Review: Ni no Kuni II builds a nation of imagination

The return of a property mashing up all-stars, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom aims to step out of its predecessor’s shadow. It uses animation work from those with Studio Ghibli experience, but no longer has a connection to the studio itself. It comes from the team behind many core Dragon Quest titles, but moves further away from some of that series’ tropes while retaining what works in a more divergent context. It tells a tale of idealized innocence, without for a second apologizing for it. And it never lets up on the charm.

Ni no Kuni II, while largely a standalone tale, is once again set in a parallel world of colorful whimsy. The “fight all the monsters and the world will be at peace” trope is leaned into heavily here, and presented as being as naive and aspirational as it is. You essentially travel the world and do favors for everyone, either to get them to move to your kingdom or simply get them to do something you want.

Want better shops? Want new abilities for party members? Want… dairy products? There are facilities for doing all of these things.

About that kingdom: the fledgling nation of Evermore is a large part of the game, as you’ll recruit skilled workers and set them to tasks to generate all sorts of things. Want better shops? Want new abilities for party members? Want… dairy products? There are facilities for doing all of these things, and for most of the adventure you’ll be rationing your citizens to get whatever sort of things you need at that moment. This system, at its best, incentivizes all sorts of side quests. Rather than being for the occasional trinket or bounty, you can instead get a new citizen, capable of contributing to your efforts in perpetuity.

You’ll also set out for battles great and small. Your party scraps in the sort of real-time fights you’ve seen in games like Tales, with normal attacks building up gauges for special moves and enemies replete with elements and attributes to exploit. It’s a more traditional approach than the first game, but it’s augmented in ways that fans of little critters might enjoy. You’ll recruit “higgledies,” essentially NPC party members that augment your abilities in specific ways. Some heal while some charge up powerful attacks, and choosing and building your team is roughly as important as outfitting your more humanoid companions.

The larger skirmishes are much more of a real-time strategy affair, feeling like something between Little King’s Story and Battalion Wars. You’ll move around with sets of armies surrounding you, and you can rotate these forces and issue generalized orders to them. Along with some boosts and special moves, it’s definitely about approaching at the right angles and taking over strongholds and towers along the map to bolster your forces. These are meant to symbolize the sorts of conflicts that can’t be resolved by gathering three specific kinds of thread and bringing them to a villager, though even still they’re clearly secondary to hand-to-hand in the hierarchy of the game itself.

While this second game’s Studio Ghibli connections are more tangential, its inspirations and tone are definitely still in full force. It’s a gorgeous game that runs well, which helps reinforce everything it’s trying to do. The music backs up its themes of idealism and childish ambition, making it feel, regardless of audience, very much like an echo of childhood itself. It doesn’t feel like it had to skimp on its aesthetics budget like many modern releases that weren’t ready for the asset demands of higher resolutions, and its menus and environments both are well-thought-out and usable.

While this second game’s Studio Ghibli connections are more tangential, its inspirations and tone are definitely still in full force.

Also felt in full force in Ni no Kuni II is the overwhelming wit and wordplay of classic Dragon Quest. It loves alliteration and can’t resist a good pun, which fits a world as far away from grounded as this one. Significant characters are introduced with title cards and fun descriptors, and British accents — well, it’s a Level-5 game, so they’re in abundance and used for characterization heavily — define a world that is otherwise disconnected from ours.

There are some plot holes and inconsistencies to be found in Ni no Kuni II, and a lot of glossing over nonsense can be found, too. But it all seems to fit right in with the pseudo-Ghibli tone, one with so much aesthetic optimism that it’s hard to get buried in the minutiae. This fits in with the spirit of the gameplay, too; the wealth of stuff to do and focus on world-building feels more like an extension of what the PS2-era JRPG could have become rather than what we’ve actually seen.

If you’re on the obsessive side like we are, know that the game’s full of systems to micromanage, scattered pickups on the world map and time-based kingdom activities that will both engage and frustrate those impulses. Some games avoid this sort of thing, but this one? Definitely not. Thankfully, this is usually fairly optional, as you can get solid weapons without crafting them and leave equipment and tactics settings somewhere relatively comfortable without too many drawbacks. As long as you’re not in a rush, it can be very comforting.

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is a marked improvement over its predecessor, finding its footing by becoming more secure in its own identity rather than leaning into its inherited pedigree. The lineage is certainly still there, but it’s more about utilizing the expertise of strong creators than imitating past successes. The game is, more than anything else, enjoyable. And worth your time.

Score: 9/10
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Developer: Level-5
Platform(s): PS4, PC
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