Since the initial reveal back in late 2015, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom has been slowly revealing that it is going to a very different experience from its predecessor, so much so that gameplay wise, there’s not even much of a common thread between the two titles. To further the surprise, it also marks a surprise return to some of Level 5’s roots with a base building feature reminiscent of their debut title, Dark Cloud. For those who haven’t been following Ni no Kuni II, the story places you in the small shoes of Evan Pettiwhisker, a young king dethroned and exiled from his homeland who sets out to reclaim his kingship. While creating your kingdom isn’t quite as expansive and customisable as it was in Dark Cloud, it still remains an essential part of your mission that boils down to three main tasks.
The first of which would be obviously building your kingdom. Progression here works by building and improving your facilities, which in turn raises your kingdom’s influence increasing the amount of facilities and upgrades available to you. These facilities are practical in nature, you’ll be building blacksmiths, armories, spell workshops and of course, somewhere to look after your higgledies and these have a direct impact on either Evan’s party or his kingdom. For example, soon after the kingdom management first opens up, you’ll have to build the spell workshop and teach Evan a spell in order to progress in the main adventure. Research that affects the kingdom would be new weapons or armour available for your army. To perform research you have to assign citizens to a facility and each citizen has their own proficiencies represented by a IQ number in various skills. The higher total IQ each facility has, the more advanced research options they can perform. Curiously, the research works in real time with basic improvements taking a minute to research with the longest one I activated taking 20 minutes. I didn’t come across a way of speeding up the process once it’s started either so be be aware that those citizens will be out of action for a bit if you’re swapping them between facilities. While you can’t completely customise your kingdom, it seems you can make sure your upgrades suit your own playstyle and your kingdom itself will be something you pop in on every now and then on your adventure rather than sinking lots of time into it.
So once you’ve started to build your new kingdom, you’re going to need new citizens to join it to make sure your new land can prosper. During my time playing, every side quest involved recruiting a new potential citizen by performing a task for them. You’ll come across people in towns marked by a blue symbol meaning they’ll have a job for you. The side quests I did were pretty standard fare, fetch these items or defeat this monster but it was a nice touch that each side quest had some cutscenes giving each citizen some personality and detailing their motivations for joining you. Each citizen also seems to have their own special skill that activates depending on where they’re allocated in or who they’re with but with so few citizens available to me at the beginning, this wasn’t something I was able to explore properly.
Your third and final task is defending your kingdom. When travelling out on the world map, you’ll come across these flags which will instigate a skirmish battle. Here, Evan takes up his kingly duties and leads his troops into battle to either defend his own land or expand his own territory. There’s a rock, paper, scissors system at play with each of the troop types and you’re able to rotate troops around Evan so you can use the appropriate type for the battle in front of you. While Evan assumes a commander role in these battles he can also get directly involved in the battle by temporarily protecting his army as well as calling in for backup, replenishing any lost units. The latter does reduce your army’s might total however which leads to a weakened force all around. Evan can also make sure of some of his citizen’s skills such as a calling in one of the sky pirates to drop some bombs on the opposing forces. While this could sound potentially grisly, the skirmish battles use the SD forms of the characters so everything looks small and cute.
It’s always a little surprising when you see a sequel go off in a very different direction to its originator, the motivation here was clearly to revamp rather than refine. The whole battle system has been overhauled into something that feels much more modern and fast paced. Turn based combat and the familiars have been chucked out in favour of a real time system and with new Pikmin-like creatures called Higgledies. Instead of raising and evolving them, Higgledies have a more supportive role in battle. You can equip up to four different types and during battle if they gather into one spot you’re able to activate their ability such as a elemental attack or healing spell. The battles felt like something along the lines of the more recent Tales games or Star Ocean in terms of pace. Each party member has set basic attacks as well as equippable skills and you’re able to switch party members using the D-Pad on the fly so you’re able to have full control of the party. It feels like they’ve made an effort to make sure battle isn’t complicated and easy to understand but still make sure each battle is exciting and enjoyable.
Despite all the gameplay changes, the world of Ni no Kuni II still felt familiar and welcoming. The game retains its unique look with each new location looking vibrant and populated with life. To me, I’m more aware it looks more knowingly 3D than the animation in motion look the original was going for but with that comes more subtle detail within the backgrounds and characters that really shows off the advancements between the two games. While returning fans might be initially disappointed at all the sweeping changes, it’s likely best to think of the differences between the two as something of a Final Fantasy situation where despite vastly differently gameplay between titles, the core identity of the series is still present and that’s certainly the case here.