Although it begins with the suggestion of nuclear holocaust in one world and a violent, political coup in another, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom by Level-5 is not the dark and dismal fairy tale its opening minutes might suggest. Instead it's the generally up-beat story of a young king's rise to power and building a colorful kingdom of good will. Although its characters don't develop much complexity or nuance, Ni no Kuni II provides dozens of hours of action-RPG gameplay, some enjoyable city-building mechanics and the experience that remains entertaining throughout.
Serving both as a story prologue and extended gameplay tutorial, the first few hours of Ni no Kuni II introduce us to Evan, a young boy from the Cat tribe who's forced into exile as his kingdom is snatched away in a surprise coup by the Mice. As Evan escapes, he encounters Roland, the President of a country much like modern-day America, who finds himself somehow transported to another reality. As Evan and Roland make their way into the semi-open world, they gather a small band of allies and eventually set off in search of suitable site on which to found Evermore, Evan's new Kingdom of peace and love. Although it contains the usual amount of Japanese fantasy-RPG weirdness, Ni no Kuni II is a very family-friendly game. It distinguishes itself through its fast paced, real-time combat and a city-building component that is integral rather than cosmetic.
Whether the product of random encounters in the world or on the way to completing missions, real-time, party-based combat plays a huge role in Ni no Kuni II. The good news is that it's almost always a lot of fun, though generally on the easy side. Switching between different party members and their weapons and spells during the heat of combat is pretty painless and snappy. Evan and his fellow fighters can call on little magical creatures called Higgledies to assist in battle. Higgledies - not unlike the familiars from the first Ni no Kuni - come in many flavors and can heal, buff and add things, like magical weapons to the fights. In general, the Higgledies and party members that are controlled by AI are more than capable fighting well when not under player control.
For the first few hours, Evan and his party rely on loot found and dropped in battles for equipment upgrades and better weapons. Once Evan's new kingdom Evermore is founded, growing the city itself - and its specialized craftsman population - is the primary way to improve weapons, armor, spells and skills. The city-building mechanic means recruiting new citizens and that means more combat, more quests and more action. The story/building/fighting loop is addictive and well-tuned. Everything is explained relatively well and new mechanics are dribbled out over several hours of play. There are also some simple puzzles to solve and while there are many systems working together, the game seems aimed at younger players. Still, there are enough layers of complexity and mechanics to be tweaked that more mature players will be happily occupied.
Ni no Kuni II looks fantastic, whether in the cel-shaded anime mode for the cutscenes and battles, or the map mode on which Evan and company are rendered as little 3D chibi. The world is colorful and imaginative and filled with screenshot-worthy moments. There are an impressively large range of human, animal and magical creatures to encounter and the battles are a swirl of effect and light. Although the battle music can become a little repetitive, the score by Joe Hisaishi is delightful, with a surprising range of styles and instrumentation. The voice acting is well done, but there simply isn't enough of it and some potentially resonant and important scenes are presented only through text. It's disappointing for a narrative-heavy game.
Open world action games always struggle with trying to balance grinding and coherent story progression. Despite gating some of the game behind puzzles or some obligatory small-scale skirmishes, Ni no Kuni II is able to keep its story at front, while still giving the player lots of options, rewarding side quests, and other fun things to do. Ni no Kuni II's story does a good job of driving the action forward but its main cast lacks depth and dramatic weight, instead serving archetypal roles that don't much evolve. On the whole, Ni no Kuni II is a beautiful and well-made game that manages to make its combination of action-RPG and city-building seem natural. Despite some initial intimations of darkness, its tone is light-hearted and upbeat and its core combat is very satisfying throughout.