Wot I Think: Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

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Most RPGs cast you as an intrepid interloper, the Only One Who Can Help a series of desperate quest-givers beset by increasingly elaborate problems. Personally, I’ve gotten a little sick of piloting a party of unlikely heroes as they roam from ruined land to ruined land in search of these conundrums, slaying worthy foes and draining tombs of ancient loot. When the scourge of the realm falls at my feet and the last coins of its horde lie safely in my pocket, I find myself wondering: should I really leave matters in the hands of the feckless village chief who can’t even summon up the will to leave his house and take care of the slime-infested meadow over the hill? Well, probably not, but I don’t get a choice. The mysteries of government and management aren’t my field, and besides, there’s a Big Bad lurking over the mountains who’s plotting to blast everything to smithereens unless we get a move on.

Enter Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom.

I found myself asking many of the above questions when I first played Level-5’s original Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch several years ago. It’s very much cut from the well-worn cloth of the “classic” Japanese RPG, leaning heavily on the charming pastels of its Studio Ghibli aesthetic to overcome its trite plot and overly-familiar systems. As such, I’m happy to report that the sequel – developed without the input of Hayao Miyazaki’s much-acclaimed animation studio – jettisons most of the weathered ur-JRPG superstructure that girded its predecessor, instead electing for an ambitious tangle of interlocking systems that heave and ho to tell the tale of a boy ruler struggling to build his own country. And though some of the pieces can occasionally crack under the strain, together they happily subsumed me for hours and hours at a time.

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Revenant Kingdom opens with a more localized variety of apocalypse than its predecessor: the rats of the idyllic, pastoral kingdom of Ding Dong Dell rise up against their catlike Grimalkin overlords, pushing out their half-cat king Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum in a sudden coup following his father’s death. After mounting a successful escape thanks to the assistance of his no-nonsense consul Roland and his governess Nella, Evan decides to make his own dream kingdom where everyone can be happy, Evermore. Soon after building his castle at the heart of the continent with the help of some salty sky pirates, Evan and his crew endeavor to travel around the world and unite its five countries with a non-aggression pact, ensuring that the dogs of war remain tethered for the immediate future.

Like many complex RPGs, Ni no Kuni 2 bolts many of its most-compelling systems behind an early deluge of corridor crawling and text scrolling, which tried my patience, especially in the opening handful of hours. The revamped combat system bears little in common with the subpar Pokemon-inspired monster raising of White Witch, replacing it with a workmanlike hack-and-slashing with A.I.-controlled partners that relies more on precise dodge-rolling and blocking than the usual JRPG strategy of painstakingly planning your moves dozens of turns in advance. Though it can’t quite stand up to the complexities of Final Fantasy XII or its imitators, I found its take on real-time battle to be much more engaging than many of the examples I’ve played in the past few years, barring the masterclass in turn-based design that is Persona 5.

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Once Evan claims his new throne, the engine that truly powers the game reveals itself, a simplified take on kingdom management that – much like the Social Links in the Persona series – ties nicely into every system on offer, from crafting swords to slinging spells. Over time, this bustling city generates a cache of gold that can be reinvested back into specific facilities that suit Evan’s priorities as a king; for me, this meant upgrading the Spellworks as much as I could, which ensured that my perpetually underleveled party would at least have the stoutest fireballs and flares possible to battle the endless hordes of shapeless slimes and sword-toting hamsters that dot the overworld.

As Evan and his crew jaunt from land to land, a seemingly endless conveyor belt of quest-givers emerge from the woodwork, offering trivial tasks that mostly fail to rise above the standard fetch quest formula. There are some occasional exceptions, like a series of optional timed dungeons that wiped my party out again and again as I tried to claim the high tier loot within. Though these quests are fairly standard RPG fare – fetching X apples, or slaying Y monsters – the giver usually becomes a citizen of Evermore once you deliver the goods, and each has a specialized array of stats and perks that can boost the productivity of a particular institution.

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That means that even when certain tasks failed to hook me on a mechanical level – especially the ones that asked for a particular item with no explanation of how to acquire it, like a certain seashell – I would still trudge around the beach picking up items, because I just had to have another magician to get my Spellwork’s IQ up to the next level. This compulsion to build the best kingdom possible kept me entertained during the dim intervals when the combat or the characters sagged from view. If this doesn’t sound engaging, however, then Revenant Kingdom might not line up to your tastes, because such tangents make up a large portion of its appeal, at least to me.

Unlike its genre contemporaries, Level-5’s latest isn’t shy about locking progress in the main story behind certain milestones in Evermore’s development that didn’t necessarily overlap with my vision of my party. This reached the point where I had to leave the game on for half an hour while I did the dishes or stared at my navel in order to afford the Whatsit I needed to putt on over to the next forsaken country.

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I appreciated any excuse to continue to while away the hours improving Evermore – especially compared to some of the later dungeons, which I found mildly tedious at times – but the greatest source of frustration came when the game would force me to battle again and again in its strategic Skirmish mode. This is where Evan takes his recruited armies onto the field in a sort of lobotomized rock-paper-scissors micro-RTS. The mode itself is relatively inoffensive on its own, but the sheer volume of quests that called for it vastly outstripped my desire to play it, and its reliance on a separate levelling track struck me as the spawn of the original sin of JRPGs – blatant padding.

Though I very much enjoyed my time with Ni no Kuni 2, no aspect of it really holds up under strict scrutiny. The battle system lacks the careful finesse of other hack-and-slashers; the kingdom management system exhibits a sort of cheerful grindiness endemic to the genre; the moment-to-moment writing is clever and even evocative, but the characters and plot that the words serve never vary from their tired paths even an inch.

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It’s tempting to indulge the cliché and say that Ni no Kuni 2 is more than the sum of its parts, but that’s not entirely accurate either. Rather, Revenant Kingdom is essentially just the sum of its parts and nothing more. They’re nice enough parts, and they mesh together to create one of the better JRPGs I’ve played over the past few years, but as I watched the credits roll by, I could already feel the experience seeping from my memory like a sieve. Almost anybody can mine out 40 or 50 hours-worth of honest enjoyment from the quest to build Evermore, and I certainly encourage genre fans to take the plunge. Just don’t be surprised if it fails to make much of a lasting impression, like a sandcastle going out with the tide.

Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is out today on Windows via Steam and Humble for £50/$60/€60.

33 Comments

  1. Kunstbanause says:

    Why no recommended?

    • Beefenstein says:

      “It’s tempting to indulge the cliché and say that Ni no Kuni 2 is more than the sum of its parts, but that’s not entirely accurate either. Rather, Revenant Kingdom is essentially just the sum of its parts and nothing more. They’re nice enough parts, and they mesh together to create one of the better JRPGs I’ve played over the past few years, but as I watched the credits roll by, I could already feel the experience seeping from my memory like a sieve. Almost anybody can mine out 40 or 50 hours-worth of honest enjoyment from the quest to build Evermore, and I certainly encourage genre fans to take the plunge. Just don’t be surprised if it fails to make much of a lasting impression, like a sandcastle going out with the tide.”

      • ohnopirates says:

        Sure, but look at this sentence: “Almost anybody can mine out 40 or 50 hours-worth of honest enjoyment…”

        This is a site that regularly recommends games in the 6-12 hour variety, I think it is worth asking why a game that can be described as providing “40 or 50 hours-worth of honest enjoyment.”

        The answer, I suspect, lies in the previous sentence where it’s described as “one of the better JRPGs I’ve played over the past few years.”

        The JRPG as a genre is fundamentally difficult to recommend to a general PC gaming audience (which is what this site serves).what this site serves). I don’t think that is unfair, but I also don’t think it’s unfair to ask why the unevenness to the recommendation standards.

        • skeletortoise says:

          I think perhaps you’re reading ‘honest enjoyment’ a little too generously? I think it’s sort of the nature of games (at least, more so than in other mediums) that any moment where you’re not actively entertained/engaged with the experience is an aberration that can eventually add up to a negative experience. ‘Honest enjoyment’ is the baseline to keep people playing through the end, or for a long period of time at least. A great game transcends that level of enjoyment, if not consistently then at least memorably. Which is why 2 hours with Portal will always be more significant to me than 90% of my many, many hours in Civ V.

          Although you do bring up a good point regarding genre, I had a similar thought. I think one “one of the better FPS I’ve played in recent years” would have a very good chance of being recommended. But I do think it really boils down to the pretty crazy nature of what we consider game genres. JRPG has a LOT of connotations and traits that go with it, whereas FPS really does just mean that you will occasionally be a camera behind gun arms.

        • thetruegentleman says:

          6 to 12 hour games need extremely tight pacing, and almost all of them have a multiplayer component that needs to remain fun for a much longer time.

          A long (J)RPG can technically afford to be boring for a few hours and still be fun enough to play, but that doesn’t equate to it being worth the money one would spend on it.

        • Premium User Badge

          Graham Smith says:

          @ohnopirates

          A good game is a good game, whether it’s 50 hours long or 3. We’re not going to give this a Recommended badge just because it’s longer than some other games we like. And “Recommended” is generally reserved for a small subsection of games.

  2. ludde says:

    Appreciate the large screenshots.

  3. mitthrawnuruodo says:

    It honestly reads like a review where the reviewer had made up his mind to hate the game before he started, and did his best to justify that preconceived opinion despite actually enjoying the game.

    • teije says:

      Didn’t read any hate for the game in Stephen’s review. Seemed fairly balanced – some things he liked, some not so much.

      • Cerulean Shaman says:

        Agreed, no outright gushing and it’s not RPS recommended, but he still seemed to overall like the game. RPS doesn’t really recommend a ton of JRPGs anyway (nothing negative intended by that comment) and even on my JRPG/RPG focused communities the game is considered good or lower tier end of “great” which its general score reflects (88 on open critic at this time). Persona 5 which was considered and called RPG of the Year in 2017 by many hit 94 on open critic so… it’s not all bad.

        My biggest gripe is how numbly easy the game is. Like, I can afk about 80% of the game’s content right now. I heard it was easy, but easy for casual players (in general or of the genre) just translates to almost self-playing for the rest of us.

  4. dan! says:

    It honestly reads like a comment where the commenter had made up his mind to hate the review before he started, and did his best to justify that preconceived opinion despite actually not reading the review.

    • mitthrawnuruodo says:

      So mature! Are you going to stick your tongue out next?

      • Evan_ says:

        I’d rather agree with Dan here instead of Thrawn.
        :P

      • skeletortoise says:

        I mean, they are right. I would easily call this review more positive than negative and at no point did the writer express anything approaching ‘hate’ towards the game. I would almost say the opposite of your claim is true, where he started off intrigued and hopeful with the game and was disappointed, though they liked it well enough, that it didn’t quite reach its potential. What in the review gave you the seed for this nefarious conspiracy is a mystery to me.

      • Kitsunin says:

        Give an immature comment, get an immature comment.

        • Ur-Quan says:

          … Makes the whole comment section immature.

          • Kitsunin says:

            Not really. It means the only people who have an actual discussion are those who start by posting things that don’t have blatant and aggressively harsh behavior.

            Which is good, as it’s near impossible to change the mind of someone with such a stubborn opinion anyway.

  5. abstrarie says:

    I have been going back and forth on getting this game because it so hard to find an honest opinion on…well any game lately. I frequently find that things that are hailed as masterpieces or must plays on metacritic or whatever to be barely average. Polygon (a site who lost my trust a long time ago but that I still visit frequently for no good reason) gave the console version of this a 9. AAA JRPG’s getting a 9 should mean that I am going to think it is incredible. But when I watch footage of this game or read reviews on it, it sounds/looks alot like the first one: pretty but strategy-less and boring. I am also really sick of action based combat systems where you have no control over the other party members. That is astonishingly lazy design. Give me something like FF12’s gambits so I can create a party based strategy. I dunno, I love the Ghibli look but I think I have to pass. This looks like nothing but fluff.

    • Cerulean Shaman says:

      The idea is that you should pretty much ignore all reviewers and youtubers; don’t be a sheep.

      Dissect their statements, find collaborating opinions, and use these materials to form your own opinion. I.e. if 20 reviews say the game’s too hard, some call it a plus and soe whine about it, you decide whether or not you like your difficulty high in X genre and what it means to you.

      For instance, every review, positive or negative, has mostly been calling the game easy. Is that a problem? Add that – or + to your personal review.

      There are tons of opinions out there about the game and a whole lot more media; I’d say more than enough to give you a reasonable ability to decide if you want the game or not.

      • abstrarie says:

        Yeah I don’t know how you arrived at calling me a sheep when I said that I more or less don’t trust reviews from any major outlet anymore. The last one of these was a boring time waster and this looks like more of the same (despite what the majority of reviews are trying to sell me). I could talk about the subject some more, but your condescension makes me think it wouldn’t really be worth the effort. A smart savy fellow like you probably knows it all anyway.

  6. Thomas Foolery says:

    This doesn’t have any bearing on the review itself, but I couldn’t disagree more with the description of the first Ni No Kuni’s plot as “trite”. I found it to be a heart-warming story of a young boy learning to cope with the unexpected death of his mother, very much in the tradition of Studio Ghibli’s films.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      And I couldn’t stand what I played of NNK, in large part because I found the narrative to be pretty much a hollow pastiche of every threadbare Ghibli trope/talking point as dictated by a drunk through the door of a bathroom toilet stall. To each their own? Level-5’s games are always polished and several of them are pretty fun, but they have never been any good at writing stories. The best they can do is the garbled nonsense that passes for Professor Layton plots, which is sometimes entertaining, but rarely makes a blind bit of sense.

      • Cerulean Shaman says:

        A pretty strong and hyperbole-heavy opinion, but an opinion all the same.

        • Kitsunin says:

          But one I’m inclined to agree with. I really like Layton games, but it’s precisely because their stories are pretty bad in a way that works. “Trite” is a word I’d say describes NNK fairly well, but not necessarily to an extent worse than most classic JRPGs.

    • TheBetterStory says:

      I agree the first game had a fairly straightforward JRPG plot, although I wouldn’t have used the word “trite” either. But the world the story took place in was charming enough that I didn’t care at all about *why* I was meant to be puttering around in it.

      I also found the Pokémon-lite mechanics a lot of fun. I was disappointed to hear they changed things up for the sequel.

  7. otakucore says:

    Is it worth buying if you haven’t played the first one? The review seems to suggest this is a standalone story, but I’m not sure.

    • Cerulean Shaman says:

      It’s completely standalone. There are very (very) subtle nods to the first game but it’s stuff like costumes or item/area names.

  8. racccoon says:

    I’ll give a short answer..Love the graphics this is a 38.99 buck game! :)

  9. Chaoslord AJ says:

    I have to say this is one of those articles that left me better informed not to mention some of the more biased writers here.
    It seems like a good mix of decent enough genre staples but does not excel in any in particular including plot if I’m not mistaken.
    Esp. the RTS part of the review bugs me like I hated the one in FF7.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Also this was supposed to be a reply to guy above calling the writer prejudiced but fortunately the comment works stand-alone.

  10. Marclev says:

    Why does the review only mention price as a foot note?

    It reads like a perfectly fine £20 (ok, maybe at a stretch £30 given how pretty it looks) game, but then you notice they want £50 for it!

    £50 changes the value proposition from “Oh it looks like Studio Ghibli, that’s lovely, maybe I’ll pick it up if I feel like it later” to “WTF, LOL”!

    • Premium User Badge

      Graham Smith says:

      You know your budget. £50 means different things to different people, so we don’t let it have an enormous impact on reviews. We tend to write about games as art or experiences rather than product.

      Also: it’s 40-50 hours long, so it’s not a surprise that they’re charging “full” price. It’s not shy of content and is obviously polished.

  11. Stillquest says:

    Having spent a couple dozen hours with the game, I’d like to add my 2 cents. Well, it’s more in the nature of a rant. Specifically, on the game’s difficulty.

    The combat, which Mr. Wright charitably describes as “workmanlike”, is ridiculously easy. I hasten to add that I don’t mean it’s too easy in the “I’m hardcore, need more challenge” sense, but in the “close your eyes, click attack buttons randomly, victory music ensues” sense. Boss fights actually require you to look at the screen, possibly even down a couple of healing potions, but that’s as far as it goes.

    Not every game needs to be Dark Souls, but things being THAT easy makes significant parts of the game entirely pointless: The weapon upgrades, fine-tuning your Higgledy setup, the food system, the Tactics Tuner… All polished, some surprisingly nuanced, all equally useless.

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