In many ways, Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom feels like a slightly more grown-up version of . Our hero Evan seems to be a bit older than the original game's Oliver, and has to wrestle with the weighty responsibility of rebuilding his rule after a coup ousts him from his kingdom of Ding Dong Dell. But Ni no Kuni 2's combat is what really shows off the sophistication that comes with age. Instead of its predecessor's framework, which has you controlling your cutesy, Pokemon-like Familiars from the sidelines, Evan and his partymates are in the thick of every battle, fighting at a faster real-time pace that requires more finesse in the style of a third-person brawler.
If you didn't play the first Ni no Kuni, you needn't worry: Revenant Kingdom appears to be very loosely tied to the first, in that our heroes exist in and explore a magical parallel world that can be accessed from our own. This sequel is being developed by the same creative dream team that worked on the first: story and direction from Level-5's Akihiro Hino, an orchestral score composed by Joe Hisaishi, and character designs by Yoshiyuki Momose. As a former animator at Studio Ghibli, the visionary studio behind films like Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, Momose's influence gives the entire game the same air of vibrancy and whimsy inherent to many Ghibli movies. Every vista and cutscene feels like it's bursting with color, and the backdrops are positively beautiful.
Young Evan won't be alone in his fight to take back his rightful throne from the connivers who forced him out of it. Your core party of three is filled out by Roland and Tani, who have some pretty unique circumstances of their own before meeting Evan. Roland has one of the most bizarre backstories I've heard of in a JRPG: in the real world, he's a 48-year-old president, who has somehow been transported to Ni no Kuni and reverted back to his 20-year-old self. Meanwhile, Tani is the tomboyish daughter of a pirate king, convincing her father and his band of buccaneers to swear loyalty to Evan's cause.
During a hands-off gameplay demo, two forms of gameplay are shown. The first is familiar JRPG fare: our party roams a zoomed-out overworld map as chibi versions of themselves, and bumping into an enemy on the map triggers an encounter. They're then whisked away to ground-level, where they slash, shoot, and spellcast at whatever monsters challenged them until all that's left to do is collect some well-earned loot. You can switch between Evan, Roland, and Tani on the fly with the press of a button, and it looks like the teammate AI has been much improved, so that you can launch an offensive in tandem without worrying about your companions messing up.
Next up is gameplay in a dungeon - a gorgeously orange desert expanse called Cloudcoil Canyon. Dungeons ditch the overworld and bring all the action and exploration into real-time, essentially expanding the typical combat arena into an entire level. These sections make Ni no Kuni 2 feel like an anime take on Dragon Age, where you and your party are free to roam in whatever direction you want, taking the time to slice up enemies you encounter or just bypassing them to pursue other points of interest. And this segment also shows off the power of some new, impossibly cute companions that aid you in battle: Higgledies.
Just because you don't control Familiars this time around, doesn't mean you can't have some adorable mythical creatures fighting in your name. Higgledies look like a cross between the Pillsbury Doughboy and the ghost-like Kodamas from Princess Mononoke - little cherubic puffballs that assist you en masse by swarming your enemies during combat. They come in a variety of different flavors, each representing a different element: blue for water, red for fire, green for wind, and so on. They'll eagerly follow your attack orders, much like Pikmin or your minions in Overlord, and despite their diminutive size, their large numbers can overwhelm foes so you can set up a crucial offensive or defensive ability. Higgledies can also cast their spells in battle, like summoning a giant ground-pounding hammer or a giant tornado that throws your enemies through the air. Their magic can also aid you with exploration, like conjuring little dust devils that can boost you up to new areas in Cloudcoil Canyon.
The demo culminates in a boss fight against a Thogg, a brutish monster that looks like the offspring of a bull and a gorilla. With one imposing enemy drawing your focus, it's even clearer to see how all of Ni no Kuni 2's combat mechanics work wonderfully in tandem: swapping between your party members for combos and coordinated strikes, sending your Higgledies into the fray like an army of cute lil' troops, and taking a moment to appreciate the slick attack animations that Evan, Roland, and Tani have at their disposal. This one is showing real promise. Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom will be simultaneously released on PS4 and PC sometime in 2017.