Hands-on: Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is an action-packed sequel

When you go into a show like E3 expecting a specific game to be one of your highlights it puts a lot of unspoken pressure on everything. Showing up at the Bandai Namco booth last week, there was already a lot of hype in the air due to the announcement of the excellent-looking Dragonball Fighter Z. And now I, along with a room full of other journalists, were about to be shown a presentation on Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom and hear what makes it stand out from its predecessor and the rest of the market as a whole.

The original Ni no Kuni did a wonderful job of evoking the signature Studio Ghibli style of animation in concert with the real-time plus turn-based hybrid combat system. Layered across the top was an addictive meta game of collecting familiars as you journeyed across the world, completing quests and stories about saving people's hearts and emotions. It all dovetailed very nicely together into a pleasant, albeit strangely easy, package. Ni no Kuni II is doubling down on a few key pieces in the hopes of streamlining and focusing the adventure a bit better.

My original preview back in January was a nice first peek at the game, but I wasn’t able to get my hands on it back then. At E3 2017, I was finally able to take it for a spin and see how things are shaping up with Level-5’s latest.

Long Live the King

The opening moments of Ni no Kuni II aren’t kind to Evan, the main character. After his father passes the torch to him with his untimely death, Evan is tasked with becoming a king far sooner than he is truly ready. Sensing that youthful inexperience, a coup takes place and you’re forced out of your own kingdom. The usurper, Otto, is able to forge a “kingsbond” with your city’s kingmaker, resulting in his control of the region. Now you’re a king without a kingdom, so it’s up to you to find, or create, a new one.

Upon release, Ni no Kuni II will feature an elaborate kingdom-building system that the producers teased as a replacement for the familiar-collection of the first game. Details were scarce at E3, but it sounds like you will have a great deal of control in terms of how and where your kingdom expands. You’ll even be able to recruit townspeople from various regions to help build things up, which sounds similar to some of the elements from the Suikoden franchise. Much of the minutia won’t be required to advance the critical path of the story, but will exist to offer greater depth for players that really get into the kingdom-building aspects.

Fast-Paced Action and Combat

Perhaps the biggest and most noticeable departure from the first game is the complete reworking of the combat system. In the first game, you’d issue commands to your familiars and swap between party members, frantically trying to manage up to six individuals on the battlefield at one time. Ni no Kuni II gets rid of the familiar system and swaps them for the more passive Higgledies. Instead of collecting them by exploring and fighting creatures, these little guys take on roles of their own, offering buffs and heals during battles.

Now, combat almost feels like a slightly slower-paced version of the high-flying action you’d see in games such as Star Ocean and the Tales of… franchises. However, unlike many of those games, battles do not occur in separate locations from where you spot the enemy. In Ni no Kuni II, if I see a bad guy and run into him with my character, the fight happens immediately without any loading screens – everything is seamless. This helps keep the pace up and avoids a lot of the monotony that often plagues JRPGs.

During my demo at E3 2017, I got the chance to play a mid-game boss fight against a level 30 kingmaker boss that’s gone rogue.

The boss I faced off against was a large dragon creature that alternated between swooping down for melee attacks, blasting us with fire, and causing plumes of lava to erupt from the ground at our feet. Since combat was fully real-time with this iteration, I was in charge of navigating the battlefield and avoiding attacks. The higgledies would pop healing bubbles and buff circles on the ground occasionally that I could take advantage of during combat.

Mixing together ranged skills and melee-focused attacks was crucial in this fight, and I got a great taste of just how intense combat can get. I’m going to miss the collection aspect of amassing an assortment of various familiars, but ultimately a kingdom-building mechanic could provide more robust progression opportunities. The improvements to gameplay are fast and fluid, and the art team has really brought this magical world to life in even greater detail than before.

True to the Spirit of the Original

Even in the face of all of these changes, Ni no Kuni II is still very true to the original game. The art style is almost exactly the same, although a bit sharper and more refined this time around, with Yoshiyuki Momose of Ghibli fame maintaining his position as the character designer. Akihiro Hino returns as the story and general director from Level-5, and once again Joe Hisaishi is composing the game’s music.

Luckily, we won’t have to wait much longer to see how things turn out, as Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is slated to release on November 10 of this year for PS4 and PC.