In the realm of video games, sequels tend to be iterative rather than revolutionary, building on successes, refining shortcomings, and extending stories. The vaunted Final Fantasy series has long been the most prominent exception to this rule—instead introducing new characters, worlds, and mechanics with each mainline entry—and Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom largely follows Square Enix’s blueprint. Rather than bringing back Oliver, Mr Drippy, and the remainder of the original cast, this follow-up, more than six years in the making, lets go of the past to present gameplay and a narrative that is all the stronger for standing alone.
One of the most immediately noticeable elements of Ni no Kuni II is the breakneck pace. The story begins with a cold open, introducing new audience surrogate Roland via a brief, almost wordless scene that engages the player very differently from—yet equally as intensely as—the emotion-heavy opening hour of the previous game. However, Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum is the real hero of this tale, and the game wastes no time in deposing the fledgling king and setting him on a quest to build a new world. This process is a little laboured, but the writers at Level-5 generally do a fine job of justifying the diversions that the party must undertake before being able to reach its ultimate goal. Additionally, the way the story is constructed ensures constant forward momentum, pushing players on to the next plot point and objective without demanding a grind, making the title immensely playable. By turning the focus away from revenge, the narrative is both more wholesome and more hopeful than most that share a similar premise.
This tendency towards innocence was also a hallmark of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and, despite having few direct ties, the two games clearly share a lineage. As in the original, the sequel has players beginning their journey in Ding Dong Dell, a homely city-state governed and populated by cat-human hybrids called Grimalkins. With the palace caught up in a coup, Evan and Roland must use a mixture of stealth and brute force to escape and step into the rolling hills and sprawling meadows of the Studio Ghibli-designed world. Beyond this basic opening structure, Ni no Kuni II typically avoids revisiting the ideas of the earlier game. While some callbacks are present (and sure to be welcomed by fans), the title tends to explore wholly new aspects of the lore and weaves a tale that needs no knowledge of Oliver’s quest to enrapture the player.
Studio Ghibli’s signature art style is key to this ability. Although the famed anime house has not been directly involved in this sequel’s production, its spirit permeates every aspect. Perhaps the greatest disappointment is that Level-5 has jettisoned the hand-drawn cutscenes in favour of computer-generated ones. This decision means that the story scenes are smoother than Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, or Arietty ever were, but the removal of the rough edges takes away some of the expressiveness. Nonetheless, the style remains as charming as ever, as well as being entirely unlike anything else in AAA gaming. For overworld exploration, the visuals transform, adopting a chibi style that manages to be even more endearing than the wide-eyed wonderment of the regular anime graphics. Coupling these eye-catching flourishes with a flawless technical presentation makes Ni no Kuni II into one of 2018’s most captivating projects.
A similar standard of excellence is present across most aspects of the audio. Level-5 once again uses a largely British cast to bring its world to life, but more important than the accent is the delivery. Each spoken line carries an unidentifiable something that effortlessly evokes a childlike sense of whimsy capable of investing the player within the fiction as readily as do the visuals. Not every piece of dialogue is vocalised (and the game sometimes switches between voiced and unvoiced conversations within a single scene, which can be disorienting), but, given the game’s 100-hour-plus playtime potential, this design choice is no real shortcoming. Meanwhile, frequent Studio Ghibli collaborator and Japanese Medal of Honour holder Joe Hisaishi’s score is entrancing. From the threatening tones in Ding Dong Dell and Cloudcoil Canyon to the more relaxed tunes in The Heartlands and beyond, the music ebbs and swells perfectly to reinforce the mood of relevant story beats. However, the balance of the soundtrack can sometimes drop, with particular pieces, such as the battle tunes, playing when they should not.
Although Ni no Kuni II is more ambitious than its predecessor in almost every way, the biggest changes stem from the core gameplay systems. In the typical RPG mechanics of armour and weaponry, the title remains almost distressingly streamlined thanks to a fairly linear approach to stronger equipment. However, this simplicity belies almost unparalleled complexity. As the story progresses, players unlock a host of additional systems that both allow them to tailor their playstyle to an incredible degree and introduce entirely unexpected mechanics. Among the latter is the process of building a kingdom, which includes city management and an RTS-inspired skirmish mode. Neither of these systems is as deep as may be found in a game dedicated to the genre, but they add some very welcome diversity to the central ideas of exploration and battle that help to keep the pacing sublime. Players also have access to a bestiary of 50 ultra-powerful Tainted Creatures that can be tackled for high rewards. Nonetheless, the wealth of systems can, at times, leave Ni no Kuni II feeling as though it lacks a sense of cohesion.
Meanwhile, combat has been entirely redesigned. Gone are the ATB-based battles, replaced by a real-time system that is a little more difficult to come to grips with, particularly as the multitude of moving parts unfold. Each of the three playable characters in a party can hold up to four weapons (including a ranged sidearm) that can be switched between on-the-fly. Ni no Kuni II encourages weapon swapping through the ZING gauge, which, when full, powers up the special skills that the character has access to. Additionally, as the game progresses, players can find and unlock 100 elemental spirits known as Higgledies that act as additional party members in battle. Although direct control of these creatures is out of the question—unlike the Familiars from Wrath of the White Witch—the main character is capable of calling on them to activate special skills at certain points in battle. In isolation, each of these mechanics would make for an engaging combat system, but together, they can be overwhelming. Against standard enemies, balancing these processes of attacking, switching, and activating is simple enough, but higher-level adversaries (and particularly boss) often move too quickly for the player to be able to balance the various factors as effectively as required. Again, this issue stems back to the development team’s attempt to pack in a fraction too many ideas. Whether this tendency is a shortcoming will ultimately be up to the individual user. A parent looking to introduce their child to gaming will find the title too complex to be a gateway despite the perfect presentation, while a hardcore RPG fan looking for something outside the normal po-faced stories will experience a game that sates every possible desire.
At worst, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is a victim of ambition. The sheer number of ideas and the volume of content packed into the game is jaw-dropping, but can cause confusion. Nonetheless, familiarity breeds contempt, so Level-5’s decision to keep things fresh throughout the expansive adventure must be commended. Considering that such a noble goal is attached to a game that, on the surface at least, is targeted towards children makes it even more impressive. However, the reality is that Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is an incredibly powerful title that has the potential to appeal to people from all walks of life. The game’s excellence should not be underestimated.
SteamWorld Quest Review — Full Steam Ahead
The SteamWorld series has a habit of refusing to be confined to a single genre. The first entry in the series, way back on the Nintendo DSi, was a simple tower-defense game. That title was followed by procedurally generated platformer SteamWorld Dig, and then came strategy action title SteamWorld Heist. Now, developer Image & Form has dived into the turn-based RPG with SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech.
SteamWorld Quest is set in the same universe as the previous SteamWorld games, featuring a cast of steam bots who speak in a rapid, chattering language, helpfully translated for the players by subtitles.
As usual for a SteamWorld title, the first thing to draw the eye is the lovely hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. The game has a surprising amount of detail in these 2D sprites, and players may find themselves suddenly noticing a detail that previously escaped attention.
The first characters to be introduced are Armilly and Copernica, a wannabe knight and alchemist, respectively. The animation provides great hints towards the character personalities before they even speak, showing Copernica as being quiet and introspective, but with a strong will, while Armilly puts up a brave front to cover deeper insecurities. This depth continues through the game, with subtle character tics betraying plot hints and nods to backstories.
Players pick up new party members as the game progresses, first running into Galleo, a big green bot who acts as party healer. Other characters can also be recruited, adding their own skills in combat to the roster. Only three party members can be active at once, so getting the balance right is important.
Combat itself is handled by a card system. Each character has a deck of no more than eight cards, three of which can be played each turn. By using their entire deck, players utilise effects such as attacks, defensive spells, healing, buffs, debuffs, and so on. Pleasingly, the combat system is complemented by a captivating sense of style, with each card channelling old-fashioned computer punch aesthetics.
The developers are clearly fans of collectable card games, as cards can also be chained together into combos, which provide an extra effect on the completion. This effect is not as easy to achieve as it might sound, however, as some cards require ‘Steam pressure’ to be played. This mechanic brings in an element of deck building and strategy, as players balance building steam pressure with spending it. Therefore, players can spend a significant amount of time agonising over new strategies, trying to decide on an effective build for the limited deck size.
Getting card game elements in a video game wrong is easy, by having the mechanics too complex or unwieldy. SteamWorld Quest avoids the pitfalls experienced by games such as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories by making the card-based combat relatively simple. New twists and complexities are added gradually, thus giving the player several ways to build a deck to suit individual play style.
Cards can be crafted at the travelling merchant, providing a use for the various materials players pick up on their travels. Cards can also be upgraded to increase their effectiveness, preventing useful early cards from becoming obsolete later. Players can add to their decks by finding cards scattered about the world, along with weapons and accessories to make characters more effective, emphasising the importance of exploration.
SteamWorld Quest is more story-driven than its predecessors, and a lot of time between battles is taken up with talking. The conversations never outstay their welcome, as the plot moves along at a pleasing pace, and the characters are engaging enough to keep the player interested. As players progress, more backstory is uncovered, and some scenes can be surprisingly emotional, with the fluid character animations underscoring the dialogue in a believable way.
The writing uses consistent characterisation that is happy to show the player about the world and the characters instead of spilling everything in a massive information dump. This writing style serves the pacing well. The only real issue is that while the game allows skipping of dialogue, entirely skipping a scene is impossible, so when players are re-exploring an area for hidden secrets, the same scenes keep playing out, even if they have been seen before.
The game has frequent nods towards world-building and backstory, which serves to draw the player in. Progression reveals that the problems in the world of SteamWorld Quest go deeper than invading Dark Lords and evil magic. The first time the player notices that the language the steam bots speak is like a more pleasant version of modem noise, implying that the characters are speaking in binary, is a nice touch. Other geeky references are scattered around, including an equippable book called an Octavo, a sneaky reference to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
Despite the cartoonish artwork and often light-hearted dialogue, hints at darkness are ever-present in the universe of SteamWorld Quest—something that is underscored by the music, which starts off pleasant and whimsical. However, as players progress into more dangerous areas, the mood of the soundscape also shifts, providing a counterpoint to the action and dialogue while never being obtrusive.
The gameplay flow is easy to get into once the basic controls have been established, though toggling the ‘speed up’ option in the menu is a good idea, as otherwise players need to hold down the right trigger to speed through enemy turns during combat. SteamWorld Quest shines when showing off the amount of depth that it offers in crafting cards, building suitable decks, and deciding on party composition for each area, with each enemy encounter tip-toeing delightfully between the exploitation of strengths and weaknesses. Boss battles, in particular, can be challenging unless chain combos have been mastered, which can itself be tricky if the character decks do not have the right balance.
SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech is a wonderful, fun RPG adventure that has a lot of depth to delve into, secrets to explore, and story to uncover. The game looks beautiful, sounds brilliant, and has a smooth and absorbing gameplay flow. SteamWorld Quest, is surprisingly easy to get completely sucked in to, with the card game elements providing an impressive amount of complexity to the combat. Any RPG fan should give serious consideration to adding the title to their Nintendo Switch library and fans of previous SteamWorld games will find a lot to enjoy in the art and lore, too.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
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