Ni No Kuni 2 Review – A Surprise in many Ways
Platforms: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Release: 23rd March 2018
The first Ni No Kuni was one of my favourite PS3 games, as both a fan of Studio Ghibli and Level-5. I often couldn´t lay my hands off it, always striving to venture yet again into the happy but quite dark world beneath Ghibli´s iconic animation style. Mixed together with a gameplay that was not bad nor too good though, Ni No Kuni 2 seemed like the perfect game to correct past mistakes to deliver an even greater experience. Sadly, it´s often a step back than forward.
Reclaim your throne – a fairly basic premise for any RPG. Ni No Kuni 2 is no different, instead of playing a kid who can travel between his and the fantasy world, King Evan (while still a kid) gets his kingdom taken away from him by Mausinger, who apparently killed his father as well. Somewhere in between, there´s Roland as well, basically the president of the United States who somehow got sucked into this realm.
All those things and more are introduced during the first 30 minutes of the game without much context. A two-sided approach, as the player, is unsurprisingly overwhelmed by so many, often nonsensical ideas but all the more interested in the following plot. After escaping from Mausinger, Evan and Roland then set out to, well not reclaim the kingdom Ding Dong Dell but form a new one, accompanied by a gigantic open world. Unfortunately, in all these ideas, set-ups and the general story as a whole lies Ni No Kuni 2´s biggest problem, they´re simply not paying off.
Not only is the overall pacing way off in many early events, like Evan´s acceptance that his kingdom can never be reclaimed and happily founds a new one or the fact the president of the USA can fight with a sword like no one else. Honestly, every few hours new points arise which bring up more questions, why does Roland happily help a kid in a foreign world for example? All those things invoke the feeling of a giant twist at the end, where all those questions are answered while producing something unique. That never happens. Opposed to the Ghibli movies the game tries so hard to mimic, there´s not much substance to the whole thing.
Ni No Kuni 2 rather focuses on one of the most generic “unite the world and defeat the ultimate evil” stories ever told in a JRPG, lacking any kind of deepness or the smart mix of childish and dark themes like in the predecessor. I could predict every single twist of the overall plot, no character grows above his initiated cliché, nothing. It´s as naive as the protagonist but for mature players, having Roland be one of the friendlist, nicest people around seems more like USA propaganda than anything else (yes, I don´t like him).
Still, not all is boringly annoying, the cities which have to be united tell tinier tales about their kings as well, that luckily are pretty damn interesting. Goldpaw for instance circles all around gambling, even taxes are determined by luck. Naturally such system almost invites cheating and with it comes the question of how far one would go for his kingdom. None of their problems can be answered with simple right or wrong, always presenting us with important themes to help Evan grow as a young, naive kid to a slightly less naive kid. Yet, Ni No Kuni 2 often spends surprisingly few time in those truly fascinating worlds before moving on. A 3 hours long love story that surfaces after decades of silence just doesn´t seem convincing nor too impactful in a 30-40 hours game.
At the end, the only truly astonishing aspect is Level-5´s writing and worldbuilding, created through a wonderfully childish universe. From the famous Higgledys, to alarm clocks being called “Sleep-o-Never” (as far as I remember), throughout the whole game there never was a minute where I wasn´t absolutely charmed by the creativity and love that went into those names. Combined with an already amazing artstyle, really well written dialogues and an overall great presentation, Ni No Kuni 2´s world can once again create something throughly unique, unseen in many other JRPGs. And damn, is the soundtrack a breahtaking mix between Ghibli and epicness.
On the other side is the gameplay system, trashing everything known from the predecessor in favor of a real-time hack´n slash, RPG mix. Level-5 went for a pretty straigthforward approach, every character has a light/heavy attacks, a ranged weapon and four different spells, similar to any other such system. Though in comparison to the Tales of Berseria combat, one of the best implementation in my opinion, Ni No Kuni 2 falls pretty short in terms of combos or effects. A great thing for newcomers but due to the lack of variety the whole thing starts to become rather dull after a few dozens of hours. Only carried by its outstanding presentation and fluid animation work, which gives the whole thing a really tight feel.
Unfortunately, there had to be some RPG elements, doing more harm than good. New equipment ramps up damage bars, spells are learned by leveling up or crafted and Higgledys provide some unique side boosts once found, overall, pretty basic stuff. At no point is it possible to acquire new skills through the equipment, solely working towards higher numbers. Considering how every new chapter ramps up the enemy level by at least 3-6 levels, introducing a 1-3 hours long grind before even thinking about surviving against them, those numbers have no impact. Yet, it´s necessary to have them, since skill won´t do anything against overleveled enemies.
The reason for previously mentioned long grinding phases are a mix of both the meager experience gained from side quests and battles. Leveling-up feels so sluggish, when a 10 minutes long quest only rewards you with a a third or half level during the entire game. As a result, every chapter introduces way too much downtime by its own, only amplified by the lack of a difficulty selection.
Especially since most of them don´t even tell interesting stories, circeling around killing monsters or fetching items, so they can complete a task off-screen. Occasionally the game can surprise with quests like retrieving a voice, a witch stoleso she can keep listening to it. Sadly, those are rare and overshadowed by simply boring tasks in a boring outfit, we only have to bother with due to the grinding and Evermore.
Hold on, what´s Evermore? Basically Ni No Kuni 2´s greatest aspect. It´s all around building an own castle with a full blown construction mode, buildings with their own gimmicks and research options, along a giant roster of citizens able to grant different buildings new bonuses. Those citizens can´t be found lying on the ground though, they have to be obtained through side-quests. The more of them we have, the bigger our kingdom can be built, the more gold we get per hour (don´t worry there are no micro-transactions) and so on. The fact this little building simulator is a ton of fun but can only be fully used by completing side-quests, was at least my drive to endure them. Not to say the game tends to lock its story behind those kingdom upgrades every few chapters in addition to the level raise.
Another part of Evermore is the option to fight skirmishes with rivaling armies. Evan can control up to four units, each of them with their own strengths and weaknesses, similar to rock paper scissors. Before each battle it´s possible to see the enemies level, unit types and so on, so we can select the best units to counter them, ensuring a safe victory, granted they´re leveled up high enough. Like everything else, it´s simple, easy to learn, hasn´t much depth and overall, never challenges the player too much but is still a lot of fun, especially combined with the overall theme of Ni No Kuni 2.
Ni No Kuni 2 was my most awaited JRPG since its announcement, honestly. So, could it live up to my expectations? No, definitely not. Be it because of the awfully generic story, that spends way too much time on predictable twists and way too few on actually interesting stuff or the lack of any depth behind the gameplay. Ni No Kuni wasn´t perfect but at least it was the closest one could get to a playable Ghibli movie. Now, we may have gotten a game with way better combat or a great kingdom builder, yet not the memorable journey into an unknown world. The amount of times I was disappointed in something outrivals any game of recent years. Given, I was playing the masterpiece Yakuza 6 alongside Ni No Kuni 2.
So, in the end, is it a bad game? No. Even though the core consists of a generic JRPG, Level-5 added so many new, unique things to the mix, that I could never bring myself to not like it. Thinking back to my 40 hours, the warmth of its charmingly beautiful world manages to overshadow all the negative things I could say. Ni No Kuni 2 is a memorable but definitely not perfect sequel to a memorable but definitely not perfect predecessor.
[A Review Copy was provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment]