For an odd reason, developer Level-5 thought the bridging character for Ni No Kuni II needed to be president of an unknown country (America, obvs), and that once he landed in the world of Ni No Kuni II -- after a nuclear strike hits the city he’s heading towards for a summit, obvs -- he no longer needed to be an old man, but rather now a young pony-tailed sword-wielding, gun-toting handsome badass. Because JRPG.
What’s even weirder is this sort of only plays itself out to justify that character -- Roland’s -- enlightened sense of leadership. That he so quickly adapts to his new role in this game as protector of a half cat half human boy king who's been usurped is equally ridiculous, and once you accept these facts, Ni No Kuni II presents itself as an awesome, engaging and combat-focused JRPG that sort of makes up its own rules as it plays out. Because JRPG.
Naturally presentation here is king. This is collaborative design with Studio Ghibli, after all. But the high level of graphical polish in Ni No Kuni II is only a quarter of the picture. The game’s combat, as mentioned in my intro, is one of the game’s most engaging pillars and is something I’ll get to in a moment. The other quarter is its charm. And it’s not an expected charm because of the game’s outlandish Japanese storytelling or characterisation, it’s because the English translation of the game has gone above and beyond to add to the oddity of it all. Different regional groups and characters have unique accents that include various levels of English in the cockney space, Aussie, Scot, Welsh and more. And they don’t hold back on this at all.
The final piece of this whole is in the length of time it takes to get the full gameplay picture on offer. Our review is incredibly delayed for two reasons: One, the game kept us in effective tutorial mode beyond the 20-hour mark. Because JRPG. This meant in order to review the game properly, I had to put in the serious hard yards. And the second reason is because a few other, less time-intensive distractions
also required precious review and play time. Oh woe is me.
For the JRPGers out there, the Ni No Kuni games, and specifically this one, borrow most heavily from Namco Bandai’s brilliant “Tales of” series. For non JRPGers still interested in the Ghibli side of all of this, the game is best described as an initially linear experience with three gameplay parts: overworld exploration, interior exploration and combat. However, it begins to carve out its own legacy through the addition of a mini tactical ‘siege’ sub-game, and a completely addictive kingdom-building metagame. Actually, it’s not entirely meta as the end game relies on you building your kingdom, but it’s very much a disparate gameplay addition to everything else on offer. At about 80 hours in, I was finally in a position to assume the game had settled on all of its parts and that I knew what to expect moving forward.
So yeah, it’s a big game. Massive in fact. But the fun in this is how you go about playing with all of the tools Level-5 gives you. I mentioned earlier that it initially starts out as a bit linear, but the whole thing eventually opens up for you, and a gameplay loop that features kingdom-building (truncated by the need for coffers, equally truncated by the number of citizens you have), citizen recruiting and the usual “please help me” quest requests from NPCs fills out your basic investment. The game-world itself has a number of unique kingdoms, and your goal at its most basic level is to have them sign a “declaration if interdependence” to essentially build a JRPG fantasy game-world UN, of sorts. The big bad who usurped the young boy king, Evan, is obviously your end game goal in terms of defeating him and claiming your rightful place as not only the ruler of Ding Dong Dell (yep, that’s its name), where the coup actually took place, but also as to be the benevolent leader who united all the kingdoms under a single purpose of peace and prosperity. What’s interesting is our real-world bridging character, Roland, cuts deep a number of times with hard real-world truths, but the game never shies from being one of cock-eyed optimism for absolute utopia. Even if that means being a subject to an empire. But hey, no point getting all political on a game that has half cat half human people. It’s all in the name of fun.
Combat all takes place in real-time, and you can avoid most conflict if you choose. However, as with most JRPGs it’s also worth grinding encounters to get your party leveled up. You’ll pick up various loot post-conflict, some of which is immediately usable such as new weapons, items of clothing or cures. Everything else eventually becomes crafting material and while it’s all very easy to come by, once you’ve set up your research centres for weapons, armour and more in your kingdom, it gets used up pretty quickly. So you’ll want to continually walk over those sparkly bits strewn about the playspace. Or pick fights with skeleplasms and co.
Another unique component to the game is in “Higgledies”. These are weird, very Ghibli, little creatures that can help you in combat. They have personalities and work together in groups to give you an edge in battle -- whether that means one particular colour type is building cannons for you, or sharing a healing circle to keep you and the team in the fight, they’re always helpful. You can’t spam them, either, so while the game’s combat does look and feel a bit hectic at times, there’s still a heavy emphasis on being tactical with your movement, magic management and how you utilise your Higgledies. You can also recruit new Higgledies from “Higgledy statues” peppered about the game-world, or even bake new ones in your Higglery (where you can also level them up).
Ni No Kuni II starts out traditionally enough -- it tropes a lot of the tried and tested JRPG blueprint, but eventually breaks (somewhat) free of this and lays its own path. It’s an absolutely stunning game marred -- at times -- by an oft overzealous soundtrack in certain spaces. Goldpaw, where you’ll spend a lot of your time early on in the piece, has a particularly annoying audio theme that is never subtle but… it’s manageable. Where the game truly triumphs, however, is in its delivery of unique gameplay tilts that still rely on one another to grow and all are needed to be fleshed out to get to that sweet end game content. If you have a spare 100 hours or so, you could do a lot worse than this. If you don’t, its ever-long pacing means it’s not at all hard to pick and play in increments. Absolutely recommended.