Preview: Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is a spellbinding sequel

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is one of the best JRPGs from last generation, featuring a massive, sprawling world full of dozens of unique characters, creatures (known as familiars) to collect, and places to see. The premise melded Pokémon-style creature raising with a hybrid turn-based and real-time combat system to the tune of something magical. The 40+ hour adventure was an emotional story about a young boy who lost his mother, and the lengths to which he’d go to save a kingdom and the soul of someone he loved.

The sequel, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, borrows heavy inspiration from its predecessor, but does not follow the same story or feature any of the original’s characters directly. In this way, it’s similar to other popular JRPG franchises such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Tales of, which all have self-contained sequels.

This week at a private press preview event, we got the chance to see the first live gameplay demonstrations of Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom in action.

A Whole New World

In Ni no Kuni II, you control Evan as the game’s chief protagonist. Things kick off with Evan finding himself in the precarious position of inheriting his father’s crown and kingdom while still but a young boy. Naturally, his subjects deem him unfit to rule, stage a coup, and take control of the kingdom. Along his journey, Evan aims to found a new kingdom of his own and make a name for himself in the process.

Since it takes place separate from the first game, in a new world with all new characters, it’s natural to wonder why this is considered a sequel at all. Well, for starters, it’s stylistically very similar. A former Studio Ghibli animator will be working on Ni no Kuni II, as well as the same core Level-5 development team, lending the game its iconic watercolor-meets-anime art style. Famed composer Joe Hisaishi is also expected to return as the composer for the music in Ni no Kuni II.

Beyond the presentation, the themes are consistent as well. In the previous game, Oliver could mend souls and create powerful bonds with people. Ni no Kuni II is reportedly focusing on that same theme of building relationships and learning from other people.

Unfamiliar Territory

During the demonstration, a big piece of the game that we were finally shown is what an actual combat encounter looks like. In the first Ni no Kuni, you captured and trained familiars – which functioned similar to Pokémon – as you cycled between them and your party members’ various abilities in battle. It was complex at times, but never very challenging.

For this next installment in the series, it seems Level-5 has eschewed the familiar system all together. There are now Higgledies to incorporate into your party, but they aren’t expected to occupy the same role of collectable creature companion that the familiars did. When I asked an on-site representative about the decision, he explained that they wanted to hone in on the real-time aspects of combat, making that as fast, fluid, and fun as possible, without getting bogged down with managing a variety of critters. The sentiment is clear, and the core of what made Ni no Kuni so enjoyable is still intact, but I’m worried that may come at severe cost.

From what I’ve seen of the new combat system, it feels awfully similar to Bandai Namco’s long-running Tales of franchise, which is well known for its action-packed battles. The turn-based hybrid gameplay of the original, mixed with collecting familiars, allowed for a more nuanced system that was fresh and unique, with plenty of room for growth and iteration. That’s mostly gone now.

It is worth stating, though, that the best part of the demo was just how seamlessly everything melded together. While in an area such as a canyon or an explorable environment, you see enemies wandering around on the map. Instead of touching the enemy and being transported to a battle scene or engaging in a random battle, you just fight them right there in the world. With no battle scenes to load, I can just run over and attack something. Everything flows together effortlessly without pause, almost like it would in a Dragon Age game. Watching the action-packed battles, with the beautiful animations scurrying across the foreground, was a dance of color and excitement for my eyes and I can’t wait to see more of it in action.

Potential New Features

The newly refined real-time system has certainly opened up new doors, but only at the expense of closing old ones. Part of me is disappointed to see the charming familiar collection system removed from the game, however the producer also indicated that a replacement is in the works.

He wouldn’t provide any hard facts about what exactly this new mechanic would be, but he did explain that it would be an iteration of the “collection” system we saw with familiars, and that it would also be a core part of the experience. That’s all we know for sure, but I’ve got a theory about what it could look like.

Based on that description and the ending of the PSX 2016 trailer I think I have some clues. At the end of the trailer, Evan is seen with a group of people behind him, proclaiming that, “We'll build it together, a kingdom we can all be proud of.” To me, this sounds like players could be in charge of “collecting” citizens to “build” a new kingdom, similar to what you might have seen in old Suikoden games. Time will tell if that proves true or not.

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Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is slated to release later this year in 2017 for both the PlayStation 4 and PC simultaneously. We’ve still got our fingers crossed for a re-release of Wrath of the White Witch on PS4 and/or PC at some point!