2013's Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was a game that struck a chord for a select crowd of gamers, with Studio Ghibli's visuals and Joe Hisaishi's soundtrack working in unison to produce something not only stunning to behold, but was also moving, showing us the growth of the young protagonist Oliver. When Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom was announced back at the end of 2015, then, these same fans were excited to dive back into Level-5's RPG world, but as time has gone on and we've seen more and more of it, the merits of what we've seen so far have attracted a larger crowd who are curious to find out how the sequel performs.
Once again we're introduced to a young protagonist, except this time it's royal family member Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, who is forced to flee his kingdom of Ding Dong Dell after a coup. Just before his throne is usurped, however, human character Roland is transported from his own world into Evan's, and aids Evan with his escape and beyond, as they both set out to establish a new kingdom, lovingly called Evermore.
The whole thing is laid out like a children's storybook; a fairytale of sorts. Evan is young, optimistic, and at times idealistic too, but this is actually what wins the hearts of the allies he meets across his journey to make Evermore a respectable kingdom. Whether it be the feisty sky pirates or the lavish residents of Goldpaw, Evan's desire to make a world without war resonates with everyone he meets and makes the whole game wonderfully whimsical. The people he meets could just as easily tell him to get lost and crush his dreams, but we get to see the optimism spread throughout the world through our efforts to help people and make sure situations like the coup don't happen again, making it all the sweeter when we succeed in our quest.
The storybook comparison doesn't just apply to the plot though, as throughout our merry quest we're treated (and we use don't use that word lightly) to a stunningly vibrant palette of colours that ooze out of Level-5's world. Evan himself is an embodiment of this, as his golden hair and crimson cape are indicative of all the shiny visuals we see across the land, be it the shimmering ocean around Hydropolis or the verdant fields you'll find yourself journeying across to reach distant lands.
It can't be understated how impactful the visual design is, and it's far from just being about the colour. The cel-shaded aesthetic works to produce a memorable plethora of characters and locations, and a lot of work has gone into making all of these stick in the minds of the players for a long time. Goldpaw is heavily inspired by the bright lights of Taiwan, for instance, while Hydropolis has a strong ancient Greek/Mediterranean influence, and Broadleaf is a steampunk heaven. The characters are just as pretty too, as joining Evan there's the stern-faced Roland, the fiery sky pirate Tani, and the quiet and unassuming Leander, all of whom have a solid visual identity from their outfit all the way to their colour scheme and facial expressions.
The first 10 hours or so of Ni no Kuni II act as a kind of tutorial (much in the same way as other expansive RPGs like Persona 5), and we're introduced to mechanics in a gradual and accessible way that never overwhelms us with information. First, we'll learn the basic third-person action-RPG mechanics that we'll be spending the most time using, and new elements are slowly added to this as time goes on. For instance, the simple combination of light and strong attacks can be used in conjunction with a number of skills - activated by holding R2 and pressing a button, launching magical attacks or abilities to aid you in battle - as well as ranged attacks.
There's a lovely balance in combat though, as to gain fuel for your magical skills you'll need to build a gauge that can only be filled by attacking with these light and heavy melee attacks, so there's constantly a fine line between getting up close and personal with your foes and taking the time out to utilise the powers at your disposal. As we went on we were reminded more and more of Bloodborne too, since close quarters combat often required tons of dodging to avoid attacks, not dissimilar to From Software's title... although not quite as blisteringly difficult.
Then comes the Higgledies. What are they, you ask? Well, they're groups of little colourful creatures that you encounter early on, and when they group up on the battlefield they allow you to use their abilities for benefits such as strong attacks (one group even makes a cannon appear to shoot foes) or to summon a healing circle on the floor. Level-5 has made this system feel even more alive by adding personalities to the Higgledies, so if one group is shy you won't be able to make use of them very often, as the confident Higgledies will instead take over. It's only by mixing and matching that you can make the best use out of them, and trust us when we say that you'll be needing their help a lot when things get tough later on.
One of the times things will get particularly challenging is when you're facing one of the various bosses in the game, big lumbering monsters like Longfang (which we've seen prior to release) that require you to hit their weak spots to land killer blows. These up the stakes dramatically and really make you sweat, especially considering you'll need to deploy very different tactics for each one you meet, but that just makes victory all the sweeter and adds to the feeling that you're a fairytale king taking down all opposition, David and Goliath style.
When you're not in the third-person RPG zone then - so outside of dungeons and cities - you'll find yourself exploring the world using little avatars representing your crew (as if Evan could be any cuter, right?). Here you'll explore the open-world and get the chance to explore new areas and bump into monsters, which for RPG fans won't be anything new. Since their level is indicated above their head you can see who to steer clear of and who to take on for loot and rewards. There are even special monsters infected by the purest of evil and they take a hell of a lot to beat, but with great risk comes greater reward, and defeating them give you a tasty bounty to enjoy.
These cute little avatars are what you'll also be using in Skirmishes, a mechanic that's introduced as you grow your kingdom which allows you to direct an army on the battlefield. If you signed up for this game for the third-person action and feel yourself groaning at the thought of this strategy gameplay, have no fear, as it's not only optional for the most part (aside from a few story-necessary sections), it's also incredibly easy to understand, even for people that hate directing armies in games like Total War.
The basic principle is that before the battle you select four units to join you, all of which have abilities that can be activated with R2. When you're on the battlefield, then, these units are positioned around you like atoms, and it's with R1 and L1 that you can rotate and position them. Add a simple rock-paper-scissors system which makes certain units strong against one but weak against another, and you've got your basic premise, which can then be enhanced via the ability to call in reinforcements, destroy enemy fortifications, special abilities, and more. It's not only incredibly easy for anyone to get their head around, but it gives that feeling of being in a big battle when you wipe the floor with another army, and really rewards those who carefully consider their strategy.
Then we come to the Kingdom mode, which we'd argue is the most rewarding part of the game. Once you've got your head around being a leader and you've made some new friends, Evan decides it's time to establish Evermore, and here you can manage your kingdom in a number of ways (again with the same small avatar walking around the kingdom). As time passes, currency called Kingsguilders will swell your kingdom's coffers, and you can then use your wealth to build a number of things on the different plots of land surrounding your castle, including an armoury, barracks, market gardens, training ground, hunting camp, town square, cathedral, and so much more. By doing this you increase your influence, and as you've probably guessed, you'll need that to be respected as king and grow your realm.
It's not just about waiting for the coffers to get full though, as you'll also need to recruit citizens, which is where side quests come in. By taking on tasks for the people you meet in the world, many of them will join your cause to lend a helping hand, and when they do so you can simply look at their description to see where they're best suited to join your personnel. If someone's a great weaponsmith, for example, they'll be a help in the armoury, and the best chef can go in the kitchen. What's more is that even if these guys have low IQ as beginners (you can also pick up veterans to provide a real boost to your kingdom, don't worry), over time they'll level up as they learn the ropes, growing alongside you and your kingdom.
But why recruit people to the kingdom? Well, almost everything there has a use, whether that be physically walking around and interacting with it (like getting new weapons and armour) or utilising it for research. Yes, depending on the IQ of the workers and the level of your own kingdom, you can research things to help you in every facet of gameplay, be it new troops and tactics for Skirmishes; fresh Higgledies; armour and weapon improvements; healing items; and leveling up magic abilities. Time and resource management is key, as you'd expect, but as with Skirmishes everything is introduced gradually and explained simply, so you'll never feel overwhelmed or as if you're missing anything. In fact, after placing your first few facilities, you may (like us) find yourself itching to recruit more people, expand your territory, do more research, and make your presence known in the land.
All of these strands come together and are introduced within the first 10 hours, but after that you're pretty much left to invest time into whatever you want. Don't fancy Skirmishes? You can only do the story-necessary ones then. Want to explore the land and fight monsters? You can do that instead, and in fact, you'll probably benefit from the boost in XP and the loot you'll find. Ni no Kuni II truly is a complete role-playing game, and the world feels natural to explore rather than just being a grind-fest like some other RPGs.
What's more is that it has plenty to do for those who like to keep themselves busy with extras like side quests. There are plenty of people across the various locations that need your help with one thing or another, be it slaying monsters or simply preparing a meal for a loved one, and the great thing about it is we never felt like we met the same stock NPC twice. Everyone you meet has their own interesting story, and sometimes it will even inspire revelations out of members of your own party. Everyone in Ni no Kuni II is facing their own struggle, and it is your job as Evan to convince them that not everything is as glum as it may seem.
This is pretty much the overarching theme of the game too: hope vs. hopelessness. Evan's childlike view of the world, and his hopes for a world without war, would be ridiculed in an RPG like The Witcher, but here it's the basis for making the fairytale come to life. As he meets leaders like Nerea, Pugnacious, and Vector, he'll find a different hubris to tackle, be it greed or obsession, and it's up to you to find the good in all the seemingly evil and corrupt figures you meet. Only then can you inspire the world, and make sure you're a leader the people deserve.
The entire story and how this unwinds is beautiful and incredibly joyous to behold, but if we were to have one little quibble with the game it'd be the voice acting or lack thereof. In key cutscenes everything is fully voiced, and the cast does an incredible job in bringing the different characters to life, including a whole host of regional accents and emotive exchanges, which makes it a little disheartening when we're left to read text with little soundbites outside of those cutscenes. It doesn't bring the narrative crashing down in terms of poignancy, but we would've just liked to hear the stellar cast throughout the whole journey.
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom excels at telling this heartwarming story and introducing us to a ton of systems gradually and naturally, and what's even more impressive is that each individual vision for each system has been nailed. Third-person combat is incredibly satisfying, rewarding, and varied; Skirmishes give those with a strategic eye something to aim for and experiment with; Kingdom mode really feels like you're managing an entire realm, and gives you plenty of benefits if you sink time into building your legacy.
Despite being narrative-heavy there's plenty of agency for the player to do what they want and invest as much or as little time into the different elements as they see fit. Level-5 has painted everything with a gorgeous art style, and the whimsical tone is in full force, making it feel like you're playing a legend of old, one that sees the hopeful young king right the wrongs of the land and take down evil while doing so. It's not only a stunning sequel, but a downright classic RPG that both fans of the genre and fans of grand adventures will enjoy, whether they be young princes themselves, or old veteran warriors who need to find the good in the world.