Stepping back into the world of Ni no Kuni is a true pleasure. A single glimpse of the Studio Ghibli visuals instantly evokes the wide-eyed wonder and spirit of adventure prevalent within the previous game. The sense of familiarity is comforting, but belies the fact that much has changed in Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. Oliver and his friends are gone, replaced by deposed king Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum and a new cast of companions, but this recasting is a surface-level shift; the real alterations lay beneath.
The demo took place in a desert area comprised of canyons, and had players taking control of Evan and Roland on a quest to save Tani from a ravening beast. This premise is nothing special, but the earnest determination of Evan helps to sell the stakes and invest players in the journey. Having accepted the mission, the duo sets out, but problems begin to emerge almost immediately.
Although the environmental design justifies a highly linear path, the narrow walkways and lack of alternate routes make the trek dispiritingly straightforward. As if in acknowledgement of this disappointing design, a breadcrumb trail of treasure sparkles on every ridge and turn of the path. While the set-up initially inspires excitement about the potential rewards, the abundance and uniformity of the treasures becomes off-putting, particularly as the demo provided no indication as to the uses of the resources offered. As a result, the collecting of money and other items becomes rote, robbing the process of any value. The sparkles lose meaning, but players remain inspired to push forward by the tantalising quest marker and the presence of the strange enemy creatures that dot the world.
As with 2013’s Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, the creature design is one of the strongest elements of the presentation. Often drawing inspiration from real-world animals or mythological creatures, the random foes are rendered in a brilliant approximation of Studio Ghibli’s signature visual style that lends even the most menacing a sympathetic hue. Defeating the beasts in combat feels almost cruel, as one gets the sense that Evan is the invader. However, any feelings of guilt are swallowed by the thrill of battle.
Combat represents the biggest change from the previous game, as the turn-based ATB system has been jettisoned in favour of a real-time setup. Players control Evan directly as he launches physical and magical attacks against enemies, but the real shake-up comes from the Higgledies. These elemental beings empower Evan, allowing him to launch devastating attacks, but each comes with limitations. For example, one launches a javelin-like strike straight forward for heavy damage, while another is a constrained area-of-effect attack. Given that Evan’s regular abilities are quite weak, even against low-level opponents, knowing when to activate the Higgledies’ powers is essential to success.
This requirement of awareness is even more pronounced in the boss battles, as the player’s party can be outclassed. Enemy strikes deal massive damage, making evasion and defence as vital as offence. Thankfully, certain Higgledies also have healing abilities to potentially prolong battles, yet players cannot always rely on the Higgledies as their powers go on cooldown when used. As such, their inclusion increases the complexity of the battle system, making it more tactical than Wrath of the White Witch’s ever was. The only real disappointment is that Higgledies are not nearly as adorable as Oliver’s Familiars.
The core elements of Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom are all shaping up to make the game into another delightful, memorable adventure that stands out against all the other RPGs on the market. The game may lack the sheen and wow factor of its competitors, and certain elements need to be balanced better, but it is on track to be one of the first must-have games of 2018.
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom releases on PC and PlayStation 4 on January 19, 2018.