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The first Ni no Kuni was a very divisive game. Some loved the visuals and charming storyline, while other complained about the clunky battle system and lack of challenge. Ni no Kuni is one of our favourite JRPGs on the PS3 even with its shortcomings and we were excited when Level 5 began work on a sequel. And yet, after many delays, Ni no Kuni II has little of what made the first game so enjoyable.
Taking place hundreds of years after the first game, Ni no Kuni II opens with secondary protagonist Roland being transported to another world. Here he meets Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, next in line to rule the kingdom of Ding Dong Dell. Not long after his arrival the kingdom is taken over by the mouse race, forcing Evan and Roland to flee. This marks the start of Evan’s journey to create his own kingdom with the help of Roland.
The opening hour of Ni no Kuni II is fantastic, wasting no time introducing its key characters and motivations. Compared to the first game, which took its time to get going, this was a breath of fresh air. The opening few hours are extremely promising. This quick pace continues through the rest of the story, but this ends up being to the game’s detriment. The story moves so quickly that there is often little time spent on new characters that it introduces and anything that happens is usually over so quickly that it’s hard to be invested in the world of Ni No Kuni II.
Taking just under 30 hours to finish the main story, the game is very short and somehow still padded out with sidequests and other menial tasks. The cast of characters you meet during the game is generally decent, though most of your party will see relatively little screen time overall. Evan and Roland are the best characters out of everyone in Ni no Kuni II, but even they suffer from the overly quick story that fails to capitalise on the potential for character development.
The biggest offender when it comes to pacing is the kingdom building system. Early in the game Even establishes the kingdom of Evermore and sets out to recruit new citizens to live there. Evermore can be expanded using kingsguilders that are generated in real time or given as rewards from citizen requests. As you build more, the amount of kingsguilders you generate increases, incentivising you to keep checking on your kingdom to make further upgrades.
Buildings require citizens with certain skills to be able to research new beneficial effects for your kingdom or party, so you’ll often be running around trying to complete a ton of sidequest to add more people to your kingdom. Between unlocking new characters and upgrading your kingdom, the game starts to feel like busywork more than actual fun. It doesn’t help that most sidequests consist of either handing over a certain item or killing a certain monster. Some have a little more depth to them, but you’ll generally be treated more as an errand boy than a king.
Expanding Evermore is a fairly quick process at first, but slows down considerably once you level up the castle for the first time. Rather than being something you have to plan out in advance, kingdom building feels like a glorified idle game. You have to wait for kingsguilders to generate, you have to wait for research to be completed, you have to wait for items to be collected. By the end of the game we had a large kingdom with many buildings and citizens, but it didn’t feel like we had accomplished anything. Having to check up on Evermore all the time to make sure we didn’t cap out on kingsguilders or to see if research had been completed removed any possible attachment we could have had to the kingdom Evan was building.
Another misstep is the change in battle systems compared to the first game. Ni no Kuni II opts to go with real-time battles, though they’re still not what we’d consider action pact for the most part. Each character has a light, heavy and ranged attack, along with blocking, dodging and access to four skills that can be changed outside of battle. The battle system starts off promising, if a little simple. The problem is there there are fundamental flaws with battles that mean they have little actual variety.
MP is used to perform ranged attacks during battle, which is generated by attacking enemies with your melee weapons. However, the more powerful special attacks also use MP, meaning that ranged attacks are essentially redundant for most battles. You also take three melee weapons into battle, which charge up their “Zing” meters as you attack. Once full, using that weapon for a special attack will cause it to become more powerful. The problem with this is that you will likely only switch weapons once one is fully charged, then switch back to your strongest one straight after. This system has little purpose other than to justify the massive amounts of equipment that you acquire during the game and it doesn’t makes battles any more tactical.
There are also a couple more features during battles that make little sense. Higgledies, little sprites that take the place of familiars from the first game, join you in battles but are not controlled by the player. They can attack enemies, cast spells on allies and even buff your special attacks if you have to right amount of a certain type of higgledy. The issue with them is that there is really little incentive to get new higgledies or upgrade them, since battles are so easy that they’ll be over before a higgledy can even do anything. Bosses are the only fights where you’ll see use from this system, but even then the difference between low and high level higgledies is negligible.
Another new addition are skirmishes, battles fought in the overworld between armies. You control Evan and four squads that circle around him, with squads automatically attacking if they are close enough. Certain units are more effective against others which is where most of this mode’s strategy is. Units can be rotated around Evan depending on what enemy type you are facing and each squad has a special ability that can help turn the tide of battle. These skirmishes are a novel concept but end up offering little challenge and most battles require you to do little more than wipe out squads of enemies then replenish any troops you lost. As long as your level is around the recommended one, there is no need for tactics or really and thought when it comes to what units you take into battle.
Thankfully, the fantastic visuals and soundtrack the first game was known for are still intact here. In fact, Ni no Kuni II has some of the nicest visuals for a current gen JRPG, easily surpassing its predecessor. Towns are visually distinct and are fun to explore the first time you visit them and the main dungeons are expansive even if there aren’t many overall. It’s a shame that the removal of familiars caused a massive drop in the variety of enemies you face, leaving only a handful of decent monster designs that are recoloured and resized far too often. The first game had many great monster designs, something that is only really matched during the biggest boss fights in Ni no Kuni II.
It’s also worth noting the small amount of voice acting, something that is noticeable very early on. For how little story content there actually is, you’d think that the majority of it would at least be voiced. The story honestly feels unfinished, like they had to cut scenes out here and there to try and have the game ready for launch after it had already been delayed many times.
Ni no Kuni II could have been something special. A more active battle system combined with the whimsical setting of the first game, it sounds like something that should have worked. However, the majority of new gameplay elements added into the game are unnecessary at best and the story fails to stay interesting after the excellent opening sequence. For all negativity, Ni no Kuni II isn’t a bad game. It’s just far too average at most things it does, lacking the sense of adventure its predecessor had and ultimately being a weak sequel overall.
The review is based on the PlayStation 4 version and the video was captured via PS4 Pro.