Ni No Kuni 2's RTS skirmishes let you conquer territory with adorable air strikes

Ni No Kuni 2 is making some big changes to the first game's traditional JRPG structure. Turn based combat encounters have been replaced with real time battles, and skirmish mode uses a cutesy, light-touch real time strategy game to simulate larger battles for control of the kingdom. Skirmishes happen on the world map, and have you, King Evan, standing at the centre of an orbiting collection of units. You rotate this formation with the controller's bumpers and try to make sure your colour-coded units collide with enemy units they're most likely to beat up.

Each unit specialises in a specific mode of attack. In one mission named The Battle For the Heartlands, I laid waste to enemy units and their defences by assessing their weaknesses—sword units work best against hammer units, hammer better against spear, and spear best against sword—while occasionally calling upon a death from above style air strike 'special tactic'. 

Armies attack automatically on sight which made individual run-ins fast and frantic. Despite running over most enemies with relative ease, it was clear one misjudged move could easily leave me exposed—something I discovered when my squad at one stage decided to set about dismantling a watch tower instead of fighting a hostile group of archers further ahead. 

Skirmish mode offers a marked shift away from the original game's turn-based leanings and lends a degree of immediacy to the game's world-based combat. Moreover, skirmishes will be an integral part of Ni No Kuni 2's story progression and as such will be mandatory, as game director Hino-san tells me.

"The mode is going to be unlocked at a certain point in the story and it's a delivery mechanism to get from one narrative to another," Hino-san explains. "It'll occur multiple times throughout the larger narrative. We're really happy with how the mode came together as a playable experience. As such, it's very possible that we might see more skirmishes in a downloadable content format, or maybe it's own minigame, we might see it spawn in different ways too."

Without having experienced Ni No Kuni's wider story, my brief foray into Ni No Kuni 2's Skirmish mode admittedly lacked context. I had fun, but I wasn't as invested in seeing hero Evan triumph as I might have been had I fully understood why battling in the heartlands was so important.

Skirmish also benefits from Kingdom mode, which introduces Suikoden-esque squad-building to the game. Hino-san explains that in Kingdom mode players establish a central headquarters and are thereafter able to recruit characters into their army. In doing so, we'll see Evan grow as a character.   

"The story in Ni No Kuni 2 that we're trying to have people enjoy is centred around Evan as he becomes a small piece of existence before growing into a king with much greater responsibilities," says Hino-san. 

"Most of the systems that are embedded into the game feed into this scenario. It's not just about Evan's mental journey through the story where he loses everything—he's mentally weak, before regaining a lot of his confidence—simultaneously, he gains more responsibility within his kingdom. Through many venues and parallels, we see the growth of this character. And Kingdom mode is another result of that."

Delayed earlier this year, Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is due January 19.