Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

Boy, Level 5 doesn't make it easy to review a sequel. Nor should they. Joe Hisaishi score and imagery blessed by Studio Ghibli aside, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom feels like it's trying to shed its identity as an animated epic portraying an JRPG into its own thing, from the battle system to the approach to cutscenes to even the kind of retro it wants to appeal to. No longer Dragon Quest if Ghibli had been the character design team with a healthy dose of Pokemon, it's more a Tales of... game crossed with Dark Cloud, Suikoden, and the Miyazaki inspirations were more Goro Miyazaki's Ronia: The Bandit's Daughter... and I'm meaning that as a matter of fact and not an insult. By the way, this was originally suggested to be made solely for the West and almost didn't get a Japanese release. Strangely enough, the original almost didn't make it to the West because it flopped hard in Japan and they didn't think there was interest here. I told you this wasn't going to be an easy review.

Five years ago, the original Ni no Kuni was my favorite game of 2013. Yes, the monster collecting battle system wasn't particularly great (Even when you could recruit a creature called Ex-Girlfriend that had an instant death spell), the actual scenes animated by Ghibli were mostly short or jarring, and the White Witch portion of the story was obviously tacked on to the material from 3DS game to make the PS3 version and essentially repeated much of the same conflict to withered results. It's a breathtaking experience that was painstakingly created to feel like you were playing an animated film down to the water imitating a hand-drawn animation loop. I can't imagine how much effort that little touch took. The story grabbed me, I loved the characters, and the score was striking. The experience of playing the game was a true wonder aside from minor frustrations.

So what is its sequel, Revenant Kingdom? Well, not completely unfamiliar. Most of it feels like it was drawn from the same well. The fantasy world populated by beings with United Kingdom accents from the original is still here with the same art direction, but it has moved hundreds of years into the future where the original quest has become legend. However, from the very first moment coming out of the prologue, it's different. The person from our world sent to transverse the fantasy land is not a child, but Roland, the President of the United States. Yes, really (Though not based on anyone specific). Normally, the first scene would be fair game to describe, but I think I'll leave it to you to experience as it's the last thing I expect to see when I settle into a Ni no Kuni game. Anyway, the game quickly becomes much more of what everyone's used to when Roland finds himself in the middle of a coup as Evan, the cat-eared young king of Ding Dong Dell, is being overrun by assassins and soldiers sent by his mouse adviser (In hindsight, probably something everyone should've seen coming). In response, Roland wields his modern sidearm to help get Evan out of the castle. Megatokyo may have been a lot of weeb garbage, but its joke about how foreigners see Americans as all having guns always on their person and will pull them on a whim is spot-on.

After a load of tutorials and setup, Roland decides to become Evan's adviser in building a new nation. This is no small task, considering they need an army, land, people, buildings, and a Kingmaker. A Kingmaker is a magical being kings control when they ascend the throne, and Evan's intended one was taken during the coup, so he has to find a brand new one. Conveniently, a group of sky pirates are in their way, and while they at first intend to rob and murder the duo, the pirates eventually come to be friends with them. Bandit chief Batu and his daughter Tabi join the cause while the bandits themselves become Evan's first troops.

The opening 6-7 hours are a bit of slow setup. Aside from Roland's brief introduction, most of it comes directly from the JRPG playbook and the constant world jumping that was a large part of the first game is nearly non-existent here. The overworld is a bit of a slog as there are a plethora of enemies on the screen, and all of them will chase after your slow self since you're at a low enough level and you . The battles are easy, but it takes so much time to get from one point to another and there are so many alternate routes with locked treasure chests and obviously powerful enemies that are meant for later that it can be irritating to dare take a look around and get the items you can collect. That said, the dungeon setup is fast-tracked though and every single enemy you fight is in-dungeon and switches directly to battle instead of transitioning to a different screen. Much of the opening still feel uninspired, though. Speaking of which, while Joe Hisaishi is god-tier and can make an entire albums of farts without changing his legacy, plenty of the first few tracks feel like ho-hum retreads from the score of the original. At least the battle themes are much improved.

Hold on, do not kill me yet. As the party travels to the gambling city Goldpaw, everything picks up in a hurry. The visuals cruising on standard JRPG locales begin to artistically bloom with lovely stained glass doors and reflective water. Hisaishi's score becomes swanky and something you don't hear out of the guy every day. While the plotline itself is predictable, the nation built on fortune is at least something unique. You begin to get to an experience level where the scrubs leave you alone and you can explore the world more freely, even if the paths you didn't travel on before are filled with even stronger enemies you probably don't want to mess with at the moment. Finally, the game's extra features begin to unfurl, breaking up the monotony of the first few hours.

It wouldn't be a surprise if the crew at Level 5 decided to borrow from another Namco Bandai property, the Tales of... series. Instead of recruiting enemies and having them fight with you while you act as support, it's the other way around. You fight with melee and long-ranged attacks in a fast-action brawl where you combo together attacks and build to use magical ones. To keep from spamming magical, screen-wide attacks, you have three melee weapons you switch between that need to be charged up in order for the magic to be used effectively. It's simple bordering on simplistic except for the optional enemies, but I do admit that I've switched tactics and had to think about my approach more than Tales of Berseria, if only because you have to jump to tag some enemies and walking up and bashing on certain others isn't a good idea. You also have little creatures called higglepiggleties that can be obtained through a variety of ways that can provide healing, attack, or support.

When you're building and supporting your kingdom, you need people to help you maintain and defend it. This is where it becomes a Suikoden endeavor of finding people and doing whatever side missions to get them to join you. Rather than being rotating members of your party, they keep the shops and services your kingdom has and work to get you better items, weapons, armor, that kind of thing. There are generals you can use to battle other armies (mostly bandits and monsters) where you go into a psuedo-tactical battle where and fight with masses of people. This one is also pretty simple. Keep your melee dudes up front and your archers and guns behind them for support. If you knock over enemy canons and similar installations, you can repair them and use them as your own. If you accidentally get too many troops killed, you can summon more at the cost of your overall army's strength. Nothing too heavy duty, but it and kingdom management add just enough variety to avoid tedium.

Approaching the game as a direct comparison to the original, the best fit would be Baten Kaitos Origins and how it had to follow up a commercial failure to launch a AAA franchise. It obviously had less money to work with (Though the English dub was far superior, oddly enough) and had many repeating elements to save on development costs, but they did what they could and made a solid prequel that could stand with its higher-budgeted predecessor. The original Ni no Kuni was set up to be a blockbuster in Japan and from all reports was anything but. Western money apparently salvaged it enough to make a sequel, but this time, many of the fancy trimmings are, well, trimmed. There are no more scenes animated by Ghibli themselves. Most of the cutscenes are handled by the in-game engine and some backstory is presented in still images that are given a few special effects. Palette-swapped enemies are much more of a common occurrence (And they were already common in the original). You'd think this would be a major downgrade, but the execution is far more of a wonder.

For one, the animation and graphics look fabulous. Yes, the computer-generated mouths on this aesthetic have NEVER looked right, but unlike the stiff CG animation in the Ghibli-produced-but-not-animated Ronia: The Bandit's Daughter, Level 5 has skilled artisans who can give plenty of articulation and life to the characters. The cutscenes lose none of their beauty without any extra oomf. The art design is terrific in parts and makes one look forward to the circular sands, iron trees, aging docks, or whatever the adventure has in store. The overworld has an interesting detail where the characters are given an odd 3D model that looks like it was taken from a PlayStation One era title. I'm guessing this was the makers putting their own nostalgia into their work rather than the Dragon Quest presence that was occasionally visible in the original.

Along with looking great, the gameplay is pretty snappy. The controls are responsive and the battles are slick with polish, even if they're easy enough to succeed with no thought. Sure, the bosses and special enemies are a little trickier, but nothing you'll be slamming your head on the table about unless you REALLY aren't paying attention to level numbers. The military skirmishes and kingdom management aren't terribly taxing either, but they work.

Individual pieces of Hisaishi's score are fantastic orchestral earworms that stretch his repertoire while the overall feeling on his music for the game is about par for his work.  Mostly, the town music is wonderful, the dungeon themes are meh, and everything else is balanced. It should be noted there is a weird bug where the music will cut out permanently until you restart the game, and ironically, one of the triggers is the music test you can eventually build in your kingdom. How does THAT happen? English voice acting is as superb as the original, but there is less of it. Scenes will distractingly dip in and out from full line readings to just giving a single noise that's in the ballpark of what's being expressed. It's nothing too concerning as it is simply trying to keep the same quality of its predecessor with much less money.

What it does keep from the, "Everything successful has to be Dragon Quest" parts of the game is the personality. There are puns and plays on words abound from a crafting item called Oasis Wonderwater to villagers given such name as Min Ti and Bao Wao. It's still fun even it it occasionally makes me shout, "GET OUT!" at a video game. What the original had over the more famous franchise is the emotional pull of the story. I've played through roughly half of the DQ games and I have maybe given two craps about what happens in any of them. Matching up such a sturdy setup with a legendary quest attached to a boy's journey through grief and discovery of who his mother really was what helped the formula really take off. Sadly, the largest aspect holding Revenant Kingdom back is the epic doesn't quite hit the uppercuts its predecessor did and the characters themselves aren't as strong.

The pleasures in the sequel are smaller.  The main storyline is rarely anything above average, but the individual vignettes within it reach rare emotional power (The reveal on your trip to Hydropolis is a weird kind of heartbreak). It doesn't even deal with Evan as a character that well. This is a kid who just lost his father, his home, and is trying to build an entire kingdom from scratch. I don't care how bold he is, there have to be some cracks in his personality and if there's any company related to portraying the vulnerable humanity of children in a fantastic and overwhelming experience while keeping their heroism intact, it's Ghibli. Alas, no. He's the brave and determined brave main character. The supporting cast don't leave too much of an impression. Kingmaker Lofty is a knockoff of Drippy while Tani is a flying pirate girl who would be an awesome heroine in any Miyazaki movie but rarely gets her moments here.

Along with the slightly underwhelming characters, the quests will occasionally lose momentum and get lost in padding that feel like jokes that didn't quite scan. What if I told you there was a multi-faceted quest that takes hours involving fighting a dragon as well as an army, and is all for the sake of getting access to a library card? On paper, that's pretty funny; in action, it feels like a drag on the pacing. Make no mistake, this is a MAIN quest. Even the missions of proper weight have two unnecessarily extra steps or more making this come off as a minor title attempting to bulk itself up artificially to be more impressive in review descriptions.

After so much time spent doing the critic thing, though, all these complaints add up to explaining why it's merely a really good game and not a classic. Even as the obvious little brother of the series, it's fun, aesthetically beautiful, and is an experience you can disappear into for hours, even if it's only to "collect" new members of your kingdom and build up a gold reserve. I imagine anyone who likes the original will find  plenty to enjoy here. It's not something I will ever list on my favorite games ever, but I'm certainly glad I went through Revenant Kingdom. It manages to turn the trick of taking plenty of what I loved from the original (Mostly, the feeling that you're playing an animated adventure) and making me not mind one bit.


On that note, it is time I take my leave of Infinite Rainy Day. After four years and being one of the original members, it has been decided the site should end new updates and this will be my last review and possibly the last article on this site. I wish I had somewhere else to point you to, but I'm something of a ronin reviewer going wherever my services are needed and not essentially talking to myself. I do enough of that. What I'm really working on I want to keep private as I've had people steal my ideas before. It's not fun. To hear from me again, you can follow me at my totally original Twitter handle @JoeStraatmann. There you can probably hear me piss and moan about how Full Metal Panic! Invisible Victory is so dour and depressing. If you have something for me, feel free to drop a line. I'll be around.

I want to thank Dark for this opportunity, my follow writers for the memories, and the readers who actually looked at these walls of poorly-edited blather and said, "Yeah, this is all right." It may seem like a tiny endeavor to do this anime blog thing, but it was actually a monumental task in fighting my personal issues. I have adult ADHD, and when I was starting to get a career in writing, it starting eating words to the point where I couldn't find basic terms when I needed them. My mind had burned every stairway to my expression and even putting together a paragraph was a monumental task. Still is kinda', but I've found solutions aside from taking medication that makes me far too groggy to operate and I can live this writing life again, even if my perfectionist side finds a couple typos I made two days after the article's been published, sending me into I a panic attack. I'm back to being productive with what used to be an impossible struggle, and that's genuinely an accomplishment for me (Don't let your inferiority complex try to overly humble this, Joseph. Just let yourself give you a compliment for decent work). Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you again so I can buy ya'll hot chocolate or something. Farewell for now.


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