Saturday, February 9, 2019

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

Ni no Kuni II Revenant Kingdom cover art.jpg

The first entry of Japanese videogame developer Level-5’s Ni no Kuni (meaning “second country”) series on the Nintendo DS saw its conception as a celebration of the company’s tenth anniversary in 2010, although this would remain in Japan. However, an enhanced version of the game, Wrath of the White Witch saw its release the following year on the PlayStation 3, and did see international release, receiving acclaim within and without Japan. The following console generation in 2018, the second main entry of the franchise, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom released in Japan and overseas, proving to be one of the year’s best roleplaying games.

The game opens with the president of a country, Roland, en route to a peace summit, when a nuclear strike sends him to the eponymous otherworld, where he meets the King of Ding Dong Dell, Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, where a coup by the country’s rat population sees his throne usurped, and he travels his world to seek international aid, ultimately establishing a new nation, the subtitular Kingdom of Evermore. The story is somewhat enjoyable, given the degree of anthropomorphic characters, but somewhat falls prey to Animal Jingoism, and, much like fellow Level-5 title Dark Cloud 2, Defeat Means Friendship. The translation is one of Bandai-Namco’s better efforts, aside from the lazy decision to keep the series name in Japanese, when most characters aside from the residents of Goldpaw are non-Asian, and is rife with puns akin to contemporary Dragon Quest localizations. Generally, the narrative isn’t a burden.

Rather than build upon or rehash its predecessor’s gameplay, Revenant Kingdom instead follows the Final Fantasy school of sequel design, completely eschewing its precursor’s monster-collecting-focused system in lieu of an alternate action-oriented engine akin to Square-Enix’s Star Ocean series, which for the most part isn’t a bad thing. Enemies on the overworld serving as a hub for towns and dungeons have indicators indicating their average levels compared to the player’s party, with lower-level antagonists not giving chase to Evan and his allies. Dungeons, on the other hand, serve as fighting grounds for foes within them rather than separate screens like overworld encounters.

Luckily, regardless of the location of combat, fights tend to be quick affairs, with difficulty adjustable any time outside battel accommodating inexperienced and seasoned players, higher challenge settings accounting for better rewards after battles have ended, although upping the risk of combat, at least in this reviewer’s experience, is recommended only against weaker adversaries. Elemental creatures known as Higgledies aid in combat, with four “leaders” at a time able to help in battle, and being customizable once the player begins managing Evermore with special facilities. However, they certainly don’t mean the difference between victory and defeat, at least in my experience on the Normal difficulty setting (the easiest option), and most gamers will find tinkering with the system tedious.

When characters level, the player gains a point they can use to manipulate a matrix dictating elemental strengths and weaknesses, effectiveness of combat against specific enemy types, reward emphasis upon victory, and so forth, to which those who play on higher difficulties might want to pay attention. Each character can equip three melee weapons and one ranged weapon at a time, with each of the former having percentages that augment during strikes against enemies, with 100% meaning the highest effectiveness for equipped skills, the percent consequentially dropping to zero. Character abilities and ranged attacks consume magic points, which gradually replenish with physical strikes, although certain consumable items allow for faster restoration.

Unlike its predecessor yet like certain RPGs such as Konami’s Suikoden franchise, Ni no Kuni II sports an additional mode of combat, skirmishes, which are at times necessary to advance the storyline, Evan able to command four squads encircling him that the player can “muster” prior to an engagement, with the strategy of Rochambeau strength and weakness playing part. Before these conflicts, the player can pay Kingsguilders (the currency necessary to maintain Evermore) to increase reserve strength, unlock a hard mode for battles, and so forth. In these fights, player moves Evan and his rotatable squadrons across a battlefield, with the defeat of enemy units acquiring experience for sporadic leveling.

Fortunately, most of the time, if the player loses units, they can replenish them as long as they have reserve strength, with other factors to consider such as a tension gauge that depletes when they have Evan and his forces dash across the battlefield (actually necessary in the final skirmish) or go all-out against the enemy, although this meter gradually replenishes. A good anti-frustration feature is that defeat in a skirmish doesn’t revoke experience gained for squadrons, with the player able to further affect skirmishes through facilities and research purchasable when maintaining Evermore (as they can for normal battles, as well).

As implied, the player can maintain Evan’s Kingdom of Evermore, gradually accumulating special currency called Kingsguilders as in-game time elapses, necessary to construct new facilities such as shops, upgrade them, research things such as producible weapons and armor, and, which is necessary to advance the plot towards the end, upgrade the kingdom to expand its territory. The gameplay systems overall come together well, with only minor issues regarding the AI; while the controlled character’s allies mostly do a good job staying out of trouble, they do rarely make idiotic decisions such as executing melee attacks against foes such as slimes that petrify themselves and consequentially nullify all physical damage received.

As also mentioned, Ni no Kuni II has minor pacing issues towards the end where Evan’s kingdom has to be of a certain level, along with Evermore’s weapon shop, so that the player can produce a plot-centric weapon necessary to advance. There are also some rare glitches, for instance, when the screen turns completely blank, leaving the player unable to see the game’s action and needing to reset, although fortunately, save opportunities are ample, with sporadic autosaving, not to mention the ability to use in-game maps to speed-jump to certain locations even while in the middle of a dungeon. In the end, the sequel interfaces well with the player.

Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi returns to compose the second game’s soundtrack, which is absolutely fantastic and has plenty of sweeping epic tracks, and rarely some diversional themes such as a techno version of one of the town tracks. There are some areas without music, although the voice acting, which is frequently minimal and consists of short phrases spoken by specific characters (although many scenes have full voicework), largely fills in the void, largely accounting for a game that is quite pleasant to the ears.

Ni no Kuni II is pleasing to the eyes as well, with Level-5 implementing their signature cel-shaded visuals, having a quick framerate that almost never drops and well-designed characters and enemies. There are occasional palette-swapped foes, not to mention rare environmental jaggies, but the graphics are among the best on the PlayStation 4.

Finally, the sequel takes about thirty hours to complete with a straightforward playthrough, although PlayStation trophies exist to bolster playing time.

To conclude, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, is, for the most part, what an RPG sequel to be, with most of its aspects being polished such as its superb gameplay systems, tight interaction, great localization, epic soundtrack, good voicework, beautiful graphics, and plentiful reasons to come back for more. There are some minor areas where it stumbles, such as the occasional glitch, even in the game’s latest version, a few endgame pacing issues, the hackneyed nature of the narrative, and maybe a couple of areas without music, but given that the gameplay is significantly different from its predecessor’s, even those who didn’t care much about the first game might find something to celebrate in its successor.

This review is based on a playthrough of a physical copy purchased by the reviewer, played from the beginning to the standard ending with 28% of trophies acquired mostly on Normal difficulty.

The Good:
+Excellent gameplay systems.
+Ample save opportunities and clear direction.
+Solid translation.
+Superb soundtrack and voice acting.
+Pretty visuals.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Some rare glitches.
-Pacing issues towards the end.
-Plot is somewhat hackneyed.
-A few areas without music.

The Bottom Line:
One of the strongest RPG releases of 2018.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 8/10
Story: 7/10
Localization: 9/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 9/10

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