Full disclosure: I played a fair bit of the first Ni No Kuni on PlayStation 3 back in 2010, but even at the time, its storyline was an enigma to me. So I went into this preview session for Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom a bit blind, knowing only that some sweeping changes had been made to the combat system and that, rather alarmingly, legendary Japanese animation crew Studio Ghibli was no longer involved.
On that second fact: I sincerely believe it’s not going to make a huge difference to one’s enjoyment of this sequel. I played two sections, and while they were both boss battles with little-to-no exploration opportunities, I can confirm that the game looks beautiful – more beautiful than any other JRPG in recent memory. For those like me who occasionally dip into fantasy JRPGs for the soft-edge nostalgia of pastel animation and Saturday morning cartoon melodrama, Ni No Kuni 2 is a huge source of comfort. It’s like coming home.
As I mentioned, the two sections of the game available to me were both boss battles – Longfang, Lord of Flame and the King’s Cradle trial of courage, respectively. As a result, I didn’t get a feel for how Ni No Kuni 2 will play on a moment-to-moment basis (nor did I get to play a PC build, as PS4 was the only one available), but the demo was enough to get a feel for the combat which, famously by now, has done away with its turn-based format. The action this time is live, and while it’s not going to rival the dazzle and fluidity of a Bayonetta or Dark Souls, it works well in the context of a whimsical JRPG.
I tackled the King’s Cradle trial first off and, without having checked the controls beforehand, found it pretty intuitive. Entering the arena – a huge colosseum suspended in the sky – I’m greeted by Thogg the “monstrously muscled mettle-tester” who, I soon found out, intended to test my mettle.
The playable character Evan has a light and heavy attack – in this build, I was equipped with a sword and, unfortunately, wasn’t allowed to tinker with my build or even look at the stats page. But overall, the combat plays out like you’d expect: get in there with a few heavy attacks, supplement with a few light, then dodge roll the hell out of there. You’ve also got a piddly little wand as a ranged attack, and holding the attack button for a while gives it an extra burst of murdering power. Hot-keyed abilities that drain mana are there, of course, among them fire and ice spells, which knock off a fair bit of HP if used correctly.
It’s all pretty rudimentary, and aside from some human allies you've also got helpful Higgledys. These cute little hooded creatures gather in mobs around the map, and can be called upon to help – whether with a boost to health, mana or an attack modifier. These are reminiscent of the Familiars from the first game – basically Pokémon-esque collectible aids – except they play a more passive role. The colour-coded Higgledys are triggered by running over their mob region and pressing the right button. I’m not sure how well-equipped you’ll be with these friendly little fellows from the outset, but in my demo at least, they were legion.
It’s a neat little system, but Familiars will be missed. It’s likely that most PC players won’t miss them since the first Ni No Kuni isn’t on PC – and won’t come to PC, apparently – but accruing a cast of cheerful-yet-lethal monsters was one of the most charming aspects of the first game (aside from Totoro’s cameo). But the change dovetails with an overall move towards accessibility in this sequel. The live action combat, to be honest, didn’t feel particularly nuanced in the build I played.
The next encounter I played was with the aforementioned Longfang, who goes on a bit of a deadly rampage in the city of Goldpaw. Thankfully, Evan – the cute, harmless looking twerp hero – is there when it happens and is called upon to intervene. As is routine in fantasy cities, Evan finds himself on a small island surrounded by lava while large dragon Longfang dithers at the edges, occasionally smashing his fists on the island in order that you can chop away at them. You can long range attack at him when he’s dithering, of course, and my Higgeldys were kindly forthcoming with flame-resistant power-ups lest I get caught in the dragon’s breath. And I did a lot, but I was never lacking in Higgeldys wanting to boost my health back up.
Longfang took a fair bit more effort to topple than the mettle-testing Thogg: I got into a rhythm of chopping at his fists, sniping him from afar, and then lapping up all the health, mana and resistances my Higgeldys were ladling out. With enough damage done to his fists, the dragon was occasionally stunned, allowing a brief moment to hack away viciously at the old boy’s face. This violence was supplemented by the ability to trigger a Higgledy Charge – hold down the attack button when using a spell or a skill and they’ll boost it temporarily.
But overall, neither encounter put up a stiff challenge, but after all, this was an E3 demo. I do think the ingredients are there for a challenging, if technically simple, JRPG. Level-5’s clear gambit for accessibility shines through in the simplified combat, but the range of Higgeldys and abilities – assuming they’re varied enough – should make things interesting, and there's no reason to doubt the challenge will ramp up with time.
Not to mention all the RPG stuff – builds, weapons, gear – which I was not allowed to peek at. In the end, Ni No Kuni 2 holds most of its promise in its beautiful, nostalgic mood, so far. We’ll see when it releases this November.