My favorite Studio Ghibli film is The Wind Rises. In it, a hardworking aeronautics engineer struggles to build what will eventually become the infamous Zero, his instinctual desire for beauty and peace clashing with the demands of war and a totalitarian government.
The widely renowned Japanese animation studio has always had a way of addressing these topics in an elegant and nuanced way. Even Princess Mononoke—a fanciful film that pits industry against nature—manages to make its ostensible antagonists sympathetic. The studio's films resonate because it has a knack for laying bare the human condition.
Ghibli isn't involved with Ni No Kuni 2 like it is with the first game, but you can tell Level-5 wants Ni No Kuni 2 to follow in that tradition. Like many of Ghibli's best films, it's a fairy tale that also ties into our own reality. The world of Evan Pettiwhisker is one of relentless optimism—one where people can in fact set aside their differences and work together to build something greater. In some ways it's a refreshing antidote to the real world's relentlessly toxic politics.
I want Ni No Kuni 2 to work so much. Waypoint calls Ni No Kuni 2 "radical fairy tale politics" and believes its point of view is worth championing. I wish I could say the same. But in the end, it doesn't work, and its handling of the character Roland is a big reason why.
This article contains spoilers for Ni No Kuni 2's endgame! You've been warned!
In Ni No Kuni 2, Roland is the link to our world. The very first scene shows him riding in a presidential motorcade toward what looks like an alternate New York City, only for a nuclear missile to go flying overhead. The city goes up in a nuclear flash and a now much younger Roland subsequently awakens in Ding Dong Dell.
I've written already about what a shocking moment this is. The sight of mushroom clouds is a provocative image, not the least because the nuclear Sword of Damocles hangs over us to this day. It recalls terrifying apocalyptic films like Threads and The Day After. It's a bold opening moment for Ni No Kuni 2, and it's one that seemingly sets the stage for a fascinating juxtaposition between real-world politics and fairy tale optimism.
It never really gets there, though. Instead, Roland is nonplussed for a few moments by his new environment, then decides to just accept it and move forward. He doesn't pause to consider the fact that his family is now possibly dead, or that his own world has been likely destroyed. He decides to embrace his new world for what it is and forget about the old.
From there, Roland fades into the background as Evan's story takes center stage. He acts primarily as an advisor as Evan rallies a group of pirates to help build his new kingdom, then embarks on a quest to unite the world in peace (Breitbart: Evan Pettiwhisker is a globalist). The nuclear apocalypse that opens the story doesn't merit so much as a mention. Roland becomes a cipher as Evan's tale dominates the overall narrative.
This is one of my problems with Ni No Kuni 2 in general—the supporting cast just isn't strong enough. As the story progresses, Evan moves from kingdom to kingdom recruiting allies who eventually join his party. But once Tani, Batu, and other characters resolve their main quest, they become glorified extras. Their only role is to comment on Evan's plans and maybe help with an invention or two. Ordinarily the growth of the secondary characters is something that is addressed in the sidequests—think Dandelion's quest line in The Witcher 3—but Ni No Kuni 2's additional quests are primarily trivial errands.
It's most glaring with Roland, though. We never get a sense of what he's thinking or his past. We don't know whether he misses his wife or if he's thinking about his child. We don't get any hint of the crushing guilt he must feel for failing his country. He merely dispenses sage advice, his biggest role being to pretend to be a spy to get Evan back into Ding Dong Dell. In some ways, he almost seems to be having the most fun out of anyone.
It strikes me as a colossal missed opportunity for Ni No Kuni 2, one that would have made it feel much more "Ghibli-esque." I can imagine a story in which Roland wonders what's real and what's fantasy; one where he's half convinced that he's actually dead. I can imagine a story where he mourns for his daughter and tries to atone for the destruction of his country by helping to build a new kingdom and bring peace to the world. I can imagine... well... a Ghibli movie. I can imagine a story with some actual emotion.
Roland's story finally reemerges in the final act. We see him beginning to fade, and he flashes back to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where he sees his daughter's eyes turn to black pitch as her ashes are blown away by the wind. It's a jarring, terrifying sequence that feels completely out of step with the cheery world that dominates much of the game, and one that feels wholly unearned. After forgetting about its daring opening cutscene for almost the entirety of the story, Ni No Kuni 2 tries to cram everything into the final act, and it's too little, too late.
In the final act, the villain is predictably unmasked as an idealistic former king. It's... whatever. It's meant to be a dark reflection of how Evan's kingdom could turn out, but it ultimately rings hollow because his fall is precipitated by falling in love with his kingmaker—creatures that confer a divine right to rule. He tells Evan that he wasn't ready to rule, that he was too callow. But really, what's presented to us is a villain who started stealing people's souls because he was real sad about losing his magic girlfriend and wanted to get her back.
Roland, meanwhile, reveals that he is sad too because negotiations failed and his country was destroyed. As with the villain, it's meant to be a glimpse of how an idealistic project like Evermore can go horribly wrong. The moral, it seems, is that being a good king isn't necessarily enough—not a terrible message, actually. But it's at odds with the rest of Ni No Kuni 2, a fairy tale world in which a benevolent king is able to successfully unite the world by showing everyone the error of their ways.
As the story ends, Roland is taken back to his world, which he hopes to rebuild from the radioactive ashes. Not content to let us wonder whether Roland found himself in Mad Max, Ni No Kuni 2 leaves us one final scene. We see Roland once again in his limo heading to Alternate New York; but this time, he sees fireworks. The world has been completely rebuilt and is preparing to unite under one government (or perhaps he was beamed back to his peace negotiations and used Evan's cunning negotiation skills to unite the world). Eternal peace and a united world need not be a fairy tale, Ni No Kuni 2 seems to be saying. It can be applied to our world too.
And with that, Ni No Kuni 2's story comes to a close, leaving me to throw my controller at the wall and go, "Really?"
Earning Your Optimism
I've spent a lot of time chewing on Ni No Kuni 2's ending since I wrapped it up more than a month ago, trying to suss out why exactly it bugs me so much.
It's not that it's too optimistic. I'm a massive fan of Star Trek, a show in which the major conceit is that humanity has put aside their differences and stepped into space together. I've often railed against shows like Deep Space Nine and Discovery for eating into that optimism, arguing that we need it more than ever. We need to believe that humanity can not only survive, but improve.
I think that Ni No Kuni 2 might have been a pretty nice fairy tale if it had focused entirely on Evan's world. It would have made it easier to suspend my disbelief and think, "What a nice story. We need more optimism in our media."
But Ni No Kuni 2 is also a game that opens with a mushroom cloud. It's an image that makes me think of Russia, North Korea, Syria, and the Cold War. It makes me think of Putin's tighting grip on Eastern Europe and China's push to claim the South China Sea. It makes me think about the fact that we remain on the knife's edge of renewed global conflict. It's a very powerful image, at least to me, and one that Ni No Kuni 2 does very little to earn.
When the credits were finished rolling, I complained on Twitter that Ni No Kuni 2 could have been so much more. The seeds of a really great story are there—one that might have been faithful to the Ghibli legacy—but Ni No Kuni 2 never bothers to cultivate them. It leaves a potentially great character almost entirely on the sidelines and does very little with the fascinating juxtaposition of Ghibli-esque fantasy kingdom and apocalyptic hellscape.
It's disappointing to me because I really do think that we need Ni No Kuni 2's optimism. We need to believe that there's a light at the end of the tunnel. But Ni No Kuni 2 is never quite able to build on its fantastic initial hook; and as a consequence, it fails to attain greatness.