I've been pretty hard on Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom to this point. Up until earlier this week, everything I had seen suggested that it was going to be a Tales knockoff bereft of the original's Studio Ghibli magic.
The impression was born out of what seemed like a simplistic battle system, a weirdly clashing overworld, and an art style that was less Ghibli and more... well... Level-5. That last bit was especially evident in the design of the secondary characters, who looked like leftovers from Dragon Quest 8.
Like this guy, for instance.
Still, Ni No Kuni 2 is better than I expected. Its cel-shaded graphics lend it a look that is very much in keeping with its storybook aesthetic. It's deeper, too. Given a few hours to play around with the battle system, I was able to get a better feel for its rhythm and its strategy—particularly the role played by the Higgledies, little sprite-like creatures that contribute to combat in myriad ways.
It's the Higgledies who have the greatest chance to influencing the direction of the battles. They'll be running around the battlefield aimlessly for a moment, then they'll stop; and if you run into their sphere of influence, you can activate their special attack. One of the first Higgledies you get will spawn a cannon and start firing from long range—an excellent early game weapon for taking out flying enemies.
In addition to their flashier attacks, Higgledies have passive abilities that also benefit the party; and as your Higgledie count grows, choosing the ones you want to grow will become increasingly important. I personally am a big fan of hard choices, so it's nice to see that the Higgledies have a bit more weight than I originally thought.
In the early goings, Higgledies are your strongest weapons, and they will help make most battles go by extremely quickly. You'll be running down a corridor and a mob of enemies will approach, only to be cut down in the space of less than a minute. Generic sword swipes, spells, and special attacks from Higgledies will reduce them to ash in no time. Which is not to say that Ni No Kuni 2 is too easy. Indeed, Chapter 2 has an armored goblin miniboss who does massive damage with his charge attacks, and he quickly overwhelmed and defeated my little party. I had to dodge roll and otherwise be extremely careful to avoid instantly losing one of my party members.
The overall impression I get is of a battle system that nicely balances casual-focused, fast-paced combat with enough depth to keep it interesting. It's chaotic, but not overwhelmingly so, and it brings a lot of nice spell effects to bear. Combat is naturally balanced by the need to build up a power bar by engaging enemies directly, which then enables you to use your stronger abilities.
The battle system was apparently one of the primary beneficiaries of Ni No Kuni 2's multiple delays, and it seems as if the extra time in the oven has done it good.
According to Bandai Namco brand manager Stephen Akana, the team has been busy tweaking the HUD and adding new features. "This has been a game we've been working on for a pretty long time, and our original release date was set near the beginning of the project. If you look at what we showed at E3 and Gamescom, there are actually some pretty large changes to the gameplay. We're constantly trying to tweak and adjust and make sure it's balanced properly. So once we got to that point, we wanted to take a little more time to make sure the game was as balanced and tweaked as possible."
Since its last showing, for instance, Ni No Kuni 2 has picked up the ability to equip and easily switch between three different weapons. This lets you equip weapons with a variety of elemental attacks, power them up, and save them for a particularly tough boss battle.
Ni No Kuni 2 is full of elements like these—to the point where I'm actually wondering if it might end up feeling a bit bloated around the midgame. But as I got into the rhythm of the battle system, I found that I appreciated them. My overall impression is that Ni No Kuni 2 is deeper and more enjoyable than I initially suspected, and that in turn makes it easier for me to take the art style and overall fairy tale vibe at face value and just enjoy the ride.
Can Ni No Kuni 2 Be More Than a Mid-Tier RPG?
Of course, none of this is to say that Ni No Kuni 2 has vaulted into contention for Game of the Year or anything. The word that keeps coming to mind when I think of Ni No Kuni 2 is "nice"—a low ceiling game, but also one with a pretty high floor. It's pretty, it's relatively interesting, and it's an RPG I wouldn't necessarily object to giving 50 hours of my time (a ringing endorsement, I know).
Unfortunately for Ni No Kuni 2, it can't help existing in the shadow of its predecessor, which benefited from both its pedigree—a Ghibli game is notable by itself—and from the relative lack of big-budget console JRPGs back in 2011. It has a lot of competition on PlayStation 4 now, from popular cult favorites like the Tales series to Persona 5, and even its lovely cel-shaded graphics aren't necessarily enough for it to stand out.
It's hard to say what might push it to the next level. The story is cute and cartoony in the extreme, with major villains tearfully confessing their sins and vowing to find a better path. Evan Pettiwhisker's ascent to the throne, meanwhile, weirdly reminds me of the classic children's tale Babar, another storybook tale of a kingdom that... uh... doesn't hold up.
The one element that has the potential to make Ni No Kuni 2 interesting in my mind is the kingdom building. Once Chapter 4 rolls around, you get to start building shops, which can be used to acquire new items and weapons. I'm a sucker for these side elements, though they often end up feeling undercooked. Exhibit A: Pillars of Eternity.
So here's the thing: While I think Ni No Kuni 2 has some significant hurdles to overcome—I haven't even talked about how awful the chibi overworld looks—I think it at least has the potential to find its way into my heart. It's enough that I actually asked Mike to put me down for the review.
Ni No Kuni 2 is cute; it's deeper than it looks, and it has the potential to actually be very good if everything ends up coming together properly. This is not something I would have said about Ni No Kuni 2 before now. In that, it's already much better than I anticipated.