As a particularly musical lion cub once said: “I just can’t wait to be king.” Unfortunately, what tunes that have been lodged in your head since the 90s gloss over is, to be king means that the previous must die. It’s like Highlander rules, only with less Christopher Lambert. Such is the way of a monarchy and so shall it be forevermore…or until there’s a coup and some rat takes the throne, after having slowly poisoned the previous ruler over an unspecified amount of time due to a combination of their own insecurities and evil magic. Though the likelihood of that very specific chain of events occurring is, like, really low…probably.
Welcome to the wonderfully named kingdom of Ding Dong Dell, a place where Grimalkin (cat people), Mousekin (mouse people) and Humanfolk (people people) all live together in peace and harmony under the kind rule of King Leonhard. Psych. As it turns out, Mousekin have felt perpetually repressed by their Grimalkin cousins and held a slow boiling hatred that finally bubbled over. Said scalding onslaught saw Mausinger, former consul to the king, murder and overthrow his former friend and leader, reversing the tide of oppression and casting our hero Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum from the land he was set to rule. Luckily, the universe pulls one of its classic, well-timed pranks and flings President Roland Crane from his own world/dimension, into the drama unfolding around young Evan. Together, the two escape the tumultuous Ding Dong Dell and vow to create a new kingdom, free of the strife and pain that destroyed Evan’s former home. Which is… interesting.
Never in their travels do Evan or Roland ponder reclaiming Ding Dong Dell. From day dot, they settle on the idea of a new kingdom and never look back. Though admittedly unexpected in a fun storytelling way, it shows a confusing lack of concern for his place of birth and the people he supposedly cares for. I mean, Mausinger performed a coup. No subtlety, no misdirection, he violently overthrew the former regime and assumed control. That seems like grounds for a rebellion, if you ask me. My only reasoning for believing this impossible lies in the Kingmakers, an unclear blend of privilege and right that are integral to this story. Born of another realm, the Kingmakers are frighteningly powerful beings who…don’t seem to do anything. By forming a bond with a mortal, they exist as a right to rule and a sign of power. However, they hold no seeming allegiance to good or evil, as Mausinger was able to easily form a Kingsbond with Oakenheart (the deity of Ding Dong Dell), despite his treacherous actions. Combined with their reactions to certain events in game, the Kingmakers seem more primal than anything, making Lofty (the Kingmaker of Evan’s new kingdom) a truly unique being, if only for showing sentient loyalty. That and the Welsh accent.
Plausible reasoning aside, Evan’s desire for a new kingdom that will unite the world allows you to travel across the globe, venturing through the varied cultures of Goldpaw, Hydropolis and Broadleaf. Long story short, each kingdom apparently picked a gimmick eons ago and stuck with it, hard. Goldpaw is China meets Las Vegas meets Dogfolk, Hydopolis is Greece/Atlantis/Merfolk and Broadleaf is Apple…like, the company. Viability aside, the variation of cultures creates both a sense of freshness and separation between each kingdom, that both plays into the narrative and keeps things interesting for the player. Which is good, because without the charming locales, you may just lose your mind around the third random citizen who asks a foreign king to fetch them some rare fabric from a cave guarded by a deadly beast. Here’s an idea: Use some goddamn different fabric. Honestly, how did you even know it was there? Did somebody put it there? Why did they put it there? I’m offering you a home in a new kingdom, is it really that important that I, the king of said kingdom, makes sure your son has a new outfit? Whatever, at least you’re not like that jerk who ordered me to find him a dessert that was only ever made in a kingdom that fell centuries ago. That guy sucks.
As far as actual adventuring goes, Ni no Kuni II is your standard overworld/dungeon fare. When travelling between locales, Evan and crew are rendered chibi and traipse across the world with a pace that is just a little too slow for anyone’s liking. Upon finding a noticeable landmark, the game transitions into a more focused third-person style that does away with the chibis and gives you a specific map to explore. Fights in this mode also do not initiate a separate battle mode, as they do in the overworld. Though combat is identical in both exploratory forms, dungeons have you simply walk into enemies and begin fighting, with foes visible before battle even commences. During this time, the three active members of the party utilise melee, ranged and magical abilities to clear the field and claim victory. At any point during combat, you are able to switch between said active members, with AI assuming control of the two you are not. It’s a simple system, but it allows you to round out a party and personally play to each character’s strength. Unless, of course, you just pick your favourite and roll with them until the game forces you to play as Evan that one time. Honestly, either strategy works, as it is ultimately levels and equipment that will see you through to victory. What may have once been an insurmountable task becomes a cakewalk, as Ni no Kuni II fluctuates between combat that is frustrating and easy. Though mechanics certainly exist to spice up combat, simply smashing attack will generally see you through most encounters. Except when the Goo turns silver, then you have to smash the ranged attack button. Word to the wise.
On a grander scale, there are also times wherein Evan is called to do battle against forces far larger than he. It is in these moments that players assume control of four battalions, each conveniently tied to a PS4 face button and ready to fight for their kingdom. Opting to continue the chibi style of the overworld, this form of combat pits you against a plethora of enemies separated into units, categorised as either Sword, Spear, Hammer, Ranged or Shield. Your units hold the same classifications and each pairs of well or poorly with another type. For the sake of simplicity, the colour coding of each unit works much the same as an elemental type chart: Red beats Green, Green beats Blue and Blue beats Red. Each unit stakes its claim, however, by also holding a passive skill and special attack, which can often turn the tide of a battle. That being said, a singular Might Gauge it utilised for every major action in this game type, limiting the frequency of these skills. Though strategy seems to permeate moreso than in regular combat, once again levels are the major player when it comes to victory. So, if you find yourself battered and bruised for the seventh time against that Australian jerk Tyran, a little level grinding will go a long way. Until Tyran challenges you three more times and you wish the word drongo was never invented…if you didn’t wish that already.
In addition to fetch quests and combat, Ni no Kuni II places a great deal of effort into managing your budding kingdom. Rendered in the same chibi style as the overworld, Evermore is a place where your new citizens gather to apply their trade and live their lives. As such, it is an ever expanding place that must be tended to and managed correctly. What this means for you is constantly checking the coffers to see if you have enough money to progress construction. Separate from the personal currency used to buy items and equipment, kingdom money (known as Kingsguilders) accrues over time at a rate based on the status of Evermore. When it begins, you’ll be lucky to get 20,000 consistently, severely limiting the pace at which you can proceed. by the end however, you’ll be capping out so frequently you’ll wish you could convert it to regular Guilders and buy armour from that Armoury you built in Evermore. Hint, hint Level-5. Regardless, it’s a fun system that conveys a sense of progress and reward for building out Evermore. The citizens willing to join your town are also appear at a balanced rate, close enough that it doesn’t feel too sparse, yet far enough apart that each feels important. The nature of each citizen also bolsters this notion, with each possessing skills necessary to strengthen Evermore in certain ways. Even if said way is manning a music hall that you never once visit in 90+ hours of playing…
To wrap everything up in a neat little bow; Ni no Kuni II is a cute game. Apparent from the second you see the art style, this vibe permeates every pore of the adventure…for better, or worse. Though the style allows the game to shine its message of friendliness and worldwide co-operation, it also forces it to limit to impact of its more serious moments. Without diving too far into specifics, the plight of Hydropolis is a uniquely interesting one that is almost forgotten as soon as the more plot pertinent issue is solved. The motivations of the villain raise some questions about the world that are brushed aside in favour of a happier tale. Even Roland expresses hints at a more troubled life that seldom see the surface, except for that one cutscene that comes out of nowhere and is honestly frightening. Even if wrongdoings are forgiven in this idyllic world, the speed at which they are undermines their impact. By Ni no Kuni II logic, you can murder somebody, but as long as you feel bad and say sorry, all is forgiven. I’m not saying this game needs a sharp edge, simply that these brief moments serve to remind us that it lacks one, even where appropriate. Still, if that’s the price we pay for a game that’s as charming as it is fun, I’d say it’s a trade well made, en’t it?