either switch everything manually, let the game switch everything for you, or have a semi-automatic approach which switches them only once their gauge is full. After trying all three, I ended up just leaving the switching entirely to the AI. Switching weapons felt like a chore; it simply wasn’t enjoyable, and I preferred to focus on the actual combat rather than constantly glancing at the top-left corner to see what level my set of swords was currently at.
Combat skills range from area attacks to powerful single blasts and buffs. Skills are activated from the R2 menu, and use MP which is regained through attacking enemies. Using a skill when your weapon’s Zing gauge is full can boost the effect, or even produce a powerful alternative attack. Each type of monster has different elemental weaknesses and resistances, so choosing a weapon imbued with dark power, for example, may work great against light creatures. A tactics page goes even further, listing an array of sliders and switches to control the resistances and weaknesses you can prepare for ahead of a battle which may require them. For me, I found it unnecessary — hammering the light and heavy attack buttons alongside my special attacks (whichever character I decided to take control of) took care of almost every monster. The AI for the other two members of the party you choose to take into battle was more than competent, presuming you don’t decide to pick on a monster way outside of your ability. Dreamer Doors lead to more difficult map-free optional areas, and purple “tainted monsters” exist on the world map which can be treated as special encounters if you decide you actually want a challenging battle, but otherwise combat is generally breezy.
It’s even easier if you utilise higgledies, little creatures who can be instructed to help you by healing your party or attacking the enemy. You can recruit a hundred different types of them on your journey through the use of special stones, and use up to four sets at a time in battle, all with different abilities. Like Dragon Quest VIII’s monster arena teams, using a party of higgledies with common traits can also grant certain bonuses. Higgledies aren’t leveled up in the same way as your normal party — you need to build the relevant store in your kingdom. Furthermore, their traits need to be balanced out to ensure an optimum team, so you’ll want to equip a shy higgledy to offset an outgoing one. Some of their skills can be activated manually on the field when you see a prompt, while others (like attacking enemies, or healing you) are automatic. There are a number of different mechanics at play in combat which makes it far less of a grind than you might expect, but for me the real-time combat was missing a certain something to be truly satisfying. Without the turn-based decisions of Dragon Quest or the more in-depth approach to real-time strategy that something like Final Fantasy 12 offered, I felt that Ni no Kuni II had enjoyable but lightweight combat.
Outside of battles, if you like side quests you’ll be in heaven here. Almost everyone seems to need you to get them something, and those side quests often run many levels deep — and plenty of them are on the story’s critical path. In an early example, you’re tasked with researching a book in a library. However, you can’t get into the library without a library card, and the librarian needs you to complete three tasks for her before she gives you one. One of those tasks requires you to obtain a stone from an army, but you can’t do that until you recruit a fierce general to your side. The general won’t join you until you fetch him a specific item of food...and so on. The game’s charm just about makes up for the sheer volume of busywork padding out the game, but it would have been nice to be able to just get into the meat of the story without these mandatory fetch quests making proceedings drag.
Level-5 have bolted on a kingdom-building element to this sequel, rendering it more in the vein of Little King’s Story. You can add buildings and staff to your growing territory, research items, craft weapons, and so on, but progress is mostly linear. The advantages that growing your kingdom grants you may be physical, such as increased speed when moving around the map, or tactical, like improvements in battle or easier location of loot. And just like Little King’s Story and even Pikmin, there are tactical skirmishes available which pit your amassed armies against those of neighbouring foes. These sequences utilise a rock-paper-scissors approach to combat, and rely on you steering your armies around the field into your enemy and letting them do battle. Pick the colour your opponent is weakest against and you’ll trounce them easily. If you’re of a similar or higher level then, again, these minigames won’t be a challenge. Like the rest of the game, the city management and battle elements are slick, pretty, but again just falling short of the depth of their influences.
That isn’t to say Ni no Kuni II is a disappointment — far from it. It’s a polished blast of an RPG for players of all ages, bristling with colour and a terrific localised translation, as one would expect from Level-5. What it lacks in a memorable story or characters, it makes up for in a bevy of interesting systems and modes which completionists will adore. In many ways, it’s like a bag of your favourite pick and mix: plenty of different flavours, a little sickly if you gorge, and with that undefinable “something” that keeps bringing you back for just another bite.
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