Ni No Kuni II: hands-on preview

What will come as no surprise to anyone who played the previous Ni no Kuni game is that Revenant Kingdom looks beautiful. The art style can be described as a 3D implementation of the Studio Ghibli aesthetic; simple, clean character designs in gorgeously detailed, vibrant worlds. But Ni no Kuni II is a significant visual improvement on its predecessor. The first game looked good but, in a way, the Ghibli-directed animated cutscenes compensated for the rather wooden expressions of the in-game character models. The charm and personality of the characters was presented through the movies and excellent voice acting, and that was projected by the player onto the in-game representations. Ni no Kuni II requires no such aid. It has enough confidence in its in-game animation that the lack of the gorgeous anime sequences isn’t felt. The step up in hardware has been enough to imbue the 3D models with the emotion and expressiveness of the characters that the voice acting presents, and makes them feel more lifelike and engaging.

The world map has also benefited from the change in generations. The cute chibi versions of the characters that are portrayed when wandering around the world stand in contrast to the detailed landscape. There’s a real sense of depth to the world on display as you walk along a mountain range, surrounded by cliffs and ravines. This expansion of scale is reflected in almost every visual element of the game, from the more densely populated locales to the in-engine animated story sequences, and the chaos of the combat.

As a fan of the Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, I did harbour some misgivings about the sweeping changes that were promised for the PS4’s Revenant Kingdom. The classic strategic turn-based JRPG system has been replaced by a more action orientated real-time combat system. After the demo at TGS, I have a great deal more confidence in it, though just how much depth there will be to this new way of combat is something that will only really be answered when the game launches in January next year.

The fights take place in open 3D plains, with the player in control of the fox-eared protagonist Evan. Evan can use jumps, light and heavy attacks, long range magic attacks, and guard. He can also use groups of Pikmin-like characters (rather adorably called Higgledies) to buff himself, or attack the enemy, depending on their element. They can also independently attack and defeat smaller baddies. In my admittedly brief time with the game, however, it proved somewhat confusing. Determining what each element each group of Higgledies held, and how that was triggered, was not immediately obvious to me. This is something that would become clear with a little more time, but I actually enjoyed the chaotic nature of the combat.

While you focus your attacks on one enemy, the other members in your party fight independently. It’s enjoyable to swing the camera around during combat to see Roland laying into a monster, or your hordes of Higgledies bum-rushing a weak enemy. This opens up the possibility of splitting up enemies to fight them individually, or chasing down and focussing on monsters one at a time to defeat them quickly. I couldn’t see any ways to issue commands to members of my party, but perhaps that would add a level of complexity that it seems the new combat system is trying to move away from. The greater number of characters fighting onscreen makes the combat seem more frenetic and involved; though how well that incorporates complex strategy is yet to be seen.

It’s clear that Level-5 has tried to do something different with the game, whilst staying true to the tone of The Wrath of the White Witch. While that game was incredibly charming, the sequel strives to be grander. A larger scale to the story, more drama to the combat, and a greater depth to the world add up to the sense that this is a game that they hope will reach a bigger audience. It already looks the part, so much will depend on the strength of the story and if the combat continues to be entertaining and satisfying over the many hours you’ll likely be spending with the adventure. 2017 has been a strong year for Japanese games, and Ni no Kuni II looks to continue that trend into 2018.

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Written by Stevie L.

Stevie Lim is a man in Japan.

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