It seems odd to think that Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom was announced all the way back in December 2015, but now after a few delays and just over two years, we're gearing up for the full release on PC and PS4 on March 23. To give us one last look at the game before release, Bandai Namco invited us to England's Hever Castle (the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, no less) where we got to play a few more hours of the game between Chapters 3 and 4, and this included a first glimpse at the Kingdom mode as well.
While previous preview sessions had been isolated segments giving us short snippets of gameplay mechanics or visuals, here the game was given more time to breathe, as we were given a quest to talk to Goldpaw's leader Pugnacious (a pug, could you believe?) to see if he could return the nearby forest to its rightful owner, Niall. The trouble is that Pugnacious is a very greedy leader, and although we won't spoil anything here, the whole kingdom of Goldpaw is based on luck and the role of a dice, from taxation to criminal trials, all of which is overseen by him.
We were told by the kind folks at Bandai Namco that the city of Goldpaw is loosely based on Taiwan, as the entire thing is bathed in neon light and packed with Asian architecture. What's more is that there's a big focus on gambling - as you'd expect in a society so obsessed with chance and dice - but the catch here is that when you get into debt the government slaps you with a bird that follows you around screaming "YOU OWE ME!" until the debt is cleared. Trust us when we say that we didn't want to stay in debt for long.
This is the first time we'd really been given a quest to delve into and explore freely, and we were really impressed with the narrative presented to us. Almost every character we walked past in Goldpaw could be interacted with, giving us insights into their own lives and the city itself, and there were plenty of NPCs dotted around as well, making the city feel like a busy, bustling metropolis. Sure, the actual city wasn't that big on the map, but it was sizeable enough to have multiple fast-travel points.
What's more is that Goldpaw also gave us a glimpse into the stores and merchants we'll have in the full game, although it's hard to gauge exactly what's available to us when we're thrown in at the deep end like this. All we know is that there are a lot of weapons you can buy, which are then assigned to individual characters in your party, and you can buy other things like consumables as well, for when battles get sticky and you need some help.
As we've mentioned in previous previews the visual approach switches depending on where you are, as when you're in locations like Goldpaw or the forest your party is all normally proportioned and you walk around as you would any other third-person game, but as you travel in the world map to different areas (as we did in this quest), you become a cute little avatar with a big head and little body, and you enter the normal viewpoint again if you encounter enemies and are forced into battle. This is a pretty nice way to ensure that you're not just forced to fast-travel or do tons of walking, as the world map rewards those who explore, in particular those who face the big bad monsters guarding treasure.
It's also worth noting that you don't have to go through the entire game as our protagonist Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, as with a simple tap of a button you can switch between other party members like Tani and Roland, who offer different styles of combat to suit your needs. We used Roland a lot, for example, because one of his abilities was a wide swiping attack that could take out loads of enemies at once, and his gun was also useful at long-range as well. Of course, Evan is still present in story cutscenes; he is the star of the show after all.
Although the character you're controlling is always the main focus, it's worth keeping an eye on your other party members too, as they can be downed in battle just as you can. Making sure they're healed when necessary is vital, then, although if you really want to take direct control you can switch between characters on the fly to make the most out of each of their abilities rather than relying on the AI to do the job for you. It's worth mentioning that you can pause the combat to heal yourself and teammates, so Level-5 hasn't hit us with a Dark Souls-esque stress test.
Chapter 4, on the other hand, took us to some different parts of Ni no Kuni II, both literally and figuratively, as here we could engage in Skirmishes on the world map. These were indicated by glowing markers on the map, and when we approached we were given the low-down on what our task was, such as defending our realm against invaders, and given the choice to bolster our forces before going into battle. This provided a very different approach to combat based on light RTS mechanics rather than your typical third-person combat (again with the cute little avatars we've seen on the world map, presumably symbolic of larger forces rather than the small group of individuals on screen).
We've explained how Skirmish mode works in our preview from December, but basically this involves you controlling a character, with different forces positioned like electrons around an atom. By using R1 and L1 you can rotate these around you (so if one is at 12 o'clock, the other's at 6, but you can rotate them to be at 9 and 3 for example), and positioning them correctly is important, because if you're approaching some strong melee warriors you're going to want your best melee soldiers defending you rather than your squishy archers, which should ideally stay at the back where they can't get smashed.
You also get abilities such as airstrikes which you can call in to help with your battle efforts too, but these are finite and can't be spammed. Using your abilities wisely alongside your troops is a necessity for winning battles then, especially since (as we experienced) these missions can lead you into traps where enemies ambush you from behind, which makes your situation very tricky indeed. It's also based on a rock-paper-scissors principle where different forces are best against a certain one and weakest against another, so using that to your advantage is also a must.
This preview event also marked the first time we got our hands on the Kingdom mode in the game, although calling it a 'mode' doesn't do it justice, as it's not a separate mode but more like a feature that's integrated into the game. Here you can view your kingdom and, more importantly, build structures around your castle to improve your realm and give you certain benefits. One quest, for example, required us to build somewhere that can research spells, and then spend money and assign citizens to research a specific bridge spell we needed to access somewhere else.
Other facilities you can build include a general store, barracks, a lumberyard, and more, all of which have their own in-game benefits that you need to prioritise. Once built you can then assign citizens based on their abilities, as some will be particularly helpful in one but not another, and after you've assigned citizens you can then engage in research such as new combat tactics or spells. As you can imagine, money and citizens are limited, so you have to choose wisely where you want efforts to go, especially since research takes a certain amount of real-time to complete. You can even upgrade the castle itself, which in turn increases your influence.
It's also important to note that you'll get side quests in the game which may well lead to citizens coming to your kingdom, which in turn means more manpower. As such the side quests aren't just little extra bits of narrative or XP boosts, they have a tangible impact on how you can build your new realm, such as Li Li, whose prowess in magic helped us research the bridge spell in a short amount of time. Also, the more work you do on your kingdom increases the coffers you can claim, which basically just means free money for you to invest elsewhere in your kingdom.
While we didn't get a chance to fully get to grips with all the many aspects of Level-5's RPG, like the merchants and the weapons system, we did get to see a much more fleshed-out narrative side of Ni no Kuni II than we've seen in the past. We already knew the combat and Skirmish modes were a lot of fun, but we're now intrigued by the Kingdom mode and the story too, so we can't wait for March 23 to roll around so we can dive back into things and get lost in the colourful world it's laid out for us.