Although I was a bit late to the party when it came to the original No no Kuni, when I finally got around to playing the game, I was enchanted. Even now, the first two adjectives that come to mind when I think of it are ‘charming’ and ‘delightful’. Sure, it was far from perfect – poor AI and spending most boss fights desperately holding out for glims whilst my allies lay dead on the floor spring to mind – but there was something amazingly magical about feeling like I was starring in my very own Studio Ghibli movie.
So of course, I was as excited as the next person to hear that a sequel was going to be made. Sure, it was delayed enough that by the time the release date loomed I had actually forgotten I’d even pre-ordered it, but as soon as Ni no Kuni 2 dropped through my letterbox, I got to work on helping Evan the cat-eared king to establish world peace.
Now, before we go any further, I need to get one thing clear. Ni no Kuni 2 is a good game. I enjoyed it, and I spent tens of hours fetching items for sidequests, recruiting citizens and making my kingdom the best place it would be. And yet, at the same time, for me, some of the magic is simply gone. Instead of fixing the flaws in the gameplay elements of the original, Ni no Kuni 2 largely removes them entirely, replacing them with more reliable but less original options.
One of the things I loved most about Ni no Kuni was how much it felt like stepping into a Studio Ghibli work. Ni no Kuni 2 doesn’t have the overt Ghibli connection, but it does have the same character designer. Even so, much of the magic is gone. Environments now feel almost too detailed, somewhat at odds with the delightful simplicity of the character designs. The odd decision to have chibi-fied character avatars on the world map took me several hours to get used to. And whilst the monster designs are clean and well done, they lack the simple charm of the foes in the original game. Overall, it’s just not quite the same beast.
The story doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact either. Putting aside the White Witch additions for the PS3 version, the original Ni no Kuni was a powerful tale about coming to terms with loss. Oliver, upset at his mother’s death, escapes into a whole other world where he makes new friends and masters magic – and ultimately must accept that his hope of resurrecting his mother can never come to pass. In contrast, Evan’s story is that of a deposed king who starts up a new kingdom, and then in what feels like a fit of petulance, insists he will unite the entire world. To be fair, Evan works hard at achieving his goal, but I never felt quite as invested in his journey as I did for Oliver.
All that being said, there are some nice new locales for Ni no Kuni 2. The city of Goldpaw introduces cute, anthropomorphic dogs to the world of Ni no Kuni, whilst Hydropolis is a beautiful city of mer-people. Later locations are less exciting in terms of both story and appearance, but the game should be commended for its pace. The plot sails through establishing your own kingdom, allying with other kingdoms, and then beating the evil mastermind (he’s just misunderstood!), without needing to divert into a twenty hour fetch quest to find the pieces of the legendary armour, or other such game padding tropes.
Out with the old…
- Remember familiars, those ultra cute little monsters who would fight by your side? And how pretty much every monster in the game was potentially recruitable? That entire mechanic is now gone. I can’t have been the only one who felt sad upon realising that the world of Ni no Kuni 2 was entirely devoid of Shonky-Honkers and other delightful little beasts.
- One major element of both the main story and numerous sidequests was Oliver’s locket, which let him take an excess of emotion from one person, and transfer it to someone else who sorely need. I greatly enjoyed restoring the balance of people’s hearts, but sadly this is not something that Evan can do.
- Remember how you had a big list of spells that you could use in and out of battle to affect the world around you? In Ni no Kuni 2, things are slightly different. You can still learn a subset of spells for use in the field – Rejuvenation, Spring Lock and Spirit Medium to name a few – but you no longer need to figure out which one to use from a menu. Instead, press X in the right place, and Evan will simply cast the appropriate spell. Sure, it’s easier, but it made me feel more divorced from the action than when I had to figure out which spell I was supposed to be casting.
- In the original Ni no Kuni, story progress relied on travelling between the two worlds – every soul in Oliver’s world was linked to one in the other world, and fixing the bonds between them was important. In Ni no Kuni 2, we see ‘our’ world only at the very beginning and end, and the connected souls element is played down until a single revelation at the very end. We don’t even know why Roland manages to become so much younger in the other world – apart from the fact that a 47 year old man running around with a sword would seem weird.
- The Wizard’s Companion was a work of love, a true elevation of the usual in-menu logs and tutorials into an actual item of importance in the game. It even had its own set of fairy tales within it! In comparison, the Library section in Ni no Kuni’s 2 menu is a lot more straightforward and matter-of-fact. While useful, it’s still a bit of a comedown after the magic of the Wizard’s Companion.
…and in with the new
- With familiars gone, the battle system is very different. Ni no Kuni 2 offers a more straightforward real-time battle system – each character has light and heavy melee attacks, a ranged attack, and a palette of skills and spells available from the R2 trigger. MP for spells is built up with melee attacks, whilst ranged attacks drain your MP – so if you decide to be a coward and shoot at everything from afar, you won’t be able to follow up with a devastating power move.
Whilst it does feel a lot more generic than the battle system of the original game, some frustrations have been resolved. AI characters seem generally better at keeping themselves alive and doing sensible things – in particular, the new system means they don’t run out of MP all the time. Ni no Kuni 2 is also a lot easier than its predecessor – it only got more difficult in the later chapters because I’d breezed through the first half of the game without needing to grind, and was seriously underlevelled. In general, you can have a punt at enemies many levels higher than you and still have a reasonable expectation of success.
- In place of familiars, your new battlefield companions are higgledies, tiny magical creatures that resemble the spirits from Princess Mononoke. There are 100 different higgledies to either find in dungeons or ‘cook up’ in your kingdom, up to four of which can join you in battle. On the battlefield, they provide passive buffs to the party, and every so often, you can trigger them to either heal you or launch a powerful special attack on the enemy. They are definitely helpful allies to have, but I never grew to love them as much as I did my precious familiars.
- The Kingdom of Evermore becomes your new nation and home base for the game. Over time, your kingdom generates revenue, which can be used to build facilities and research various improvements and bonuses to both the kingdom itself, and gameplay in general. But none of this can happen without citizens to live and work in your kingdom, so a large part of your time will also be spent recruiting people from around the world to come and live in Evermore. Every new citizen has their own specialities, so it’s important to play to their strengths when assigning them work.
As well as research, citizens can also be deployed to gather items from ranches, farms, mines and so forth within your kingdom. This gives you a low effort method of farming for items if you really can’t be bothered to go out and look for them in fields and dungeons.
- For some reason, the developers thought it would be a good idea to let you equip not one but three melee weapons. The idea is that you build up ‘zing’ with each one by attacking with it, then when the ‘zing’ level is at 100%, your special attacks are more powerful. Switching between weapons to store up ’zing’ and make best use of it is clearly meant to be a tactic you should use wisely in battle, but in fact it makes little difference to the game if you just set weapon switching to automatic and ignore this feature completely.
- Over the years, lots of RPGs have had a mode where you take a break from individual combat to pit armies against each other. Ni no Kuni 2 gets in on the act with skirmishes, a gameplay mode where Evan takes four battalions out on the field to defeat enemy forces. Offensive squads are armed with either hammers, swords, lances or ranged weapons, with the three melee types having a Fire Emblem inspired weapon triangle strength/weakness relationship.
In all the preview trailers for the game, skirmish mode looked really fun, but ultimately I didn’t enjoy it that much. Several of the levels have time limits or NPCs to escort, which force you to advance quickly instead of going at your own pace. My efforts to lure the enemy out one-by-one would usually end either in all of them descending on meat once, or losing interest and returning to their default positions. My troops never felt quite as responsive as I needed them to be. Ultimately, I ended up just buffing my army as much as I could before the battle, then steaming through as efficiently as possible. I never felt inspired to try to become a better skirmish player, or play around trying out new tactics.
- The Tactics Tweaker is yet another menu you can play around with. As you progress through the game, you earn points which can be used to alter the balance of battle. You can reduce the time it takes to escape from battle; buff an ailment or elemental resistance; decide whether you want more EXP or more rare equipment, and so on. It looks interesting, and some of the options are clearly helpful, but after you play around with it for a bit, you realise it’s not as deep as the game makes out. All you’re doing is making an easy game that bit easier.
One of the issues that arises from Ni no Kuni 2 being so easy is that there are a lot of gameplay elements you don’t have to pay much attention to – unless of course you’re whoring for trophies. You can enhance and unlock new skills for weapons, armour and accessories; level up higgledies and spells; cook up better higgledies,and even use food to temporarily buff your stats. However, the number of button presses and short animations you have to sit through to level each and every thing up swiftly becomes tedious, especially when you can get away with ignoring much of it. I certainly never bothered with food buffs, and only did weapon enhancements when quests demanded it.
Ni no Kuni 2 is a good game, and it’s definitely one that kept me coming back for more hours of gameplay. But ultimately, it lacked the sheer charm and originality of its predecessor. For all its content, it just lacked that extra bit of magic.