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.