Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom hands-on

Perhaps the second time will be the charm.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was a mixed bag. Released for the PlayStation 3 in 2013, the game brought together acclaimed animation house Studio Ghibli and RPG makers Level-5.

Now, I’ll admit: I had problems with Wrath of the White Witch. This time around, Level-5 is going ahead without the involvement of Studio Ghibli, though composer Joe Hisashi is still handling the music. And Studio Ghibli veteran Yoshiyuki Momose (Whisper of the Heart, Spirited Away, Porco Rosso) is on character design, leaving the game still feeling very Ghibli-inspired, even sans the company’s fingers directly in the proverbial pie.

At E3, there were two different demos to check out for Revenant Kingdom. In the first one, I battled against Longfang, a Chinese-inspired dragon. The battle system has shifted notably from White Witch. The familiars – the collectable critters of the last game– are gone, and instead players control the characters directly.  The timers of the past game have also been eliminated, allowing you to continually press buttons to attack, giving the game much more of a real-time, action RPG feel, a la Kingdom Hearts.

The combat then, on some levels, seems a bit better, even if it is a change that might be off-putting to some fans. It’s shifting the series’ genre a bit, to one I do feel like I’m usually less inclined to enjoy. The new combat is faster and feels more hack-and-slash-based than the past game, and while it may not hold up over the course of the entire adventure, I think it potentially could work out, even if I’d prefer something moving more toward turn-based battles than away from them. That all said, White Witch’s battle system needed improvement one way or the other. It’s just too early to tell if this was it.

Higgledies can help you in combat, sometimes indirectly. Higgledies can help you in combat, sometimes indirectly.

Another new addition are the Higgledies, which look like a combo of the Pokemon Mimiku and Ghibli-style spirits. These little characters are a bit weird: they group up on the field of battle in various locations, and you can move to them to get bonuses, such as healing. Some of them will even throw arrows at enemies. I didn’t think I liked them at first, but they are almost Pikmin-esque in a sense, and eventually they grew on me a little. We’ll have to see how they shake out in the full game as well.

In the second demo, I got to walk around a bit outside of a battle. Here, however, something just felt off visually: the characters’ graphic style didn’t seem to mesh well with the surrounding environments, which was odd. In one section, the art style changed even more drastically, and I was controlling chibi versions of the characters as they walked around. Why am I playing a Ni No Kuni game if not for its visual style? The demo concluded with a closing cutscene, but it also had a problem of its own: the lip sync for the voice acting seemed off. Ick.

It looks like Ni No Kuni is going through some big changes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Revenant Kingdom did manage to win me over a bit in the demo, but it’s too early to tell how these changes will reverberate throughout the game. It is a shift for the series combat-wise and, while I enjoy the faster approach, it loses the originality of the first game. But, again, the previous battle system wasn’t all that good, either. This one could end up being better… or it could not be. We’ll find out when it releases on November 10.