Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom review

Ghibli style, but still no Ghibli substance.

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom begins with what may be the most bizarre opening sequence I’ve ever seen in an RPG. An elderly president of an undefined country is shown in the passenger seat of a car that is driving towards a city. Suddenly, a missile shoots through the sky, straight toward the same city. In the fiery aftermath, the world around the president fades, and he awakens to find himself many years younger in a strange kingdom called Ding Dong Dell… that’s in the middle of a violent coup.

It’s a fascinating departure from the humble beginnings of the original Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, which debuted on PlayStation 3 in English in 2013 and followed the young boy Oliver, whose doll comes to life and transports him to the magical world of Ni no Kuni to find a way to revive his deceased mother. But while Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is not a direct sequel and does not require any knowledge of its predecessor to play, both games share many commonalities, such as the trademark Studio Ghibli music and art style, classic RPG systems, and a quirky fairytale storyline.

I reviewed Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch back when it first came out, and while I was thoroughly endeared by its Studio Ghibli charm, the tedious turn-based battles severely impacted my enjoyment of the game. While Studio Ghibli was not officially involved with Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, character designer Yoshiyuki Momose and composer Joe Hisaishi maintain the look and sound of Ghibli’s films despite the game’s lack of Ghibli-produced animated cut scenes.  

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom trades its predecessor’s turn-based battles for real-time combat where you manually control one character with AI handling two other party members. The Pokémon-like familiars do not make a return, instead replaced with sprits called Higgledies that come in different types and can be equipped in various combinations to assist in battle. The game also features RTS-style skirmishes and kingdom building, adding to the gameplay variety and offering a change of pace from traditional fetch quests and battles.

After the somewhat jarring first hour of the game as Roland and Evan escape from Ding Dong Dell, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom establishes its primary focus on Evan and his efforts to build a brand-new kingdom that will unite the people of Ni no Kuni in peace. Together with Roland and new party members you meet along the way, Evan travels the world looking to recruit citizens and establish his position as king of Evermore.

While I know, as a fairytale, I shouldn’t be too hard on the general premise, I couldn’t help but find it unbelievable how okay with the whole situation Roland is after watching a city get demolished by a missile, finding himself aged down a few decades, and suddenly being in the middle of a coup to overthrow a polite boy with cat ears and a tail. Once he and Evan escape Ding Dong Dell, he pledges to follow and support Evan on his, frankly, absurd quest to start a new kingdom from scratch in the middle of a field. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t find Evan a particularly convincing character, but I never understood why everyone was so willing to declare he had a “special something” and put their blind faith in him. Perhaps it’s his amazing hair?

Evan does grow over the course of the game from a young, scared boy who had his world completely overturned to a confident leader of a kingdom, but unfortunately the supporting cast is not given anywhere near the same amount of attention, especially after they join your party. I loved the interactions between the characters in cut scenes, which often contained laugh-out-loud dialogue (due in part to the wonderful localization), but I would’ve liked to see the cast develop more as individual characters.

There are, of course, instances of women doing cool things from time to time, but for a game that looks like a Studio Ghibli game, it doesn’t feel like what I want a Studio Ghibli game to feel.

I also found myself frustrated by how the game treats its female characters, particularly early on. An awesome female character is killed for the sake of a male character’s development (much like the first Ni no Kuni), and the first female character that joins your party actually has to be rescued by Evan and Roland before she becomes a playable character, despite the fact that she’s a sky pirate and probably scrappier than both of them combined. There are, of course, instances of women doing cool things from time to time, but for a game that looks like a Studio Ghibli game, it doesn’t feel like what I want a Studio Ghibli game to feel. Films such as Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke all present a wide range of wonderful female characters that take the spotlight of their narratives – and there’s absolutely no reason why Evan couldn’t have been a young girl instead.

Despite my rather harsh critique of the narrative – at the end of the day, it’s serviceable – Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom was a lot of fun to play. Though Evan is at the forefront of the story, you’re able to switch your playable character at any time between battles in the menu, and inactive party members still gain experience, so you’ll never feel forced to swap in characters just to make sure they don’t become underleveled. A nifty feature called the Tactics Tweaker, which has its own experience points, also allows you to customize your party’s attributes to better suit your needs and play style. 

The battles themselves are fast-paced and encourage a nice balance between long range, magic, and melee attacks. This is because MP is not regained over time, but as you deal melee attacks to enemies. The feeling of landing a few long-range attacks, then rushing in to deal some melee blows before unleashing a strong magic attack by holding R2 and pressing the button for the desired spell was extremely satisfying, as was watching enemies explode into various items to collect once you defeat them.

Magic attacks are further enhanced by melee weapons, which you can have up to three equipped at once per character. Weapons build up something called a “Zing Charge” as you do battle, and once a weapon has been charged to 100%, it will greatly improve the damage dealt when casting a spell. There are three modes for switching your active weapon during battle, depending on how automated you want it to be.

Then there are Higgledies, or little elemental spirits that can be recruited throughout the game by offering them items or crafting them in Evermore. Your four currently-equipped Higgledies will appear in combat sequences as little gaggles of different-colored critters, providing all kinds of support from healing to shields and elemental attacks. Sometimes during battle a blue circle will form around Higgledies of a certain type, indicating that they’re ready to perform a special attack. Though these are extremely useful, you have a limited amount of time to run over and hit the X button to get them to do their thing, creating a strategic element where you need to weigh up whether or not it’s worth stopping what you’re doing to enlist their aid during integral moments in battles.

As mentioned earlier, there are also RTS battles that require you to control Evan and his troops in skirmishes against enemy armies. Troops are separated into three types that have a rock-paper-scissors relationship with the other troop types, requiring you to manage which of your soldiers will advance on what enemy forces. These battles take place on the world map and don’t really feel like they add any value to the progression of the game overall, nor are they anywhere near as fun as the game’s regular combat, but they shake things up all the same.

While Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom has a Studio Ghibli coat of paint, those looking for a video game that truly captures the heart and soul of Studio Ghibli’s films may find something to be desired. 

There is also the kingdom management system, which unlocks about seven hours or so into the game at the end of Chapter 3. This felt much more integrated into the game as a whole than the RTS skirmishes, because unlocks in the kingdom directly benefit your party in combat. For example, if I wanted better spells, I’d upgrade the Spellworks, or if I was finding my armor was not up to snuff, I’d upgrade the Weapon Workshop. Upgrading facilities and conducting research requires citizens from Evan’s kingdom, which means going out into the world and recruiting more people to come live in Evermore, often by completing a fetch quest for them. Though you can generally put as much effort into this aspect of the game as you want, there are certain points where you’re required to reach certain thresholds in your kingdom to advance.

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom takes about 35-50 hours to complete, depending on how much time you invest in the unessential aspects of the game. From managing Higgledies to expanding Evan’s kingdom, there are many different systems at play, some of which are more fun than others. I came to Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom expecting to love the world but find the gameplay a chore, but I instead found myself loving the combat and feeling unimpressed by the world outside of some charming dialogue and quaint set pieces.

That isn’t to say Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is a bad RPG – in fact, it’s an extremely competent RPG that I enjoyed playing, and I was surprised at how well all the different things it’s doing work. But while Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom has a Studio Ghibli coat of paint, those looking for a video game that truly captures the heart and soul of Studio Ghibli’s films may find something to be desired.

Verdict: Maybe

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is available now for PC and PlayStation 4.