When Level-5 joined forces with Studio Ghibli for the first Ni no Kuni game, entitled Wrath of the White Witch in the west, we were treated to a game that combined the superb visuals of the famous Japanese studio with excellent RPG gameplay and a touching story. This year we got the sequel to that first product in the form of Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, which kept us in the same fictional world but placed us into the shoes of Evan rather than Oliver this time around.
At the start of the game our hero is greeted by the realisation that the city in which he resides, Ding Dong Dell, has been overthrown in a coup, and at the same time he bumps into Roland, who is a president from our real world who has been thrown into this one in a similar way to Oliver. The two forge an unlikely friendship, and they set off on a journey that is much bigger than the pair of them.
Without spoiling too much, there's an overarching evil force at play throughout the entire game, and your task as Evan is to unite all of the cities and their corrupt leaders under one banner to defend the land. In practice, this means going to each major city and working your way to getting an audience with its leader, interacting with the citizens and doing various quests as you'd expect from a JRPG.
Along the way, you gain many allies like sky pirates Tani and Batu, as well as Leander and Bracken, and you can swap these characters out to create a party of four (even Roland can be swapped out, if you have the heart). This isn't just for delightful conversation though, as each has their own specialities and styles of fighting when it comes to combat.
Speaking of which, it's a remarkably different combat system this time around that's more accessible for beginners. Since familiars are gone, so too is the Pokémon-esque system of using creatures. Here you fight with your characters directly in real-time, using special abilities and swapping between members of your party as you see fit.
Just because familiars are gone doesn't mean there's nothing cute, as there are small Higgledies that help you out on the battlefield. You can have four types equipped at one time, and you can move over to these when they're ready to be used to activate an effect, like forming a giant cannon or healing the party. There's a lot to consider in combat then, so even without familiars there's still plenty of depth.
It's not just about exploring the world and fighting with your party though, as at times you'll need to engage in Skirmishes using light RTS elements. Here you get to equip four units that revolve around you, and by rotating them around you and using their abilities you might be able to win a larger-scale battle. It's another string to Ni no Kuni II's bow, and is both accessible while letting fans flex their tactical muscles.
All the while you're working towards convincing leaders to join your cause, you also have your own kingdom of Evermore that you have to manage. Here you can deploy civilians that you recruit in various tasks like research and provisions, and by using money in your realm's coffers you can expand and work on a lot of different things at once. Seeing your kingdom grow and flourish is one of the most satisfying elements of the game, especially once you get the highest level and buildings sprawl for as far as the eye can see.
While Ghibli didn't return to work on Ni no Kuni II, the pervasive appeal of the first collaboration still remains. Everything is so wonderfully fairytale in its tone, especially Evan's childlike optimism for a better future, perhaps sometimes bordering on naivety, and of course who could forget the gorgeous and colourful visuals. Everything looks a step up when compared to the PS3 original, and the new hardware really does make everything look even brighter.
Hardcore fans of the first game weren't entirely happy with all the changes made here, but that doesn't stop Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom from being one of the best RPGs of the year. It doesn't only look good and continue the fantastic world of the first game, but it's also packed with depth and fun things to do, balancing accessibility with intricate systems that'll keep players tinkering for hours. Just like Oliver's adventure before it, Evan's journey isn't one to be missed.