Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom Review
A solid sequel that swaps its predecessor's strengths and weaknesses
Ever since its announcement, I wondered how Level-5 could pull off a sequel to Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. The first game was unique, blending the art and style of Studio Ghibli films with monster-catching mechanics that seemed like a real-time Pokemon game Nintendo rejected. Ni No Kuni’s story was emotionally resonant, a tale of finding a way forward through devastating grief while discovering what it meant to be a hero. That said, I didn’t love the gameplay. The battles were clunky and made it difficult to praise the game’s mechanics. So when I heard that Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom would be eschewing the monster-catching aspects and leaning more on the action-RPG combat, I was intrigued, but I also was unsure if Level-5 could replicate the emotional connection of the first game. And that fear has been realized. The end result is a game that feels like the polar opposite of its predecessor. While Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom features combat that is fun and exciting, the game’s narrative lacks the depth of Wrath of the White Witch.
Ni No Kuni II tells the story of Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, the new king of Ding Dong Dell, a location that players should recognize from the first game. As an incipient coup attempts to remove Evan from his throne, a human named Roland is transported from our world into Evan’s. After Roland helps Evan escape Ding Dong Dell, Evan quickly decides that he will build a new kingdom - one that will be free of war and only know peace. Roland’s world-crossing scenario is similar to the set up in the first Ni No Kuni, but where that game used the world-swapping to draw connections between characters in the different worlds, Ni No Kuni II doesn’t really do any of that. In fact, the only reason it feels like Roland travels between dimensions is because it’s something that has to happen in this series.
Tonally, Revenant Kingdom is all over the map - at times it wants to be Games of Thrones with political intrigue and warring nations, at other times it has the childlike naivety of a storybook. It might have worked if the core of the story was interesting, but it isn’t. Evan bounces around from one location to the next, trying to get world leaders to sign his Declaration of Interdependence, and at each stop the main villain reveals himself to be manipulating the ruler of the kingdom. There’s a section of the game where Level-5 tries to throw a curveball, but it’s pretty easy to see through the narrative smoke screen. Ni No Kuni II lacks the narrative complexities of the first game and Evan can’t hold a candle to Oliver in terms of being a relatable protagonist.
Luckily, the game plays a lot better than the first one. Not only is the combat fun and fluid, but it looks fantastic. This is far more of an action-RPG than the first game as you hack and slash your way through monsters and enemies, triggering certain special attacks by holding down the R2 button and selecting skills using the face buttons. That alone would be fun, but the game’s use of "higgledies" (little ghost-like creatures that you bribe to fight alongside you with offerings) in place of the previous game’s "familiars" (the little monsters you’d catch, train, and fight alongside) is a smart one. Instead of commanding familiars during a fight like in Wrath of the White Witch, higgledies will clump together on their own and ready themselves with a special skill. If you run to a group of higgledies and press the X button, they will trigger a special attack or heal your party. They aren’t much use in the frequent smaller fights, but they are invaluable during boss encounters. It helps break up the monotony of slicing and dicing your way through enemies and adds another layer to the larger fights. It’s really smart design and I never found myself getting bored with the combat.
And this is really the bread and butter of the game. In the overworld you’ll encounter monsters who transition you from the exploration to these little fights, and each one feels like a lot of fun. You’ll also encounter corrupted monsters that are much more powerful. These battles are lengthier - more like boss battles, but they encourage greater use of the higgledies and having that extra layer of strategy feels fantastic. You also battle through monsters in labyrinth-like dungeons, clearing floor after floor until you fight the big boss at the end. The way that the battles expand and contract, feature single large enemies and groups of smaller ones keep the combat feeling fresh. The way you trigger special attacks always gives you something to do and creates a flourish of visual spectacle. In fact, I was always leveling up at a good pace because I was eager to explore everything and fight every monster since these encounters were always enjoyable. It’s a huge improvement over the first game where the combat always felt clunky.
Revenant Kingdom also features a couple of other new mechanics and those don’t work quite as well. After you help Evan establish a new realm called Evermore, you will have to take time in between the story quests to level up your kingdom. This is done by spending Kingsguilders (a special currency that accrues over time) on new buildings and upgrades. The problem is that these kingdom-builder mechanics don’t feel balanced. It’s fun to run sidequests that often end with recruiting a new citizen for your kingdom, but overall there isn’t much to do. The game wants you to assign citizens to work based on their predetermined skills, then do research to improve the gameplay with bonuses like weapon crafting or improved travel speed, but I never found myself using these bonuses or looking forward to achieving them. Since I never struggled without those bonuses they become superfluous. In turn, it makes the kingdom management more of a vanity project than a necessity. Which is okay, I enjoyed watching my kingdom grow and level up even if it wasn’t really that necessary.
However, at the end of the game you’re told the kingdom and your weapon shop need to be a certain level in order to progress the story. This stopped the game dead in its tracks for me. While I had been steadily building my kingdom, I still needed to level it up once more and level up my weapon shop twice. This lead to three hours where the game basically played itself, since Kingsguilders is gained on its own, as mentioned. I ran a few side quests, but really I just needed to kill time until I had the money required to make the demanded updates. These are the kind of mechanics one expects of a free-to-play mobile game, not a full price JPRG, and are designed to simply pad out the 25-35 hour playtime.
But the kingdom management isn’t the worst gameplay addition. That prestigious honor goes to the real time strategy battles. These are painful to play and seem like they were shoehorned in with how little they connect to the core gameplay. Occasionally, you will have to fight enemies on a scale that is bigger than the regular combat. When this happens, Evan will command four units in multi-stage battles. You have four different types of divisions - heavy infantry, main infantry, ranged, and spearman. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses against others and you’ll have to figure out how to maneuver your armies to take advantage of that. I never found a great way to do so - I usually just sat back and baited enemy divisions into being picked off one by one. During the battle, each unit has a special skill that can be used, like an air raid or an electric shock that momentarily disables the enemy. You can also call for reinforcements when you’re getting beaten. All of this pulls from your Might meter, and when the meter is depleted and your forces defeated, you lose.
The problem is that maneuvering your forces feels awful. Your squads always remain in a pyramid shape that can be rotated using R1 and L1. When I wasn’t baiting armies into mismatches, it was just random chaos over which there is little control. There’s not a lot of strategy or tools you can use to help progress. If you’re getting defeated the only recourse is to go and grind up your armies until they are leveled high enough to achieve victory. The game even suggests going back and fighting previously won battles to keep leveling up. It’s clunky gameplay and the fact it’s required to progress multiple times in the story is frustrating, to say the least. It’s important to note that both this and the kingdom management aren’t the main staples of the gameplay, they’re required to progress, but aside from the times they rear their ugly heads they can be entirely forgotten. I just wish you could ignore them altogether.
The other problem with the kingdom management and real time strategy aspects is that they are the worst looking parts of the game. Ni No Kuni II uses cel shaded animation for its characters and buildings, but nature is always presented with photorealism. It’s a dynamic similar to that used in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and while it’s not quite as noticeable in this game, it still adds a nice visual flavor. The locations that Evan and co. travel to are creative and fun, with smart visual references to locales like China and Venice. When playing in the third-person view, the animations are gorgeous and the visuals can be stunning, but the overworld view employed in the other gameplay modes isn’t all that pleasant to look at. It’s fine, but again the overhead angle feels like something from a mobile game.
It’s worth mentioning the cities that you’ll spend most of your time in with Ni No Kuni II. For long stretches you’ll be hopping around the gorgeous settings, helping the citizens of Goldpaw, Ding Dong Dell, Hydropolis, and Broadleaf. There are dozens of sidequests and opportunities to recruit citizens and earn some extra XP. These are small, unimportant moments, like in many JRPGS, but they feature the stuff that works best about Ni No Kuni II - the beautiful art and exciting combat. Running around the gorgeous world and engaging in stylish battles make up a strong core that Ni No Kun II always manages to get back to, even if the side stuff isn’t great. The foundation of the game is strong and something most players are bound to enjoy.
Joe Hisaishi has returned to write the score, though this time I didn’t find it as memorable as his efforts in Wrath of the White Witch. The best parts of the new music in Revenant Kingdom are the recycled themes from the first game. Another disappointment is how little voice over work has been done. The cutscenes are fully voiced, but the dialogue largely isn’t. This feels like a concession for the worldwide release, but it’s still a bummer. The game also lacks the animated cutscenes made by Studio Ghibli from the first game.
The presentation is helped by how technically sound the game is; loading times are minimal and I never ran into any crashes or bugs. It’s a solid technical effort from Level-5 and given how often you’re fast traveling or using loading screens, it really help keep the game light on its feet.
Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom comes close to being the equal of its predecessor. What it lacks in story, it makes up for with a wonderfully fun combat system, which is far more engaging than anything Wrath of the White Witch had. I wish that was all there is to say and I could give my stamp of approval, but the other added gameplay elements drag this game down. I loved exploring the beautiful world, fighting corrupted bosses and leveling up my characters, but any time the game pulls in its kingdom management or real time strategy battles, the momentum ground to a halt and I was forced to try and use these unwieldy mechanics that seemed to come from an entirely different game. These flawed additions can’t help but mar what should be a worthy sequel.