Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is here to ruin your life. One minute you think you're going to enjoy a cute fantasy adventure with a sexually non-threatening party of friends, the next you're sneaking out of bed at 2am to just finish that quest for the robot that needs some tripe for a recipe. Don't be fooled by its adorable looks, this game wants to eat your time, your soul, and take 40 hours of your life as an after dinner snack.
The secret to this ridiculously delightful RPG is that underneath all the Studio Ghibli style animation, there's a finely tuned machine of strategy and city management mechanics. There's never a moment when you can't be tinkering with at least three different things, and that's before you even get to the main quest - a rip roaring adventure through imaginative lands - or the combat, in which every battle is like your very own fireworks display.
Once upon a Ding Dong...
You take the role of boy King and walking ray of sunshine Evan, forced out of his homeland (which, of course, is called Ding Dong Dell), now trying to juggle building a new kingdom and chasing a sinister figure. This means lots of exploration of perfectly painted new lands, lots of hitting monsters with swords, and a surprising amount of worrying who should work at the fish market. What it means in terms of gameplay is switching between roaming the world map looking for people, items and big bad things, battling the big bad things, facing real time strategy skirmish challenges and managing every aspect of your new realm. All glued together with cutscenes that will make your "share screenshot" finger itch.
The backbone to it all is a satisfying story woven through a beautifully built world. There may be robots, wyverns and dog people roaming around, but the world follows a logic that holds it together. It manages to feel magical and real at the same time, whether you're exploring a town riddled with gambling debt or a land of science where you find a group of women talking about "leaning in" to get their work in military tech recognized. Hero Evan is Disney star levels of naive, but his syrupy spiel is balanced by brooding hottie Roland and pirate princess Tani, plus a few other pretty-faced characters that join your crew as you explore. Sure, you might find your mind wanders here and there when the lore gets heavy, but it always pulls you back in.
No amount of story can make up for crappy combat in a big, open world RPG, because you're always one stumble away from a random battle. Luckily Ni no Kuni 2 has added plenty of glitter and made sure everything is real time responsive to keep things fresh. You can control your whole party, but the AI is smart enough to make that unnecessary for all but the most finicky of micro-managers. I favor playing as Raymond, but that's a purely "look at the way his raven hair bounces when he murders blobs"-based preference. It does mean he's always rocking the best sword and armor, and his attack spells are always levelled up, but even the best parents have their favorites right?
Whoever you play as combat is a fast-paced, smooth mix up of ranged attacks, melee, a rainbow of light and color from spell attacks and your Higgledies. They're little sprites you collect from around the world who can be called on in battle to use special talents, like summoning a forcefield or a temporary cannon. Then there's your typical RPG items, to be used in the event of an emergency like, you know, a death. I like to have a lot of Angel Tears in stock.
There are so many things to play with in combat that you're tempted to fight even when you've definitely stumbled into a battle you can't quite handle, and that's before you even get to the loot. Ni No Kuni 2 is rocking Santa Claus levels of generosity when you're mid combat, with money, weapons and items dropping almost constantly. Are they all super exotic? No. Does that make them any less exciting when they drop mid-rumble? Hell no.
As with most things in Ni No Kuni 2, there's even more depth underneath the glossy surface. To finetune your battle style there's a Tactics Tweaker in your menu. Here you can assign points you earn in battle into four categories: Arts of War, Elements and Ailments, Monster Affinities and Spoils Settings. It's a delicate balancing act of trying to predict what sort of monsters the game might throw at you, and wanting to have maximum might on hand at all times. You can ignore the whole Tweaker and still find plenty to enjoy in the combat, but be brave and you'll be rewarded with a much deeper combat experience.
Ni No Kuni's Battlegrounds
The most unpopular chocolate in the Ni No Kuni selection box is the skirmish mode, a sort of diet version of real time strategy game. You take a miniaturized army across a map filled with other armies, defenses and weapons and hope like hell that you've got the military might to survive the level. I thought it was a cute, optional mechanic at first, and just steadfastly ignored the skirmish markers on the map, much happier running off to fight someone the old fashioned way. About 20 hours in to the game it turned out to be very much not optional for the main quest - my bad - meaning my tiny fighters were woefully unprepared. It's not that this part of the game is broken, it's just lacking the richness that you get to wallow in every other activity.
I'd like to see the manager
If you're not off on a story quest or opening a can of magical whoopass on an unsuspecting whamster, you'll be juggling the tasks of a city planner, treasurer and human resources manager in the Kingdom Management mode. There you'll choose what buildings to install in your new land of Evermore, many of which will open up new options. Build Evermore Outfitters and you'll have a place to buy and improve your weapons. Build a Higgledy Higglery (say that five times fast) and you can birth new magical friends, and level up the ones you have. Rather than being a chore, it's a nice diversion and makes me wish it existed a standalone app for iOS that I could check in on whenever real life had managed to drag me away from my PS4.
It doesn't even pull you out of the story, because for every town you help you'll find potential new citizens - with their own tales to tell - who want to join Evermore. Once they arrive in your town you can chat to them, play a game of "name the mushroom" (not a joke) and help them out with the odd personal problem. I was a very very busy king.
Happy ever after
Despite getting the chance to play some early versions of the game, it's almost impossible to appreciate just how well all of the above fits together until you're a few hours in and swept away in the fairytale of it all. By then you're already doomed to keep playing and playing, genuinely concerned about the behavior of a weasel (could be a stoat, don't @ me biologists) and worrying about finding enough thread to lure that seamstress to Evermore. I hate to say it, but there's just something magical about Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom.
Reviewed on PS4.