I won’t lie; I found Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum immensely irritating. To be fair, the half-human, half-cat protagonist of Ni No Kuni 2 is the model JRPG hero I tend to find charming; a young boy making their way in the big world, with a heart as open as his eyes are wide in earnestness, happy to help make the world a better place. But Evan isn’t just some ordinary boy on an adventure — he’s a king, so you’re expecting a ruler who can look out for his citizens as well as broker relationships with other kingdoms. You know, grown-up stuff.
Indeed, Ni No Kuni 2 even sets itself out to be a more mature story, opening with a coup, betrayal and the death of loved ones, something George R R Martin would probably pen, though with a little more graphic violence. But rather than a story of vengeance, Evan moves forward with an optimistic goal of setting up a new kingdom with the syrupy fairytale name Evermore, while his bright idea to end all wars by ruling the world somehow sidesteps the Napoleonic connotations, instead opting for all the nations to sign up to his ‘declaration of interdependence’.
It just sounds so insufferably naive that after one too many mild-mannered interjections of “golly” and “excuse me,” I wanted to grab the young king by his cat ears and tell him to wake up. After all, how is anyone supposed to take any leader seriously who’s going to face complex global problems with simplistic platitudes?
Naturally, it’s hard not to relate with the current state of affairs in real life, what with Ni No Kuni 2 releasing within a week of the reminder that there’s just one year until Britain leaves the EU, and as it turns out, our leaders still haven’t got a clue save for the same old slogans and delusions. But in this case, perhaps my miserable, cynical self has gotten Evan wrong, as he’s more of a refreshing contrast to our incompetent government rather than a parallel.
Sure, the plot is inescapably over-idealistic, but perhaps I’ve also gotten so used to our trends of political corruption and deception in the corridors of power that I’ve dismissed the possibility (or audacity) of hope. Evan neither wants to cut himself off from the world’s problems or conquer it; instead, he takes the time to understand the other nations by helping them out with their problems, as it turns out a darker force has been corrupting the other rulers. Your kingdom is also explicitly built on immigrants, as you recruit people from all over the world, first by doing a favor for them before they join you as new citizens of Evermore. It’s a truly internationalist message of cooperation that puts our leaders to shame.
It’s a recurring theme I also find as I sit down to replay Persona 5, which has recently celebrated its one-year anniversary in the West. The story is more grounded in our world, albeit set in Japan, where the ‘shitty adults’ in power are corrupted, free to abuse the young and most vulnerable people in society while others are complicit in their silence or powerlessness to act.
In fact, seeing each of your characters awaken to their personas, explicitly fuelled by anger, reminds me of the Parkland survivors and other children across the US marching in their millions demanding for a change to gun laws (and I’m sure a change of heart if it existed — who wouldn’t want to steal Trump’s?). Sick of lies and corruption, all while being told to stay down and shut up, it’s a particularly topsy-turvy world when the children sound more grown-up than the adults in charge.
It’s telling that as the story progresses and the Phantom Thieves’ actions become more widespread, they’re also similarly dismissed and criticised by most adults, while all the slick live-action comic book feel of the Metaverse and the game UI may even reinforce the feeling that you’re ultimately kids indulging in an escapist fantasy dressing up as superheroes to get back at the grown-ups. Your roleplaying does sound like an immature solution to the world’s complicated problems, but when the so-called responsible adults in charge are so terribly failing the future generations, what else can be done? In recent years, we’ve already had our fill of old white protagonists from The Last Of Us to The Witcher 3, characters that seem to be most useful when the world’s already gone to shit. But we’re not quite there yet, we can still dare to hope, even if it’s sometimes too rose-tinted. So despite my own misgivings about young and naive JRPG protagonists like Evan, he’s actually the kind of role model our world needs right now.