Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom – Prince’s Edition Review (Switch)
Studio Ghibli films have a sort of paradoxical magic and maturity to them, possessing a wisdom that comes with the appreciation of innocence and childhood, complexity of narrative that is often solved through the understanding of essential truths. This is no doubt thanks to the painstaking perfectionism of Hayao Miyazaki, though the quality of the entire studio’s efforts is collaborative and storied, the culmination of many projects and objectives within those projects. So it would stand to reason that a continued cross-collaboration between Studio Ghibli and Level-5, the popular RPG developer of Dragon Quest VIII and IX, Inazuma Eleven, and Yo-Kai Watch would result in something even more matured and grandiose than their original works, Ni No Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn and Wrath of the White Witch.
Except the larger portion of Studio Ghibli did not return to collaborate on Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. And while that might sound discouraging in light of the sequel claiming to mature and complete the concepts introduced in those first two games, at least character designer Yoshiyuki Momose and legendary composer Joe Hisashi returned to work on the title. So does Revenant Kingdom manage to surpass the original, a standout release not without its flaws?
As it turns out, it does continue the tradition.
As Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, the player is tasked with establishing their own kingdom after a coup and assassination attempt, thwarted only by the timely arrival of Roland Crane, a de-aged president from another world. If that sentence sounds like a mouthful, you should understand that Ni No Kuni is a world parallel to our own, as well as others. People can cross over to Ni No Kuni for various reasons, I don’t know. That’s not really gameplay related.
Anyway, there are a number of ways Evan can do this (the character, not the reviewer): by progressing the main story and visiting a variety of locations, most of which are linked by fast travel points for ease of access. These smaller town or dungeon environments can have enemy encounters, where Evan and two party members can fight monsters with action combat mechanics. The control scheme is fairly similar to what most have likely encountered- Y and X are light and heavy attacks, respectively, and B is used to jump for aerial attacks. The A button is an action button reserved specifically for the assist system, so dodge and the skill wheel are mapped to the L and R buttons (again, respectively). The skill wheel allows you to call upon the powers of four skills or spells mapped to one of the four face buttons, but these aren’t your only offensive abilities. You can switch between a set of three weapons with the ZL button for a very particular purpose, and the ZR button allows you to fire off your ranged attacks.
All in all, you can equip three melee weapons and one ranged weapon, the former possessing an MP mechanic that fills with basic attacks and the latter using that MP whenever fired. The reason one might wish to switch between their weapons is due to the Zing meter, a gauge that fills as the character deals damage that can supercharge a skill when maxed out. You can save your strongest hits for when these Zing meters fill up, but switching to another weapon means you can save a maxed out Zing gauge while working on another. If you want to continue to use other skills without using their Zing form, this is a viable option. Likewise, you can create a set of weapons with different elemental affinities for specific tasks.
This isn’t the only form of combat in Ni No Kuni II, however, as Evan can also command armies to take on opposing factions in larger skirmishes. These are scenarios that have a set “narrative,” so to speak, as they take place on the overworld and usually require you to clear out enemies in one area before moving on to the next. This combat style uses a unique roshambo system, where the four units of Evan’s army are assigned particular affinities that can best and trump opposing forces. You can rotate your armies around Evan so that his forces are positioned correctly, but all battling is automatic in nature.
You can also use a finite resource to call upon your units’ special attacks, which vary from the construction of support structures to offensive modes of attack and even enemy debuffs. Because this style of combat has its own leveling system and is very much scattered across the game’s length, the later chapters don’t demand a particularly high level for your forces in order to advance the narrative. It’s a cute distraction, but the combat never feels substantial enough, partly due to the automatic nature of the unit engagements.
You can spend time grinding enemy encounters and skirmishes for experience and materials, or you can take steps to enhance every form of progression with the kingdom-building mechanic. Basically, the in-game timer will continue to generate a resource known as Kingsguilders, which can be invested in kingdom structures in order to improve the quality of, well everything. Want better spells? There’s a building for that. Want to gain more experience? There’s a building for that. Want to sail faster? Sure, there’s a building for that. But if you want to optimize these structures and their research speed, you will need to acquire another valuable currency- people. By completing sidequests throughout the world, you will be able to convince denizens of other realms to join your own. Each has their own proficiencies, which will factor into the kinds of upgrades you’re able to invest in while improving your kingdom. It’s a very convoluted system that locks many of its most valuable assets behind story progression and obscured side quests. But it does give the player something to check in on after roughly every hour of gameplay.
Narrative and Aesthetics
Level-5 is no slouch when it comes to visual aesthetics, and the sequel to Ni No Kuni carries on its predecessor’s legacy of having 3D animation that feels like a Studio Ghibli film in video game form… most of the time. The exception to this rule is the rather bizarre-looking overworld, which transforms the playable characters into chibi versions of themselves that have odd textures and conflict heavily with the aesthetics of the shrunk-down enemy models. The overworld possesses a more muted palette as a whole, which makes this entire portion feel visually inconsistent with the rest of the game. I can’t imagine who approved this, but that’s the way it is.
The music, while still composed by the wonderful Joe Hisashi, seems to loop a bit too frequently, and even when the track is longer, the heavy reuse of motifs, covers of the main theme, and overall repetitive application of tracks throughout the world does not make a good first impression. Fortunately, things do balance out as you get later into the narrative, but on the whole, the visuals and music feel like a step to the side rather than a step up from the previous entry.
The overarching narrative of Ni No Kuni II is where it fails to grip me most. Whereas the original explored a wide range of wild concepts including soul-bonding and time travel, this game fails to iterate on them in any substantial way, and instead burdens its narrative with a very bizarre depiction of monarchy, which is plenty fantastic, but hardly logical. The kingdoms of Ni No Kuni II are led by those worthy of forming a Kingsbond with a mythical beast known as a Kingmaker, which imbues the leader with lordy power and the right to rule. This is certainly a fantastic way of establishing monarchies, but it presents questions that never receive a proper answer.
Evan manages to receive his Kingsbond rather easily, completing tasks of wisdom and might that… aren’t really all that taxing, to be honest. Similarly, Evan is ignorant of the plight of his subjects in Ding Dong Dell and fails to consider the subterfuge that might exist in near-any monarchy, even into the late-game. This is perhaps why his Kingmaker Lofty is so nubile in form- though some of the included DLC sheds light on this detail that presents even more questions. Most problems that plague these kingdoms- which are really just single cities- are rooted in the machinations of a single character, who himself is given a sympathetic motive by the game’s end.
In short, the writing of Ni No Kuni II feels decidedly Dragon Quest-like, which should come as no surprise given the developer’s pedigree. However, either the original scenario or the localization fails to plumb depth in any way regarding its central characters. Evan is wide-eyed throughout his entire journey, the characters he meets are corrupted by ambition, selfishness, and a lack of consideration for their subjects. The only time the characters grapple with complex emotions is in the penultimate chapter of the narrative, in which an individual is forgiven for literal character assassination, an act that should, you know… make him pretty unfit for rule. But he feels remorse, and if there’s anything that Ni No Kuni II wants the player to know, it is that inherently good people can in fact do bad things- cartoonishly bad things, even. But they’re good people at heart.
Impressions and Conclusion
Despite being a port to the Switch, the visuals of Ni No Kuni II hold up, with the only performance issue appearing in complex sequences with lots of moving parts. The frame rate can dip when there are many enemies or moving objects on the screen, which does happen rather often on higher difficulties, but aside from this and the aesthetic inconsistencies of the overworld, the game looks and plays sharp. With all the previously-released DLC bundled into this Prince’s Edition, there’s a large amount of post-game content to access, which means there’s plenty to do in Ni No Kuni II. Then why does the final product feel like it lacks substance?
Its immature approach to world-building and episodic structure result in a game that feels somewhat weightless, and this is further accentuated by some of its pacing issues. Even with fast travel, the game’s narrative progresses slowly, with overwrought dialogue in which characters reiterate truths the player has already acknowledged long before. Couple this with the game’s tendency to portray its various antagonists as irredeemable and psychotic assholes that are magically rehabilitated by the love of their people, and the formula starts to grow old quickly. Some of Ni No Kuni’s most compelling narrative twists are given no particular mention, and though the tale from the first game has faded into legend, save for Ding Dong Dell, this game hardly feels like a sequel until you access the DLC content, which itself is late- to post-game material.
This insubstantial storytelling is coupled with the mechanical systems that hardly feel overlapping. The Tactics Tweaker, which is an in-game set of modifiers that can change your resistances, proficiencies, and other combat features, is a system that operates entirely independently from the kingdom-building features meant to ease your experience, or at least, give the illusion of doing so. In truth, so many of the facilities you can construct cannot be optimized until late in the game, where they simply feel like logical extensions of a continuously more bloated experience and material system.
You might wonder at this point why someone might wish to engage with Ni No Kuni II past its opening hours, and honestly, it is difficult to give an enthusiastic answer. There are a few dungeons that offer standard introductions and iterations on puzzles, but these serve only as temporary obstacles, rarely requiring legitimate brain power to solve. Contrast this with the trial of wisdom at the start of the game, which is a genuinely clever floor-vanishing puzzle that is never used for the remainder of your playtime! Most of the other environments you’ll explore are slightly remixed versions of the same several biomes in the form of narrow hallways. The total party of six uses different mixtures of spells and weaponry that you’ll have already seen in the first ten hours of play, and the kingdom-building system simply expands upon the initial structures you see in the first tier. It is a game that offers few narrative twists, little to no bite. It is an RPG anaconda, growing bigger and longer, but still very much the same beast.
Ni No Kuni II is high-quality RPG junk food, a game that is perfectly proficient, but repetitive throughout. What’s worse, it fails to improve on any of the aspects of its predecessor, instead throwing out the inventive and unpolished combat and replacing it with fairly standard action gameplay and offering a hollow and muddled narrative in comparison with the magical coming of age story featured in the first. It hurts to say as a fan of the original, because that game is clearly flawed. But the sequel feels like an exercise in tedium, a played out tune that didn’t need to be revisited. But hey, if everything that you’ve read in this review sounds right up your alley, don’t let this stop you from playing a competent, albeit redundant JRPG.