GameCentral gets to play several hours of Level-5’s new role-player, and what is already one of the best-looking games of the year.
Much has been said about the ongoing revival of Japanese-made video games, whose quality and popularity are currently higher than at any time since the PlayStation 2 era. It’s been great to see veteran franchises like Monster Hunter finally become a hit in the West, but if Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom can prove a major mainstream success then you’ll know things have really turned around. And after having played the game we can say that it certainly deserves to do that well.
Not that the original PlayStation 3 game was a flop or anything, but we can only imagine how many people were put off by the name alone (which translates various as ‘Second Country’ or ‘Another World’). As such, we feel it’s a mistake not to rename this sequel, since it has almost no connection to the original game in terms of either story or gameplay. In fact, an awful lot has changed since the first one, despite Ni No Kuni II maintaining the same family-friendly tone and gorgeous visuals.
The first game was famously a co-production with Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, known for films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, but they are not officially involved with the sequel. However, it’s hard to see that this has had any negative impact, as not only are the visuals more splendid than ever but the game has retained the same art designer, writer, and the services of famed composer Joe Hisaishi.
The game’s plot takes place hundreds of years after the first one and involves a coup d’état by the evil mouse tribe, usurping the rightwise king: a young cat-boy called Evan. We played a section of the game from the middle of the third chapter to the beginning of the fourth, but have already seen early sections where Evan gains the loyalty of his key allies: Tani, the daughter of the head of a gang of sky pirates, and an older man named Roland – who is implied to be from our real world.
Although it’s not exactly Grave of the Fireflies, this is not a game purely for children. If it was a Studio Ghibli film it would be one of the more whimsical ones, but it does deal with serious subjects and we’re already upset about the death of a character early on, that seemed like they would’ve been a favourite. Evan’s drive throughout the game is to set up his own kingdom elsewhere, which involves diplomatic negations with his would-be neighbours and the slow realisation of a wider plot involving the corruption of the kingdom’s various rulers.
This happens literally with the head of the Goldpaw kingdom, who are humanoid dogs that make all their decisions with a role of a dice. Except the people in charge are cheating, and Evan and his troop have to prove it to the populace. Visually, the main city is inspired by Taipei – with lots of paper lights and temple-like buildings, but most of the other tribes are distinguished by their regional British accents.
There’s some frog people with Scottish accents, Tani is a Cockney, and Evan has a softer-spoken English accent. Since none of the characters from the first game carry over there’s no Drippy, but there is a very similar kind of character called Lofty who also speaks with a thick Welsh accent – complete with authentic Welsh-isms such as ‘mun’ and the obligatory ‘there’s lovely’.
We’ve never been fans of Xenoblade Chronicles’ use of a British voice cast, but in Ni No Kuni II it feels more appropriate to the setting, and benefits from the simple fact that the actors are all generally a lot better.
Where we do have some concerns though is the structure of the game, which from what we played was very linear. We still seemed to be in the tail end of tutorial mode but story progression was all a matter of simply going where you’re told and performing simple fetch quests or acts of monster hunting. Once we got into chapter four though the number of optional side quests seemed to quickly increase, so we expect the game as a whole will be far more open-ended than our preview suggested.
The other evidence for this is how large the overworld is, and how much freedom you have to go wherever you want. Although it’s portrayed in 3D, with little chibi versions of the main characters, the overworld map has much more in common with old school Japanese role-players than it does anything like Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. It functions perfectly well, allowing you to explore for treasure and pick fights to level up, but it’s the least visually interesting element of the game and we were glad to find it has an extensive fast travel system to essentially bypass it.
Whenever you reach an important area you switch to a third person view of your party and are able to drink in the gorgeous Ghibli-esque visuals. The game’s attempt to portray 3D characters as if they were actually 2D animations is at least as impressive as Dragon Ball FighterZ, and more than once we caught ourselves doing a double take over a character that for a second we thought was actually a 2D figure.
The third person areas all seem quite large and complex, with lots of secrets and some light platforming and puzzle-solving. They’re also filled with monsters of various experience levels, and while in the overworld fights fade out to a separate screen when you’re already in third person mode they just start automatically. Which is both impressive and a bit of shock when you realise you’re suddenly being assaulted by half a dozen different enemies.
Ni No Kuni II completely abandons the turn-based elements of the original and instead ops for a fully real-time combat system, which essentially turns it into a straight action game. You can switch control between any of the three main characters whenever you want, and attack with a standard set of light and heavy attacks and whatever spells you currently have. This all handles extremely well, and trying to keep the other characters topped up with health and MP automatically adds an interesting tactical element – even though they’re impressively competent when only the computer is controlling them.
Of course, every Japanese role-player needs a weirdly overcomplicated gimmick, ideally involving crafting, and Ni No Kuni II delivers in the form of higgledies. These are weird little fairy-like creatures which you can bring to life yourself from a cauldron and then take into battle with you. You can have several types at once, and if you activate them when they’re ready they can do all sorts of useful things, from creating a healing sphere for a few seconds to magicking up a giant cannon.
As fluid as it is, we weren’t completely sold on the combat until we got to a harder mission against a fire dragon. It was over 10 levels higher than the rest of our team and after getting flattened in seconds we were all ready to give up, since we’d never have the time to level grind enough to beat it. But giving it one more go, we concentrated on using the game’s roll move to keep out of its way and to learn its moves and tells. By also not missing a chance with the higgledies, and trying to keep the other party members at full health, we started to make progress. The final victory came with only one character left, on less than a third of their health, but when the monster finally fell we couldn’t have bene more pleased with ourselves – or the game.
Ni No Kuni II also has two other major gameplay elements, one of which is a combat mode called Skirmish. This is essentially a real-time strategy, where you control Evan and rotate up to four squads of soldiers around him. Ideally these all have different weapons and specialities, from grunts to bowmen, and making sure you’re presenting the right one to the enemy is an interesting challenge when you’re being surrounded and all the weapons have a rock, paper, scissors style relationship.
Each squad also has a special move related to them (the sky pirates can bomb from the sky, for example) and while it’s an odd sort of thing to find in a role-player we had a lot of fun with it. Again, it’s possible to win even when the other side are several levels above you, and not because the computer’s particularly rubbish but just by being cautious and using hit and run tactics rather than a tank rush.
The third element is the newly revealed kingdom building. This involves Even sitting on his throne and taking part in what is essentially a city-building sim. Constructing shops and training areas gives you access to new weapons, armours, spells, and higgledies; while others help with food preparation and other useful in-game resources. Each building has to be populated by people with appropriate skills, and the more effort you put in the more access you have to advanced equipment and optional side quests.
Ni No Kuni II is a huge game, and it’s no surprise to know it’s been delayed twice already. But when it finally releases next month it has a chance to carve an audience from more than just existing role-playing fans. It’s the sort of game that can be played and appreciated by families and children just as much as hardcore gamers, and it’s always slightly dispiriting to realise how few other titles can say the same. The visuals alone should attract plenty of interest, but from what we’ve seen it plays as good as it looks.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (previewed) and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Release Date: 23rd March 2018