Ni no Kuni was a cult hit of the last console generation, a project placing famed animated film creators Studio Ghibli and games developer Bandai Namco alongside each other to create what is quite possibly the most pleasant gaming experience ever devised. It was, of course, a Playstation 3 exclusive since Sony still cling to that irritating notion that each console must have separate games. The developers never imagined that the game would have much appeal in the West, since Ni no Kuni was full of the anime tropes and trappings that make it so quintessentially Japanese. The game did not even see a release in the West until two years after coming out in its native land.
So, imagine my surprise as I was sitting in Hever Castle in Kent, surrounded by gaming journalists from all across Europe, all gathered to get a hands-on preview of Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom. The excitement filled the centuries old hall, as everyone eagerly awaited one of the most highly anticipated Japanese releases of the year. Bandai Namco have learned from their error in judgement last time around and so this time they see the rest of the world as an important market for the game.
So, what is all the fuss actually about? For all you non-playstation gamers out there, Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom (no you can’t say it without smiling and feeling silly) is a typical JRPG, in which you play a generic anime protagonist (you can tell by the cat ears) named Evan, a prince of a kingdom who recently decided to depose him. He now seeks to build a new realm that actually wants to help its people. So far, so standard. The key is in the presentation, however, as the game is absolutely beautifully designed and filled with an atmosphere of fun and adventure.
Statements we were shown from the lead writer Akihiro Hino reflected this, as all his comments talked about the desire to make an ‘immersive’ and ‘fun’ world, something which often seems to be lacking in the modern gaming industry. Additionally, the game seems to be little connected to the original, being set centuries after the first Ni no Kuni, presumably to attract new players to the franchise.
Bandai Namco seemed to ship in PlayStation 4’s by the truckload, as our large group was led into a room filled to the brim with the consoles. One couldn’t help but wonder if the last time such technological innovation was brought into Hever Castle was when James Hargreave was touring with the Spinning Jenny. Still, there were enough plug sockets for us all, and soon we were immersed in the game itself.
We began playing in Chapter 3, something which made the game rather hard to follow. This is of course how one normally feels when confusedly stumbling through a JRPG, so I don’t feel it really changed my perception of the game all that much. Evan, alongside his companions Tani and Roland, had just arrived at the kingdom of Goldpaw, a fantasy Las Vegas or Macao in which all major decisions in life are determined by rolling dice. The city is absolutely beautifully designed, with vibrant colours and gorgeous architecture. The visuals are reminiscent of an exaggerated Taiwan, and really help to immerse the player in a fantastical yet believable world. The game really highlights the two sides of gambling; the city appears elegant, refined and wealthy, yet just bubbling away beneath the surface lies a world of corruption, deceit and crippling debt.
Every NPC has at least one line of dialogue that fleshes out the city and the humour really helps you engage with it. There are some really unique ideas on show as well, such as the law which states that any citizen who is in debt (which in a corrupt city based on gambling is nearly everyone) has to be burdened with a bird called a Due-bird who follows them around, continuously cawing ‘YOU OWE ME’. It is an abstract yet hilarious idea that is hard to pull off, but feels right at place in the world of Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom. The music is also a joy to listen to, with Studio Ghibli veteran Joe Hisaishi returning from the first game to compose in this one. He truly is a master of his craft, and the repeating melodies never got tiresome even on their 20th loop.
In a game attempting to capture the same charm as the films of Studio Ghibli, Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom needs to have various weird and wonderful denizens steeped in character. You’ll be pleased to hear that from what I have played this is absolutely the case, with characters ranging from lovable Sky Pirates, condescending school-teacher style intellectuals, religious gambling zealots, lethargic spirits and many more. Some standouts are Grand High Roller Pugnacious, the leader of Goldpaw, who, as his name suggests, is an anthropomorphic Pug who dominates his city through corruption and manipulation, and Niall, a wood-dwelling wise man who is basically a Scottish version of Yoda. In addition to the characters, the standard enemies are also very colourful and uniquely designed, an example being the ‘Whamsters’, a race of chaotic evil hamster barbarians.
Well, that’s a lot of information about the world, but how about the actual gameplay? Unlike its predecessor, Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is not turn based, but instead plays like a real time JRPG. Each player character has their own playstyle, with some being quick but weak, others strong but slow or focused on special attacks. Switching between characters in your party is extremely fluid, with each PC being only one button press away. The gameplay in standard combat is not particularly unique, with a mix of heavy and light attacks as well as specials that drain power. It is not mind-blowing but it is functional and fun to play.
Where the game does try to innovate is in the two other gameplay modes. As the plot follows Evan as he strives to forge a new and better realm, the developers have tried to make the game reflect this. There is a city building mode, in which you construct your realm through making specialised buildings or expanding farms. You have to assign citizens to work at these places, with all of them having their own skill sets and so you choose where they work based on which place suits them best. While I normally feel shoving in base building elements is annoying and pointless, *cough cough* Fallout 4 *cough cough*, in Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom it actually works very well. The gameplay is woven into the narrative, it makes sense to make the player rule their kingdom since that is what Evan is striving to learn, and the player is rewarded for succeeding at basebuilding. For example, if you make sure you have a fully functioning iron forge and employ Ted ‘I’m good at hammering’ Forginsson to work there, you can forge new weapons for Evan and company to use in combat.
The other unique gameplay type is called ‘skirmish mode’, a sort of real-time strategy mechanic where you need to position and lead troops against an enemy force. It has the standard rock-paper-scissors style gameplay of strategy games, where archer beats infantry, infantry beats cavalry, cavalry beats archer, but it felt a bit chaotic and messy. Additionally, it did not seem to blend in with the standard RPG gameplay in the same way as the base-building did, instead just feeling like a different gamemode found on the world map that rewarded you with a bit of money. Still, it was enjoyable and perhaps in the full product it will all begin to mesh together as one cohesive, well put together game.
In conclusion, Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is definitely one to look out for. It’s unique, full of personality and has fun, well designed gameplay. It feels so different from the grim, ‘realistic’, and depressing titles the games industry seems to churn out faster than Hollywood churns out scandals. The event had a real tone of excitement, as all of us gamers, so used to slogging our way through Call of Battlefield 38: Enhanced War Crime Tribunal Edition, got a taste of how gaming could be. How it can be fun, how it can inspire a childlike awe, and how rewarding it can be to hit a talking hamster with a really big axe.
Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is coming out on PS4 and PC on 23 March 2018. To find out more information and for pre-order options, head on over to the game’s website.