When Ni No Kuni was first announced for the PS3 in 2011 it seemed like a dream come true. The love-child born from a collaboration between legendary JRPG developer Level-5 (Dark Cloud, Dragon Quest VIII, Rogue Galaxy) and Tokyo animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, was a beautiful but troubled game. Behind the awe-inspiring work of Ghibli’s art direction lay an overly long, absurdly difficult JRPG crippled by tragically awful partner AI and glacial progression for your pokemon-like familiar pals. Despite what are, in my opinion, fatal flaws, Ni No Kuni garnered great critical and sales success; earning an aggregate score of 85 on Metacritic and moving over a million copies. Cut to 2015, Ni No Kuni II is announced at PSX, notably with no presence from Studio Ghibli. The exact reason Studio Ghibli bowed out for the sequel is unclear. The only incident credited for their pull-out being a shift in Ghibli’s “business model,” according to Level-5’s head, Akihiro Hino. In the next two and half years of marketing Level-5 worked hard to ensure fans that they listened to the criticisms weighted at Ni No Kuni and were committed to provide a tighter, faster and more rewarding experience. Despite my personally tepid reaction to Ni No Kuni, I still found myself at Gamestop on release day of Ni No Kuni II, $60 in hand, ready to give Level-5 another chance. Unfortunately, as it stands for me now at about half way into the story, I’m quite disappointed.
The biggest and most troubling issue with Ni No Kuni II is the story. Players take control of Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum,
boy king of Ding Dong Dell, 500 years after the events of Ni No Kuni have been cemented in legend. One faithful day, Roland, Prime Minister of modern-day Japan, is pulled into Evan’s world just in time to save him from a deadly coup. After escaping Ding Dong Dell with his life, Evan decides he will rebuild his kingdom by uniting the disparate nations of the world under the banner of peace. Evan is a terribly dull protagonist — doe eyed and bushy tailed (literally), his response when confronted with adversity is always some trite “inspirational” line about good will or pure hearts. His supporting cast are barely shells of characters, devoid of personal conflicts or story-arcs as soon as their chapter of the story is done and they either join your party or kingdom. This is especially disappointing, considering Ni No Kuni’s genre competition like Persona 5 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 have both conducted master classes in the last year on how to connect players to a cast over tens of hours. I’ve joined 4 out of 5 kingdoms to Evan’s empire and none of their stories have succeeded in being interesting or moving.
Studio Ghibli’s absence is most noticeable in Ni No Kuni II’s world building. The slim corridors of Ni No Kuni II’s cities are uninspired and uninteresting when compared to the first game. The “hook” of each city is as thick as the 1-ply TP at your city’s dingiest gas station. Goldpaw is a Chinese-inspired gambling town with one central path down the center of the city, off of which branch several dead ends with few shops and quest givers. Hydropolis is a port town overlooked by a magic eyeball that does nothing outside of thematics for its one hour section of story. Broadleaf is a 3-floor “skyscraper” laid out in tiny circular maps with nothing to discover or any interesting art direction. Worst of all is the Sky-Pirate base, a single screen “town” with a drab brown color pallette, very few NPCs and only a single shop and inn. No single locale has captured the simple Ghibli magic like the Fairygrounds from the first game; a town that has an economy built on stand-up comedy and the exchange of jokes.
While Level-5 have tried to rekindle Ghibli’s knack for fantasy, all they’ve ended up with is a second-rate imposter job, almost entirely devoid of heart.
Ni No Kuni builds its gameplay from five pillars, three of which are alright. Party management and the “tactical” military fights are so unremarkable as to not warrant discussion. Combat, exploration, and kingdom building have taken up the majority of my first 25 hours and I’m sorry to report that each one of these elements suffers from a fatal flaw. Exploration is definitely the strongest leg Ni No Kuni II has to stand on. Trotting across the overworld is often dull and quite slow until you develop the ability to walk faster in your kingdom (yes, that is something the game makes you pay for). The overworld is mostly straightforward walks from A-B dotted with enemy encounters and treasure chests. Almost no critical thought is ever needed to access any secrets or chests that lay slightly out of reach. If something looks like you can’t get it on foot, you just can’t… until the airship entirely breaks exploration after it is unlocked at the 20 hour mark. Luckily things get better when venturing into each chapter’s hour-or-so dungeons. So far I’ve explored five dungeons, four of which have made for the game’s strongest moments as players’ spatial awareness are taxed with twisting root paths of the Forest of Niall, the criss-crossing waterslides of The Abyss, and the color-coded platform switching in Broadleaf Factory. The “dungeon” attached to the opening Sky Pirate quest-line is the outlier, being a boring walk in a straight line dotted with combat encounters, with dead end paths only ever leading to mediocre loot or a single combat encounter. Sadly the combat isn’t compelling enough to make these encounters be rewards in their own.
Despite the combat in Ni No Kuni II being in real-time, Level-5 still struggles to create an engaging system. On paper players are given a lot of options with how they will engage with an encounter. Your party of three will often be pitted against mobs of enemies 7-12 strong, and with the ability use light and heavy attacks, guns, magic, dodging, blocking, jumping, and some very light summons with your mostly-passive Higgledy sprites, the sandbox appears to be a mile wide.
Tragically, most of these systems are less than an inch deep. Both player and enemy hits carry no weight, the only tactile feedback from landing a big hit being a slightly larger number. The mobs’ AI often results in the baddies focusing a single party member, leaving the other two free to demolish the opposition as the generous invincibility granted by rolling means the target character is never in much palpable danger. Bosses are only slightly tougher as they can stun-lock your characters for big damage, but the same strategy of constantly rolling if you find yourself the target works against them as well. Ultimately Ni No Kuni II is just too easy. I haven’t died or even been in danger of dying in any combat encounters in 25 hours.
Without compelling difficulty all the combat has to lean on is the loot grind. At its best, combat sees you weaving in between attacks from three or four enemy varieties, popping in for a few heavy hits and finishing the rest of the mob with a big magic attack. Defeating enemies causes your characters to be showered with loot and materials from the unfortunate bodies of your victims. Moments like this happen often, and while the manic collection of shiny trinkets across a battlefield feels great, it also can’t help but feel manipulative. Like many loot driven games, the steady drip of slightly better gear creates an addictive loop, but I hesitate to call this kind of sensory assault of shiny flashing colors, numbers, and loot good. After you’ve picked up your millionth ball of cloth dropped from your 9000th Grimalkin Banger mob you’ve ran into that day the fanfare of loot collection goes from stimulating to blatantly manipulative and the kind of “fun” Diablo clones have struggled to imitate for decades. The loot also shatters the in-game economy, as selling off the piles and piles of insignificant gear you collect quickly outpaces the cost of the marginally better gear available at the shops. The progression of gear in the shops also struggles to keep up with the strength of loot awarded from random drops and treasure chests. Player can spend money on food, which gives small buffs in combat, but the ease of combat makes this completely unnecessary. Right now my kingly pockets are lined with upwards of 50K guilders and none of the shops have anything to offer me. The other half of Ni No Kuni II’s economy, the half attached to kingdom building, is also broken and crippled by some nonsensical design decisions from Level-5.
Kingdom building is Ni No Kuni II’s strongest but most infuriating pillar. Evermore, the plot of land players are tasked with building into the greatest kingdom in history, is inarguably the most satisfying reflection of player progress in the game.
Evermore is also a complete chore, knee-capped by inexcusable mobile-game-style annoyances that work tirelessly to hinder player progress early on. All of these problems center around Kingsguilders (KG), the special kingdom-only currency that accumulates on a timer. Level-5’s intention behind this decision seems to have been to use kingdom building as a palate-cleaner for players to visit between sections of exploration and (monotonous) questing. Previously I praised the timer-based features of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (https://nosignal.life/2018/03/06/xenoblade-chronicles-2-the-perfect-switch-game/), as they added an extra layer of depth and enhanced the weight and positive feedback of shorter play sessions. Ni No Kuni II has ambitions of a similar caliber of small and incremental rewards. Never have I seen good design intentions go so wrong.
Inexplicably, your Kingsguilder accumulation is capped at levels that must be elevated by spending more Kingsguilders on your “coffers” rather than upgrades for your structures, research, or new buildings. Early on players can only hold 5,000 KG, an amount that can be reached in 15-20 minutes. If you don’t return to Evermore to empty your coffers, any time you spend away beyond the time it takes to cap your coffers is essentially wasted money, and wasting money hurts when trying to get an economy rolling. 5,000 KG is only ever enough to build one structure or research one upgrade on a building. Players will often find themselves breaking their flow on exploration or questing, 15-20 minutes somehow being the perfectly wrong amount of time more often than not, returning to Evermore to click through two or three menus, before returning to running around. Even after expanding Evermore’s coffers several times, a larger economy still caps in the same amount of time.
Luckily once players are given enough money and citizens to afford multiple upgrades in a single visit, Evermore finally begins feeling like it is a significant return on investment, rather than a chore that must be incessantly micromanaged at the cost of game flow. Unfortunately the niggling feeling that your time isn’t being used at peak efficiency persists throughout the game. Immersing oneself in a dungeon dive or knocking out a monstrous checklist of quests can never be fully relaxed into, as the urge to check back in on Evermore to make sure every minute is capitalized on in the game’s most rewarding feature is so potent.
Most articles I’ve read put Ni No Kuni II’s runtime at somewhere between 30-50 hours, and after 25 hours in the world of Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, I haven’t been very impressed. My hopes are low for the second half of my adventure, which is honestly the most disappointing realization one can have about a JRPG. There are inklings of an excellent experience here. The zones and towns are almost inspired. The combat is almost fun. Evermore is almost an ingenious reflection of player progression. I really and truly hope that things get better. I want to love this game, but what I’ve played so far is so deeply flawed from a design perspective that I hesitate to recommend anyone spend $60 on this game.