If you turned around and made your average 10 year old king (or queen) for a day, you can imagine the kinds of royal decrees they'd make - limitless sweets, endless school holidays, no more bedtimes - that kind of thing. Maybe even a puppy or two. But not young Evan, the star of Ni No Kuni II - instead, he wishes for something much nobler - and much more grown up. Peace, in his time. Far from a happy go lucky prince, Evan is a boy with responsibilities - and with his father having been poisoned, his pseudo mother figure giving her life to save him, and a nefarious rodent creature setting his army on the poor child, you could argue he's been having a bit of a bad week.
You see, things are a tad… unsettled in the fantasy realm of Ding Dong Dell, to say the least. Still reeling from the loss of his father, Evan's left spooked when a mysterious stranger seemingly appears out of nowhere in his room. Ordering his guards to capture the intruder, he instead ends up with the shock of his life when the guards go to attack him instead - and the mysterious stranger is the one who saves his life. Turns out one of Evan's most trusted advisors, Chancellor Mausinger, has just launched a coup to take the kingdom for his own - and young Evan only just manages to escape with his life. Left destitute, and without a kingdom to call his own, Evan is desperate to get his revenge - but not in the traditional sense. Instead, together with the visitor from another world Roland, the two set about creating their own rival kingdom, where people can live 'happily ever after'. With blackjack and hookers.
But great kingdoms don't just pop up overnight, and Evan has his work cut out for him. In order to create a kingdom, he'll need to find his own little corner of the world, win people over to his cause, and eventually, defend the realm from a growing evil that threatens to destroy more than just the fledgling kingdom of Evermore. Oh, and there's also plenty of pressing matters to attend to, too - like who gets to run the fish market.
In the beginning, then, Ni No Kuni II is a very traditional, and very colourful Japanese role-playing game - a story-driven jaunt across the fantastical kingdom, as Evan and his growing band of chums figure out their best plan of attack. Whether its rescuing a sky pirate damsel in distress, getting back a forest that was lost in a crooked gambling game, or picking out the perfect place to build your new kingdom, you'll meet all kinds of colourful characters, take on powerful bosses, and explore every corner of the vast and varied land.
Much like the previous Ni No Kuni game, and many of Level-5's other role-playing adventures, it's all wrapped up in a charming little tale, full of regional accents galore - it's proper tidy, like. There's no necessity to have played the original Ni No Kuni either as Ni No Kuni II is it's own standalone adventure, with a new story and a new cast of characters, although there are a few nods and references to the original scattered throughout.
As you make your way from A to B, you'll come across many a creature spoiling for a fight - and this is where Ni No Kuni II parts ways with its predecessor the most. Gone are the semi-turn-based, semi-real-time battles, and more disappointingly, gone are the Pokemon-style familiars you could call into battle - instead replaced by a much more streamlined, button-mashing affair. However, there's more to fighting nasties than just swinging your sword around, and Ni No Kuni II has two important factors to consider, namely Zing and Higgledies.
Courtesy of a magical bracelet known as an Arms Band, each character in Ni No Kuni II can equip not one, not two, but three melee weapons at once, and cycling between them is the key to getting the edge over your opponents. As you land hits, no matter which weapon you're using, all of your weapons' Zing meters will increase - and when one tops out at 100%, it'll add extra damage or effects to the next skill you unleash, be it a massive fireball spell, or a lightning fast set of sword strikes. Once you've used the skill, the Zing meter on that weapon will drop to zero, so you'll want to keep chopping and changing round your weapons to build up the gauges and exploit them for maximum damage. Add in an extra ranged weapon you can fire off when enemies are a distance away, as well as all the aforementioned skills/spells you have at your disposal, and combat can turn into a bit of a fireworks display of flashing lights, magic spells and over the top attacks - a serious combat simulator this ain't.
Higgeldies, meanwhile, are a much cuter addition to your arsenal than the endless swords, spears and mallets. These little fairy sprite creatures are, in the words of Ni No Kuni II's resident Higgeldy expert, 'natural phenomena that decided to grow legs and heads and walk about', and there's a hundred scattered across the kingdom to find. Each Higgeldy has their own special abilities you can call on in battle by running over to the cheering group of jelly babies (for some reason, they seem to dramatically multiply into groups in battle), and pressing the X button, at which point they may fire off their own little cannon, hurl a massive black hole spell at an enemy, or simply set up a healing circle to restore your health. Different Higgeldies have different abilities you can exploit, although you can only take four into battle with you at once - but certain combinations of Higgeldies will earn you extra bonuses too, so it's well worth trying to collect 'em all, and play around with your party.
Where Ni No Kuni II takes its biggest detour from its predecessor comes much later though, at around chapter four, some 15 or so hours in. Once young Evan has got all the preliminary bits and pieces in place, its time to start building a kingdom worthy of the Pettiwhisker name - and that means building and upgrading various facilities, recruiting and assigning citizens to various jobs, and researching new technology and techniques to help you on your quest. For example, during the main story, you'll need to learn how to cast the bridge spell to get across a canyon, which requires you to build a Spellworks, befriend a girl with the magical know-how, and persuade her to join your kingdom (by killing a number of monsters), then setting her to work in your Spellworks to research the new spell. Different citizens have different specialities, and each works best when placed in the relevant building - but new faces often require you to complete a little side quest for them first, before they'll join your blossoming kingdom. Even if it is only usually a matter of defeating a certain enemy, or bringing them a particular item, each character seems unique enough it doesn't feel like too much of a chore. Because the kingdom building directly feeds into Evan's main quest, it never feels like unnecessary padding either, as you're always working towards better gear for your party, new magic spells or better Higgeldies (courtesy of the Higgeldy Higglery - try saying that five times fast!), which is nice.
About the only time Ni No Kuni II ever comes a bit unstuck is in its Skirmish battles - a series of large scale, army vs army battles where Evan and co take on various enemy/monster commanders. Different friendly units will circle around Evan as he strolls across the battlefield, and its up to you to rotate through them as you encounter enemy units, exploiting the simplistic rock-paper-scissors style strengths and weaknesses of different unit types to ensure that whoever's leading your battalion is strong against the enemy they'll be going head to head with.
However, after an initial tutorial hand-holding Skirmish, the game sends you off on your merry way with no mention of them again for a good long while - whilst silently filling the map with other side Skirmishes you can dabble in if you want. Distracted by shinier, more entertaining things, like looking for Higgeldies, infiltrating a crooked dice factory and recruiting a seamstress, which seemed much more pressing - BAM - a few hours later, it turns out those Skirmishes weren't entirely optional after all, and you were meant to be completing them to train your army up, ready for the compulsory story Skirmish that follows. There's nothing wrong with the Skirmishes per se, they're just a little on the dull side comparatively, and putting in the time to plough through all the encounters and level up your troops pales in comparison to all the other tasks you have on your to do list.
While we do miss all the different familiars and their puntastic names, and we're not quite as smitten with Evan and co as we were with Oliver from the original game (sassy fairy Mr. Drippy is particularly missed), Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is still a damn fine role playing adventure, and well worth a look. The redesigned battle system is a God send, making whooping that unsuspecting whamster much less of a fumble than in the original game, while the funky kingdom building is really just the icing on the cake. One minute you'll find yourself worrying about the dodgy dealings of a maybe-mouse-maybe-weasel bad guy, and the next you'll be off trying to find enough thread to lure the seamstress to Evermore - and before you know it, an entire afternoon has gone by. Just the way we like it.
Format Reviewed: PC