RPGs have become synonymous with the phrase “it really gets going after four or five hours”. You hear that so often, it has almost become a feature of the genre. As such, it is a revelation to play an RPG that uses clever storytelling and well-crafted exposition to skirt this pitfall and launch you straight into the meat of the game.
That is the case in Ni No Kuni II, the sequel to developer Level 5’s 2011 co-production with film house, Studio Ghibli (which saw a release outside Japan in 2013). Not five minutes after pressing play, you are thrown into the midst of a violent coup organised to depose the games protagonist, the young King Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum.
This unexpectedly tight introduction is just the first of Ni No Kuni II’s surprises. It’s a game which deals with pacing better than any JRPG I have played before by introducing mechanics, story beats and character development at a frequent clip throughout its 40-hour adventure. But weaboo’s beware: this relatively fast pacing comes at the expense of the slow expositional character and world building that many JRPG fans have come to expect. On the flipside, it also may open up this game to people who are alienated by JRPG’s for this reason.
Unlike the first entry in the series, Revenant Kingdom was not developed in collaboration with Studio Ghibli, but it does maintain the beautiful cell-shaded aesthetic of the first game. It may actually be this split from Studio Ghibli which created the game’s relatively fast pace. Ni No Kuni II doesn’t contain any cutscenes longer than around 30 seconds, whereas the original was frequently broken up by many multi-minute video interludes.
This installment is set hundreds of years after the first game, the events of which have faded into legend and are only tangentially touched upon here. The story follows King Evan, a young boy who, weeks after the death of his father, is deposed on the day of his coronation. Instead of fighting to regain his lost kingdom, Evan decides to create a new one, vowing to unite the world under a new banner and put an end to war and conflict.
It is a rather pompous premise, but one that offers a strong impetus for the suite of mechanics the game presents, which include kingdom building and army tactics components, on top of a more traditional third-person action adventure storyline.
Evan’s story will have you travelling throughout the world, working to recruit all of the nations of the world to your cause. It is a quirky and fun adventure, which consistently presents you with unique situations and characters to interact with. For instance, the first kingdom you encounter is Goldpaw, a town based around a casino whose population make all of their decisions based on the outcome of a dice roll. It is an interesting premise, and the story of corruption and greed that follows is equally strong.
Layered on top of these solid premises is a healthy dollop of humour. Not every moment of the game is seeking to be comedic, but the moments that are generally hit the mark and give the adventure a real sense of whimsy. You don’t always see it coming either, like when a severe librarian has you go on three complex quests to collect items from around the world.
This collection is part of the main storyline, and is set up with all of the grandeur and importance befitting a king. However, in the end it turns out you were simply collecting the ingredients for this old lady to create a new batch of her signature lipstick, Gobsmack, to which your companion responds, in his hilarious Welsh accent, “Hang on a flippin’ minute! You put us through all that just for a new shade of flippin’ lippy!?”
Unlike the first game, which had turn-based combat modelled on Pokemon, this entry has implements a brand new real-time system. As you roam around the world, you encounter packs of monsters, which throws you into a brawl-type combat scenario in which you and your companions whip around the battlefield, hacking, slashing, and using spells until the mob is defeated.
The combat mechanics feel smooth and fast, which makes each encounter satisfying to button-mash your way through. Less satisfying is the medium to low difficulty of these skirmishes throughout the game. I kept expecting the difficulty to ramp up, but it never really does. Even boss encounters, though grand in scale, are less than a challenge, and none require more than one attempt to defeat.
Though the story is whimsical and charming, it is the kingdom-building aspect of Ni No Kuni II that really kept me hooked. Around five hours into the game you establish your kingdom, and what follows is a satisfying progression of building, upgrading, and researching to expand and fortify it.
The core component of the kingdom building looks and feels a little like an iOS game, with both the same bird’s-eye view and way you generate money and complete tasks over time. However, without an option to use real-world money, it is much more wholesome than any free-to-play approach. Also, the clock on tasks only ticks down when you are playing, so you don’t have to worry about jumping into the game to get your next set of research tasks ticking along. Instead, while you’re out exploring, you’re constantly aware of the progress of your tasks and itching to get back to see how your coffers and kingdom have progressed while you were away.
Adding to the draw of kingdom building is how these research tasks feed into your adventure. Research tasks influence the main story by allowing you to better craft and improve weapons and armour, train your support team, and even make quality of life improvements to things like your walking speed. This feedback loop keeps the two aspects of the game feeling tightly connected, and motivates you to stay engaged with both throughout your adventure.
The kingdom building also ties heavily into the side-quests of Ni No Kuni II. Most of these are opportunities for you to recruit new citizens for your kingdom, each with their own set of skills that allow them to improve the efficiency of different facilities. Recruiting them will often require some form of fetch or kill quest, but despite the cookie cutter quest structure, they all feel purposeful and important because of how tangible the rewards for recruiting these citizens are.
Each new citizen is visually distinct with well-defined characteristics and motivations. Because of their individuality, and the fact you personally recruited them, you feel like you know and have a connection with every member of your kingdom. It sounds silly, but this familiarity really does give you a sense of ownership and responsibility over your city.
The third primary component of the game is an army tactics mechanic. In this mode, you take a bird’s-eye view of a battlefield and guide four units across it with the goal of wiping out an enemy army. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses against other units, so there is a rock/paper/scissors feel to matching the right units against the enemy at all times. The downside is that there is actually little strategy involved. Ultimately, the team with the more powerful army will win.
Though this army tactics mode is the weakest of the game’s mechanics, it is still an interesting change of pace. Plus, you’re only required to engage with this mode a few times, and it otherwise stands as an optional way to accrue supplies and level up your troops.
These core components, when combined with the game’s distinct aesthetic and tone, culminate in a wonderful RPG that follows proudly in the footsteps of successful recent JRPG’s such as Persona 5 – particularly, in how it presents a dynamic, fun and thoughtfully-constructed experience. There is no sense of grind in this adventure: every action you take in the storyline and kingdom building feels like a necessary and rewarding step towards your ultimate goal of uniting this world. There are few games that have balanced this many diverse systems into a coherent and well-paced experience, and that makes Ni No Kuni II a special RPG that is not to be missed.