In the Valve-y of Gods? Anyone?
When Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was pitched, it was almost like a dream come true. A wholly original RPG made by Level 5 in collaboration with the famous Studio Ghibli felt like one of those pie in the sky game ideas you’d talk about with your friends. While the final product may not have met every expectation, at the very least people were impressed by how well the game’s world translated the feelings of Ghibli’s work and tone. So when the sequel was announced, and promised to improve upon and change the core gameplay of the series, people were rightfully excited, leaving the departure of Studio Ghibli from the series as little more than a footnote.
It’s hard not to find Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom just as charming as its predecessor, at least from the get go. Set hundreds of years after Wrath of the White Witch, the game follows a young cat-eared prince named Evan, as he survives a coup and sets out to build his own kingdom where “everyone can live happily ever after.” Along the way he makes friends with sky pirates, engineers, and all sorts of different storied and diverse characters that fill the colorful and adorable world around him. He manages all of this with the help of a man named Roland, the president of the United States from a more “real” world, who is transported into Evan’s world as a younger version of himself following a nuclear explosion in his city.
That sort of ludicrous backstory would usually serve as the crux of most games, but Revenant Kingdom oddly buries that lede pretty hard. It’s actually pretty unique to have a “world swap” storyline where the character isn’t bothered with returning to his home, but instead ignores it to help those around him, much less a character who was the president. Unfortunately, this lack of focus on arguably the most interesting character is one of many issues.
Revenant Kingdom is generally shown through the perspective of Evan, and while he’s absolutely adorable and endearing, watching him dart between nearly every kingdom in the game, faced with a monumental task of uniting them all under a banner of peace, isn’t exactly thrilling. Despite the game harping on about understanding every nation of the world and their people, as well as how getting them to all agree to the same ideals will be difficult, Evan manages to barrel on through any sort of trial with little to no opposition. The general format of each chapter goes as follows:
Evan reaches a new kingdom and soaks in the sights.
The ruler in charge of this kingdom is a bit of an ass!
There’s this person in the kingdom who is not an ass, who swears the ruler used to be good, and who joins your party.
Evan goes to an (often forced) dungeon experience and finds out how to make the ruler not an ass anymore, but the bad guy who only appears once a chapter takes the ruler’s power.
Evan fights a boss with massive glowing weakpoints, saves the day, gets his treaty signed and goes home.
There’s nothing wrong with simplicity, especially for a game that’s set on being more accessible to younger audiences, but there’s a difference between simple and formulaic. Revenant Kingdom’s wiles get it pretty far, but you can only take so much of the same so many times before it starts to wear thin.
The game manages to deliver on its premise of hard-won peace at times, but even then it’s fleeting. When you return to Evan’s home kingdom of Ding Dong Dell near the end of the game, the story follows through on a lot of what it claims to put down. You see Evan try to figure out the best solution for this town fraught with racial divides, and how everything fell apart. While every kingdom has some sort of novel twist to it, be it the corporate-themed Broadleaf or the magical police state of Hydropolis, they never quite create any sort of interesting message or story, and fall back hard on overdone tropes. It’s disappointing that so many of these ideas come apart, because if the entire game had been as well told and crafted as Ding Dong Dell, it could’ve more than made up for its shortcomings elsewhere.
I would’ve even been fine with the simplistic, guided main storyline if it meant the huge amount of side content the game had to offer was curated in interesting and engaging ways, but the game fails to bring even that all the way forward. In terms of narrative side content, the quests you pick up are almost always adorable and interesting, but follow the same mission structure seen in the worst parts of so many open world games. Much like with the main story, you can only take so many requests of running back and forth with little to no combat or interesting dialogue before it gets tiring.
Again, this is not to say the sidequests are completely without merit; there’s actually a lot of endearing material to be found. For example, a quest for a girl whose pet lizard ran away decades earlier, only to be found as a massive dragon who hasn’t forgotten their roots. There are fun quests like discovering why a fortune teller’s reputation has been ruined in a town, or ones that even delve into why fortune telling would be popular in a town like that in the first place. Unfortunately, for every quest like that, there are at least four “bring me three of this item for a meager reward” quests that fill the game’s minimap like a plague. It would be easy to say you’d be better off ignoring those quests and instead picking and choosing the quests that are more meaningful and deep, but the game makes no distinction between them. The closest you’ll be able to get to figuring out if a quest is worth it or not is seeing if the reward includes a citizen for your kingdom, but even that can be a red herring at times, since many of the basic fetch quests serve as prerequisites to citizen reward quests later in the game.
The reason the citizen reward quests are so important is because Revenant Kingdom actually hosts a robust kingdom building minigame, which is a nice addition to what would otherwise be a rather by-the-numbers action RPG. Evan can gradually build his kingdom of Evermore from a small fort with a few shacks, into a massive castle with sweeping fields of villas and markets as far as the eye can see. The process of building it up goes hand in hand with pretty much everything you do in the game as well, meaning that no matter what side content you’re choosing to do, you’re probably making some progress on making Evermore a place deserving of its name.
Building up Evermore grants all sorts of bonuses too, with the ability to craft gear, cook your own food, and gather all sorts of resources. In this way, Ni no Kuni II consolidates much of the complexity found in other JRPGs (especially older titles) that is often spread across multiple systems with varying degrees of accessibility. Unfortunately, the result ends up feeling half-baked. While the game lets you craft your own gear, it’ll hardly ever hold a candle to the fanciful high level gear that will drop from random encounters. You can have your cat chef whip you up different kinds of foods with their own unique effects, but they last mere minutes, making their effects hardly worth the maintenance. The resources you gather can be useful for sidequests, but then the rewards for those side quests only serve to feed back into these three big systems. It ends up creating this sort of hollow ouroboros, one where you gain things in order to gain more of the same things endlessly, without much of an outstanding reward to make that effort feel worth it. Sure, it’s fun to see those characters you met in sidequests work in these shops across your kingdom, but when those shops seem like little more than set dressing spawned by busywork, it barely feels worthwhile.
These problems are just a few of the many nitpicks that plague the game, which was already too basic in its own right. The original Ni no Kuni was overly complex: taking the ideas behind a system like Pokémon and making it into real time combat with a lot of rough AI didn’t exactly make for the most elegant game. So, it makes sense that Level 5 would want to move away from that with the sequel. Unfortunately, the more classical action-RPG style combat of Revenant Kingdom doesn’t produce especially compelling battles. Almost every encounter will follow the same general format of mashing standard attacks to build up enough mana in order to then perform larger and more powerful attacks, and it never quite gets past that surface level. Things get even more annoying when you realize that every single type of attack you’ll do except for the basic melee smash costs mana, meaning that you’re going to be spending a good 90% of your time in the combat mashing the square button over and over again, with little nuance.
It’s not surprising to see a game where you mash square over and over again. Most action-RPGs base themselves heavily on that as a core. Therein lies the issue with Revenant Kingdom, though: it never moves past that. In similar games like Kingdom Hearts, as you level up you gain new passive skills that do things like add new animations onto your combos with new effects. What might have once been a simple series of sword swings now ends in a circular explosion, or a launch, as examples. Evan and his friends never get that type of growth, and while you’re able to switch between control of different characters who each use different weapons, the differences are never so massive as to feel fun or unique. Your second party member Tani uses spears instead of swords, and while her attacks have a longer wind-up compared to Evan and Roland’s sword swings, they still do the same amount of damage, for the same results.
The closest the game gets into mixing up the combat is in the form of Higgledys, a sort of expansion of the Pokémon-themed familiar system in Wrath of the White Witch. Higgledys are cute spritelike creatures reminiscent in appearance of the Kodama from Princess Mononoke. You can level them up by feeding them different foods, and in return, during battle, they’ll randomly appear in clusters to perform some sort of effect, whether it be creating a healing bubble or creating a tiny cannon to launch at enemies or a handful of similar abilities. The most unfortunate failing of Revenant Kingdom has to be its complete neglect of this system. At no point does it ever feel like your Higgledys are making any sort of meaningful dent in any enemy, and the way that their effects can only be triggered randomly, and are easily interrupted by any sort of enemy attack, means that more often than not you’re just gonna stick to that tried and true melee mash.
One of the biggest problems with the Higgledys, and the combat at large, lies with just how trite the enemies you face end up being. If they’re not incredibly easy to outmaneuver, they’re giant sweeping things full of quick attacks that will knock you out with little to no leeway. Unlike the almost laughably simple and telegraphed boss fights, the tough enemies just end up relying on you having a much higher level, or a large stock of healing items to use, which I never find compelling. If this were a more nuanced game, one where you had to think about where you were on the battlefield, or what attacks the enemies were going to do, perhaps the Higgledy effects would’ve been more engaging. Hell, if they had even managed to give the Higgledys more powerful passive effects like the kind that can be found on much of the random gear drops you find, they could’ve felt worthwhile. Instead, they feel like a depressing holdover you’d forget entirely were it not for their charm.
That’s sort of the final message with Revenant Kingdom: its charm is the only thing saving it from complete mediocrity. As I was playing through it I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Disney sequels from the early 2000s. They were simplistic films, originally intended to be used as training tools for rookie animators working for the company, but even still, they ended up being successful because of that nostalgic factor. Revenant Kingdom feels the same; it has those whimsical bits that stand out and make you go “Wow look! This is just like a Ghibli film!” but it never quite gets to those parts that really feel like a Ghibli classic. Wrath of the White Witch had plenty of problems, but it still felt like it became what it tried to be. It was equal parts adorable and frightening, melancholic and cheery, and you could feel those same feelings you would from a film like Howl’s Moving Castle through Oliver and his friends. Even comparing the two by titles you can see this discrepancy: the White Witch was an omnipresent entity through the original’s story that drove the narrative, like in Spirited Away or Ponyo, but the Revenant Kingdom is an entity never referenced, and only comes into play within the last hour of this 40+ hour game.
So much of the game feels like that same sort of development training ground- full of messy, half-baked concepts, which can be best exemplified by the “Dreamer’s Maze” feature. The game has side dungeons found inside of caves that are all procedurally generated, with the gimmick of trying to get through them as quick as possible. Much like other features, you can also build facilities in your kingdom to help make exploring the mazes simpler and more efficient, letting you gain more and more rare resources for building your kingdom from within. But, that leads back to that core problem: everything your kingdom does feels superfluous. Sure, you can get those rare materials, but to spend on what? Getting more citizens to fill the facilities that make useless items? Getting the materials to make getting those materials again easier?
In the end it just feels consistently pointless, and the Mazes have nothing aside from resources to glean. If these mazes had some sort of interesting side story, or some sort of novel mechanics outside of the time limit, there might be a reason to explore them, but as-is it continues the game’s unintentional theme of empty feedback loops. The mazes are dungeons that aren’t even hand-crafted, where you fight in shallow combat, to feed into your shallow kingdom building, which feeds back into your shallow combat, and so on. The mazes embody every mechanical failing of the game in one feature.
Ni no Kuni II is a game that feels like it exists because it has to. It feels like a collection of ideas that might have better suited each their own individual game, but instead are forced all together into a messy homunculus that still manages to be endearing despite its ragged seams. I enjoyed playing parts of Ni no Kuni II, I enjoyed seeing the world, and I enjoyed experiencing a story that was generally happy in comparison to the bleak tone that has become the norm for recent JRPGs. Unfortunately, long before Evan had completed his adventures with Evermore, I found myself wishing for an end.