The sequel to 2013's cute and incredibly satisfying JRPG Ni no Kuni has finally released with much deserved fanfare.
Thankfully, you don't have to be familiar with the original to enjoy Ni no Kuni II. You play again as a young boy but this one is much more well-known in his kingdom. Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum is the cat-like child king of Ding Dong Dell. The opening sequences of Ni no Kuni II show Ding Dong Dell being taken over by a nasty tribe of mice and the child king escaping with the help of a certain president that mysteriously appeared before him during his escape. A wholly human president suddenly showing up in a land filled with animal-like humans is quite an interesting premise for sure. To add to the intrigue, Roland (the president) is actually depicted witnessing what looks like a nuclear bomb exploding in a densely populated downtown district of a major city right when he is teleported.
Needless to say, the story starts out with some tough subject matter, drawing parallels to the start of the original Ni no Kuni that had a young boy witnessing his mother die right after saving his life. Because of this, Ni no Kuni II does a great job at making you care about the characters from the get-go.
The overall structure of Ni no Kuni II follows a stereotypical JRPG in that you play as a group of unlikely pals who meet each other on their travels to accomplish a goal. You visit many different lands, all with their own story to tell and beautiful visuals to match. Seeing as Evan was forced to leave his old home, his goal is to build a new kingdom. To do this, he must enlist the help of residents all over the world including getting major kingdoms to sign his "declaration of interdependence" and in doing so, agreeing to keep peace between the lands. There are dozens of locations on the map to explore but there are primarily six major cities that Evan and friends spend a lot of time in while fulfilling the requirements of their leaders in order to get them to sign the treaty.
Traversing the overworld is a lot of fun and just as entertaining as walking around the sprawling towns and fighting in dungeons. Ni no Kuni II does a great job of creating interesting terrain with lots of landmarks and points of interest that you'll notice in the distance. The only qualm that I have about the overworld is that I find it strange how the graphics change from anime-style to chibi characters when you switch from battle back to the overworld. In fact, you play with the anime-style graphics for the entire campaign except when you're traversing the overworld. It comes across as a little disjointed although the visuals are still beautiful in both variations.
The towns themselves are a shining example of how to make a settlement look realistic and therefore draw you in to explore all of its nooks and crannies. They are quite large by JRPG standards and are filled with different shops to visit, NPCs to chat with, and items to find. One shop in particular that I quite enjoyed was the side-quest shop that provided tons of extra gameplay by tasking you with finding certain items, fighting known enemies, and completing one-off tasks. In return for completing the quests, you get a tip on a resident somewhere in the world that has an interest in joining your kingdom. Obtaining as many residents as possible is key to expanding the kingdom of Evermore and it feels so rewarding when you manage to recruit a new one.
Speaking of the kingdom of Evermore, it's basically a small simulation game within the JRPG. You earn money from your residents that you can use to place an overwhelmingly large selection of buildings. Each building has a function whether it's to forage or farm for items, make weapons and armour, or complete research to help you overcome challenges. Research varies from unlocking more advanced types of weaponry to increasing your movement speed on the map and unlocking certain spells. You'll spend quite a large chunk of time just looking around your kingdom and watching it grow.
Besides the kingdom-building sim gameplay, there are lots of various gameplay elements to enjoy. You can take on the task of completing nine dungeons that increase in difficulty the longer you're in them, hunt for high-level enemies on the world map, spend hours creating and enhancing items with the hundreds of different materials you'll come across throughout the campaign, find and unlock all the treasure chests, keep tabs on the Facebook-style app that depicts world news and comments from residents, and complete the dozens of available side-quests. There's so much to see and do that you can easily spend over a hundred hours trying to complete it all.
The battles in Ni no Kuni II are strictly action-based. This is a huge departure from the original game which had a mix of turn-based and action-based combat. You also don't get to recruit or play as monsters. I have to admit, this disappointed me as the action-packed turn-based gameplay from the original was one aspect that I loved; second only to the vast number of monsters to recruit.
All of that being said, the battles are still entertaining and you'll often spend time equipping your party with new weapons in order to deal the most damage in a given area. You can also level up and equip different spells to keep things interesting and have a chance at exploiting enemy weaknesses. However, this doesn't feel necessary as it's quite possible to complete most battles with a mash of one button and some smart dodging. You get out of the battle system what you put in as you can quite easily complete the game without much thought but if you want, there are mechanics that make things much easier if you strategize. I prefer when a JRPG forces me to learn the intricacies of its battle system in order to master it. Otherwise, it comes across as an afterthought.
An entirely new element introduced in Ni no Kuni II is the ability to use higgledies in battle. These are small creatures of various colours that jump around the battle area and occasionally form a circle that you can stand in and press a button to have them help you out. They come in handy in tougher battles, allowing you to heal yourself or have them unleash a magic spell or fire a cannon toward the enemy. In some boss fights, they also play a vital role where you have to work with them to attack the boss. On top of being useful in battles, higgledies are also used to allow you to get to hard-to-reach places in some dungeons such as by creating a water jet stream to travel across a gap or a whirlwind to send you high up. Higgledies are hidden around the world for you to find and once you amass a few, you can start to level them up and expand on their abilities at a research centre in your kingdom.
Level-5 has done it again as they delivered another thoroughly enjoyable JRPG thus proving that the genre isn't going anywhere. If you're not too disheartened by the lack of the slower-paced turn-based battle system and the monster collecting that was featured in the original then you'll have a ton of fun building your very own kingdom and traversing the stunning world of Ni no Kuni II.
- + Endearing characters with engaging stories that you'll actually care about
- + Variety of fun gameplay styles
- + Stunning and diverse graphics
- - Chibi characters in the overworld come across as out of place
- - Lack of monster recruiting is a letdown
- - Fans may miss the old battle system