Ni no Kuni 2 Proves a Game Without Ghibli Can Still Be Great [Preview]

It’s been over 8 years since we were treated to the JRPG marvel that was Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a game developed by Level 5 in collaboration with the esteemed animation house, Studio Ghibli. The game married Ghibli’s stunning animation and aesthetics with Level 5’s wonderful attention to detail, wrapping it up with a solid, modern twist on classic JRPG formulas that even Pokémon could’ve learned a thing or two from. Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom sees us return to the kingdom of Ding Dong Dell, but without a direct affiliation with Studio Ghibli this time around, I was intrigued to see if Level 5 could maintain the magic themselves.

Ni no Kuni 2 focuses on the story of Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, a young king who’s been prematurely and wrongfully removed from office and is now seeking to rebuild his kingdom with the help of some friends he encounters along his journey. Roland is a young man who’s entered the realm of Ni no Kuni from our realm, much like Oliver from the first game, and assumes the role of advisor to Evan as he sets to work creating his new utopia. Throughout the game you’ll cross paths with many other characters that’ll join and leave your band of kingdom builders, all offering their own perspectives and skills in the many battles the little king will find himself in.

Ni no Kuni 2 Preview: Combat Evolved

After being dropped straight into the game, around halfway through Chapter 3 of the story, it became clear that Ni no Kuni 2 has made some dramatic deviations from the successful formula of the first title. This is most notable in the combat sequences where the turn-based control and collection of Familiars has been replaced by real-time action and the Higgledies. Higgledies are little sprite-like fellows of varying colors that, when corralled into a large enough group, offer little combat bonuses such as a health-returning pool or a small cannon. They can even fling themselves onto your foe as a brief distraction until you wallop them with one of your many magical abilities.

While I thought the Higgledies were unbelievably cute, I couldn’t help but feel like they were rather surplus to requirements in regular battle when my character’s magical skills, ranged attacks and sword smacks felt far more impactful and manageable. It’s not a negative deviation, the turn-based combat often became sluggish whereas this is thrilling, vibrant and surprisingly deep with many tweaks and bonuses to be made in the menus. There’s a whole host of abilities, loadouts and play styles open to you in the combat that I can imagine will be hugely rewarding to master with many of the larger and higher-level enemies requiring a tactical and skillful approach for survival.

Ni no Kuni 2 Preview: A Post-Ghibli Environment

For me, the art-style of Ni no Kuni was the biggest draw and my love for Ghibli’s work overrode my unfamiliarity with JRPGs, helping me to love the world that had been created and the story that had been woven into it through brilliantly animated cutscenes. Although definitely lighter on the cutscenes, Revenant Kingdom maintains the striking art-style that was so important to the first game with a wonderful mix of cel-shaded characters and detailed painted backdrops and materials. I played the preview on a PS4 Pro with 4K and HDR enabled which made environments sing with light and color, but also denoted a slight blurring on character cel-shaded outlines – something I hope will be addressed before launch. The city of Goldpaw was distinct evidence of Level 5’s ability in a post-Ghibli environment, the verticality, vegetation and vibrant neon light jungle creating a stunning riff of Taiwan that I was always keen to return to and learn more about throughout the story.

There’s a distinct omission of Ghibli’s handiwork, but it’s also painfully evident that Level 5 has worked unbelievably hard to emulate the look and feel, getting mighty close to perfection with what I’ve seen. I’d imagine it was also helpful to have several ex-Ghibli employees involved in the project, including former Ghibli animator and character designer, Yoshiyuki Momose. During a video presentation of an interview with Momose, he mentioned how the sequel has allowed him to explore darker character designs that he would never have been able to do during his time with the monolithic animation house. This isn’t to say that Revenant Kingdom is an adult game, but throughout my time previewing this there was the notion that this wasn’t a specifically child-centric experience, especially when faced with one of the myriad monstrosities Momose has created.

Ni no Kuni 2 Preview: The Chibi Wars

Alongside the action-packed battles and the exploration of the seemingly massive open-world diorama map, you’ll also experience a few other new additions to the series in the form of Kingdom Building and Skirmishes. Using specific currency of KingdomGuilders (KG) and a little Chibi version of Evan, you can construct buildings, conduct research and produce items for your realm that will have a direct impact on the main game. Research into weaponry will offer perks for your weapons while research into Higgledies will offer them more tools in battle and so on. Recruit residents by completing side quests to earn more KG over time to subsequently expand your providence. Honestly, I thought Kingdom Building was a quaint little mode with some nice perks for the main story, but the extent of its role is yet to be seen and if certain story elements are locked behind Kingdom Building progression then I reckon this whimsical time-wasting mode will become irksome quickly.

Skirmishes are another new addition and happen to utilize the KG currency too. During world-travel, you can instigate Skirmish battles where a Chibi-version of Evan and squads of soldiers will battle against a Chibi-army of enemies. I was hoping that Skirmish mode was simply a tacked-on mode that people could avoid if that wasn’t their thing, however, I was made aware that Skirmishes will indeed block off certain map locations and stagger story progression in a bid to deliver larger-scale battle scenarios outside of traditional combat. It’s a shame that these little Chibi-wars are a forced element to your time with Ni no Kuni 2 as they’re ultimately not that enjoyable, lacking any real depth or reward.

Ni no Kuni 2 Preview: First Thoughts

Ni no Kuni 2 successfully emulates the all-important art style that was so successful in the previous game, while the switch to action-packed combat offers up far more opportunities for adaptive and personal play styles. The open-world of Revenant Kingdom is varied and magical and while I only scratched the surface, I was left eager to explore more of the surprisingly large map to see what mythical creatures and mysterious environments Level 5 had crafted. The additional modes of Kingdom Building and Skirmishes feel like unnecessary bulking of an already feature-rich and charming adventure, however, it’s yet to be seen how much of a role they play in the overall experience. Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is solid proof that Level 5 can successfully do this sort of game without the aid of Studio Ghibli and haven’t lost the core values that made Ni no Kuni such a special game in doing so.

Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom will be released on March 23rd, 2018.

Disclosure: GameRevolution attended a preview event held by Level 5 and Bandai Namco Entertainment.