*This review originally appeared at wizarddojo.com*
A kingdom reborn…
The original Ni No Kuni, Wrath of the White Witch, is not only one of my favourite games on what is arguably my favourite Sony console, but it is arguably the greatest modern JRPG in recent memory – ranking meteorically high amongst the small repertoire of contemporary greats. With its brilliantly realized world – complimented with gorgeously animated sequences produced by the masterful Studio Ghibli –, an exquisite musical score co-composed by the brilliant Joe Hisaishi, a Tales meets Pokémon battle system, and a surprisingly poignant narrative that resonates on multiple accords, Wrath of the White Witch is a rare treat of an RPG that never fails to impress. Its sequel, Revenant Kingdom, takes a number of steps forward -establishing some new ideas while polishing the original’s foundation – but questionably stumbles in other areas, arguably taking a few steps backwards. Studio Ghibli’s involvement is objectively non-existent, exposition is divulged in extensive text-based dialogue sequences, the intuitive hybrid active/turn-based system is entirely replaced by a simplistic, yet fun, action-based combat system, and its narrative is disappointingly shallow in comparison to the original’s emotional brilliance. Despite its disappointing nature, Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is an undeniably fun experience that is exceptionally beautiful and surprisingly engaging. Revenant Kingdom never reaches the resonating heights of its predecessor but manages to establish an aura of its own, thanks to its fantastic world-building and unexpected level of gameplay variance.
Revenant Kingdom borrows many poignant elements from the original’s narrative and executes them in a relatively lacklustre manner. While its coming-of-age story mirrors the original’s sense of loss, wonder, adventure, and identity, its narrative elements are never fully realized and result in a rather unsatisfactory narrative experience. There is little to no empathetic value with Revenant Kingdom as the story simply focuses on building a new kingdom, recruiting inconsequential citizens, and helping other kingdoms solve their personal affairs. It simply pales in comparison to the emotional tale of two worlds that Wrath of the White Witch beautifully encapsulated. While a tangible “real” world and a sense of emotional depth are present to a certain degree, its overall execution never evolves beyond its shallow beginnings and leaves much to be desired. Revenant Kingdom’s supporting cast is undeniably strong as personalities such as the inspiring techno-buff Bracken, the benevolent yet rambunctious pirate Tani, and the altruistic Roland add an exceptional layer of charm, resulting a supporting cast that is arguably better than its predecessor. The protagonist, Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, is painfully derivative and severely lacks Oliver’s sense of resolve, empathy, and growth in Wrath of the White Witch. Evan shows little to no character development or sense of personal struggle, as each momentous goal is achieved swimmingly with little resistance – his notable turning point even occurs within the game’s inaugural moments. He’s not necessarily a bad character, he’s simply a boring one, adding to Revenant Kingdom’s disappointing nature. While its omission of Studio Ghibli’s animated work is a tragic development choice, Revenant Kingdom still manages to boast an exceptionally beautiful world, capturing the essence established by Level-5 and Studio Ghibli in Wrath of the White Witch. Its vivid, yet idiosyncratic art style is a notable staple in the series and Revenant Kingdom’s illustriously designed world is an undeniable highlight that sets it apart from the competition. It authentically feels like a fantastical world plucked from the brilliant mind of Miyazaki, profusely exuding an unparalleled level of charm and beauty. Joe Hisaishi returns flaunting his musical prowess, complimenting Revenant Kingdom’s visual sense of beauty. Hisaishi’s score flares bombastic cries of brilliance but shies away from the poignantly melodic undertones of his previous repertoire. Each melodic note is profound and stout, and while his composition lacks a sense of somber variance, it’s still a beautiful work of art nonetheless.
Revenant Kingdom makes some monumental gameplay changes that initially seem obtuse and incongruent, but slowly develops itself into an intriguing package of gameplay variance and combat depth. Replacing the original’s methodical hybrid of turn-based and active combat, Revenant Kingdom boasts an entirely new action based combat system, ripe with hot-keyed special attacks and elementary flourishes of light and heavy attacks. At first, as with any other RPG, combat bears simplistic tendencies, slowly unravelling layers of depth and complexity as new systems and special attacks are added with time. While combat, and Revenant Kingdom’s overall sense of difficulty, is absurdly easy at times, plenty of added challenge is mixed into the bunch through optional higher levelled enemy encounters and the late-game content. Once each mechanic and character is appropriately introduced, combat transcends into an orchestrated amalgamation of strategy, micromanagement, dexterity, and reaction. Optional dungeons, known as the Dreamer’s Doors, provide the much-needed level of challenge that Revenant Kingdom’s core gameplay severely lacks. The more time spent exploring the dungeon, the more difficult the enemies become; however, enemies drop orbs that can be traded with statues to lower their difficulty level – just keep in mind that the number of orbs required will increase with each trade you make. It creates a fantastic dynamic of risk and reward as straying off the beaten path will increase your time, raising the enemy difficulty, but in return, could lead to rare resources, weapons, armor, and/or accessories. With their procedurally generated nature, the increasing level of difficulty, and the random effects that alter each floor, the Dreamer’s Door is an exquisite addition that is unabashedly challenging and exceptionally rewarding, it’s a system that arguably puts Revenant Kingdom above its processor. Another new implementation to the combat system is the introduction of Higgledies, the informal replacement of Wrath of the White Witch’s excellent familiars. These colourful little creatures boast specific elemental attributes that aid the player in combat, with most enhancements providing a passive buff so their overall contribution feels seamless and even non-existent at times. Each group of Higgledies can be activated during battle to perform an offense attack or provide support such as healing effects or resistances to certain elements and ailments. It’s a competent system that simply never lives up to the level of variance and freedom that the familiar system offered in Wrath of the White Witch.
On top of the traditional combat system, Revenant Kingdom also introduces Skirmishes, another novel mechanic to the series. In Skirmishes, Evan takes the role of a military commander, ordering his Kingdom’s units into battle to attack or defend against malevolent forces that pose a threat to his Kingdom. Each unit is individually levelled, and its own specialization (sword, spear, hammer, bow/gun, and shield) and abilities. Four units take position around Evan and can be manually rotated so the that correct unit is placed against the corresponding enemy type. It’s a simple mechanic that provides an immense amount of strategy and depth, resulting in a challenging experience that the core combat system severely lacks. The last major shake-up in the game department is Revenant Kingdom’s excellent micromanaging kingdom building system. Here players can build and upgrade different facilities that provide an abundant amount of various resources, raw materials, consumable items, weapons, armor, accessories, and new Higgledies, while passively earning Kingsguilder (currency). Facilities can also provide enhancements in battle and exploration such as the ability to learn new magical abilities, increasing the strength and proficiency of combat units, or navigational aid for exploring the Dreamer’s Doors. The more facilities are managed, the more Kingsguilder you will receive, in which allows you to build more facilities, upgrade your existing ones, and/or upgrade your kingdom itself, providing a satisfying cycle of sorts. However, facilities do not provide any benefits whatsoever unless they are managed by citizens, which brings us to Revenant Kingdom’s recruiting system. Some characters will automatically join your Kingdom to further the plot but there over 100 other characters that can be recruited by completing various side quests. Citizen recruitment elevated even the most trivial side quests as each citizen rewarded was far more valuable than any other item received. Each citizen also has a particular specialization, resulting in improved production if they are placed in the appropriate facility. Some citizens are proficient at the weaponsmith and will allow Evan to craft the next tier of weapons, while another could speed up the production rate of ore when placed in the mining camp. It’s a brilliant system of micromanaging that gives side quests a novel sense of satisfaction and purpose.
With three major pillars of gameplay – core combat, skirmishes, and kingdom building – and the traditional exploration that ties the three together, Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom excels at providing a versatile gameplay experience that rivals the flexible nature of Nier: Automata. Combat is fast, visceral, and satisfying – exploration of the Dreamer’s Doors is a particular highlight. Skirmishes provide a methodical experience of strategy and challenge, a welcomed breather from the traditional action-based combat. Kingdom building is an excellent system of micromanagement that not only provides benefits for your kingdom, in combat, and exploration, but breathes a new sense of purpose in side quests through citizen recruitment. It’s a shame that Revenant Kingdom’s narrative counterpart is not on the same level of its gameplay, nor does it meet the high standards established in Wrath of the White Witch. Its sense of world building is just as fantastic as the original and its slew of supporting personalities is arguably stronger than its predecessor, but its story lacks the emotive punch that made the original so beloved. It dances around the idea of two worlds existing simultaneously but disappointingly enough, we are unable to travel between worlds and see how the changes of one will affect the other – an integral plot and gameplay device from the original. Despite its narrative shortcomings and the omission of Studio Ghibli, Revenant Kingdom is still a visual and audible work of art as the vibrantly crafted world and Joe Hisaishi’s brilliant musical score are nothing short of astounding. With over 60 hours invested into Revenant Kingdom, I was able to complete the main story, a handful of Dreamer’s Doors, and only recruited around 80 citizens – there is still so much do to and so much to see in this fantastical world. Preconceived notions set aside, Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is a great RPG ripe with a fantastic amount of versatile content, it’s an easy recommendation to anyone who loves a quality JRPG. While some new design changes hurt the overall experience to a certain degree, most differences construct a new foundation, for the better, that admittedly stands out amongst the competition. Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is not nearly as good as Wrath of the White Witch, but in the end, it doesn’t need to be.