Ni no Kuni II Revenant Kingdom review: Proof the JRPG still reigns supreme
It doesn’t happen very often but Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is one of those rarest of rare things: a sequel that outshines the original in every way. Just as Neir: Automata reinvented Neir without betraying the original’s roots or tone, Level-5 and Bandai Namco have used the first Ni no Kuni as the basis for an entirely different – but arguably better – game.
Now, before you die-hard Wrath of the White Witch fans throw your toys out of the pram, hear me out. The first Ni no Kuni game to come West, 2013’s Ni no Kuni II: Wrath of the White Witch had charming characters matched with a beautiful visual style.
It was a celebration of Ghibli-style anime, cramming in everything that makes the studio’s films so fantastical and compelling to watch. In terms of game mechanics, though, it became tiresome quickly and only hardcore JRPG fans were able to grind through it to the end.
With Ni no Kuni II, things are different. Combat is fierce, fast and fun; complex systems are boiled down into bite-sized chunks and enjoyable to explore; and each new mechanic feels like it has a purpose. The addition of skirmishes and kingdom-building might sound like extra bloat but, in reality, no other game has come close to marrying its systems quite as well as this.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I delve into the numerous reasons why this is, quite possibly, one of the finest JRPGs in recent memory, Ni no Kuni II begins its charm offensive right off the bat.
Ni no Kuni II Revenant Kingdom review: A story fit for a king
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom might seem like any other JRPG with its kingdom-building, unknown-enemy-thwarting storyline, but in reality there’s much more to it. Like any good Studio Ghibli film (though there’s no direct collaboration this time), there’s a heartfelt centre at the core of this tale.
Having fled the principality of Ding Dong Dell after a coup, young Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum sets out on a journey to create his own kingdom. With the aid of Roland, a mysterious man from another dimension and a ragtag band of charming characters, Evan travels the globe forming pacts with its four nations to create a world free of war.
It’s a typically heartfelt setup for a game imbued with a sense of childlike wonderment, but there’s greater depth here than you might at first guess. It’s a tale of redemption and inclusion. It’s about a young boy not being beaten back by his oppressors, yearning to fight for a better society, one that allows him and others to find a place they can belong.
Unlike Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, which told its story almost solely from the perspective of its young protagonist, Oliver, Revenant Kingdom utilises both Roland and Evan’s view of events.
And, as with the best family-friendly movies, there’s something here for both young and old: darker aspects of the story are breezed over by Evan’s worldview but picked up on more subtly by Roland. Other areas of the story see Roland take charge, acting as a guiding hand to Evan, while Evan brings home a sense of innocence that makes his new kingdom of Evermore a place citizens want to be.
Ni no Kuni II Revenant Kingdom review: Kingdom come
All of which brings me onto the main thrust of Ni no Kuni II and its best feature: kingdom building.
For anyone who’s familiar with Wrath of the White Witch, Ni no Kuni II’s this might seem a surprising inclusion. However, Level-5 has done such an excellent job of it that, in many ways, it feels as if this is what Ni no Kuni has always been about.
Indeed, Revenant Kingdom’s story of rebuilding a nation, managing and expanding your kingdom forms a part of everything you do in Ni no Kuni II. As you bolster your army and bring in new citizens, your new nation grows into a force to be reckoned with.
Each new individual adds skills and interests that can be employed to increase productivity in certain areas, unlocking new abilities for battle, traversing the map or improving your prowess with weapons, magic and armour.
Recruiting new members to your kingdom happens as part of the story but, to build a successful kingdom, you’ll need to seek out new citizens through side quests. The more people you bring in, the more notoriety you gain which, in turn, means more side quests open up.
Ni no Kuni II Revenant Kingdom review: Combative King
Alongside kingdom building, Ni no Kuni II has also made changes to how battles are handled. In a bid to create a game with more global appeal, Level-5 has scrapped the turn-based combat found in Wrath of the White Witch, instead opting for a more action-focused approach. It’s not like the showy Final Fantasy XV; instead, it’s a nod towards the Tales series of free-movement combat with tactical moves thrown in.
As with kingdom building, this change of pace could have been an absolute mess and, in all honesty, early battles do feel a touch too easy. In time, however, this changes.
And that’s because beneath Ni no Kuni II’s simple system of heavy and fast attacks and magical abilities lies a deeply satisfying complexity. Each character is equipped with three weapons that you can switch between on the fly and, if equipped effectively, these can be used to dish out debuffs and ailments or take advantage of enemy weaknesses with each blow. Magic attacks and special moves also use up a magic meter that charges from successful melee attacks, meaning you’re always on the offensive if you want to make use of powerful attack.
Then there are the higgldies – strange creatures that evoke memories of the Kodama woodland spirits in Princess Mononoke. These adorable critters run around the fields as you battle, occasionally grouping together to offer up powerful assists in battle. You can level up your higgldies and their abilities and, after finding them in the wild, adjust your team lineup accordingly for certain boss battles or environments. There’s real tactical depth here for those who want to spend the time uncovering it.
My only real gripe with Ni no Kuni II is that combat can feel somewhat easy at times. Anyone who invests the time to hunt down cursed beasts or recruit new members to Evermore will always find the main story and its bosses are consistently and comfortably beatable. That said, I was playing at normal difficulty, so perhaps changing things up would have posed a greater challenge.
Ni no Kuni II Revenant Kingdom review: The Ghibli-less Ghibli game
Despite all the changes, for some the real fear around Ni no Kuni II can be boiled down to the lack of involvement of Studio Ghibli. With Wrath of the White Witch, Level-5 wanted everything to look very much like a beautiful work of Ghibli artwork, with both its cutscenes and world looking entirely hand-drawn.
The lack of Studio Ghibli involvement in Ni no Kuni II is, however, far from being a problem. In fact, without Ghibli’s involvement, Ni no Kuni II’s world seems so much more alive. Level-5 placed a lot of emphasis on how the game handles light and shadow and, thanks to that it’s truly gorgeous to behold and the addition of HDR serves only to make the visuals pop and fizzle with even more life.
And, in fact, although there’s no direct involvement of Studio Ghibli in the making of the game, there was some former Ghibli talent involved in its creation. Yoshiyuki Momose (Spirited Away, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Pom Poko) was lead artist on the project with long-time Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi heading up the soundtrack.
Ni no Kuni II Revenant Kingdom: Verdict
Following in The Wrath of the White Witch’s footsteps was never going to be an easy task for Level-5 and, in all honesty, it could have simply phoned it in and still made money. It hasn’t done that, however, and it’s a far better game for it.
What Level-5 has built here feels like something it must have wanted to create back in 2013: a fantastical and sprawling adventure with hooks that keep you coming back. As good as Wrath of the White Witch was on launch, its only staying power came from its involvement with Studio Ghibli.
Sure, there are a handful of niggles here and there and, yes, some of the sidequests may be a little rote but, just like it’s kingdom-building mechanic, Ni no Kuni II is a sum of its parts. What may cause an eye roll here, or a frown of frustration there, is soon remedied with a smile of joy or a gasp of glee elsewhere. It’s testament to the quality of any game when the hours melt away as you play completely enthralled in the world that’s been created.
Bandai Namco may still have a tough time convincing non Ni no Kuni fans in the West of its greatness but, make no mistake, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is set to be one of this generation’s greatest games.