So much of the magic in any magical world lies with how you get there, how the secret realm reveals itself: the spectral figures who vanish at second glance, the glisten of bells on the wind at dusk, that first, breathless step across the glowing threshold. These journeys between realities are often a question of cathartic redefinition: something about the everyday world is out of joint, and the other universe is an enchanted mirror in which the problem takes on a kinder guise, with familiar objects transported and transformed – cats into kings, sticks into wands, dolls into fairies.
As you might expect from a game co-developed with Studio Ghibli, bastion of modern Japanese folklore, the original Ni no Kuni understands all this intimately. Its first 45 minutes are a masterclass in twinkly suspense and heartbreak, from a night-time escapade through a tragic loss to the arrival of the cantankerous Mr Drippy. In Ni no Kuni 2, meanwhile, somebody nukes a city and an elderly president, Roland, wakes up seconds later in a world of talking animals. Specifically, he wakes up in the bedroom of young king Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, who is in the middle of being overthrown by his father’s vizier. Any number of questions present themselves – what was I drinking last night, why am I suddenly 30 years younger, oh god, what will the tabloids think – but Roland just shrugs, grabs a sword and starts hacking his way out of the palace, princeling in tow.
That deflating casualness applies to much of Ni no Kuni 2’s 40 hour tale, which was thrown together without Studio Ghibli’s input. It’s an exercise in gathering allies and plundering themed dungeons while chasing down an ancient evil that is jolly in small doses but seldom enchanting. Both the old and the new game are essentially grab-bags of motifs from Ghibli flicks and other JRPGs, but where the first sought to weave a spell from these materials, the second just dumps them at your feet like unwanted gear items: casino cities, airships, steampunk towers, loud but soft-hearted sky pirates, legendary weapons, stuck-up wizards and magic forests. Funky concepts such as the parallel reality shebang are toyed with but never seriously developed, key revelations are often handed to you in passing, and there’s rarely any ambiguity or depth to characters once you’ve dealt with whatever urgent issue they have when first you meet them. It’s a yarn for incorrigible fans of save-the-world fantasies that assumes you’re on board from the off, and doesn’t really bother to motivate you.
This is a little frustrating, because a) the actual writing is often glorious, with all the first game’s demented fondness for puns, British dialects and cheeky fourth-wall breaking, and b) deep in Ni no Kuni 2’s heart of hearts there’s the hint of something enticingly horrendous. Much of the story sees you founding a brand new city-state for Evan, who is hell-bent on creating a Happily Ever After for everybody after losing a loved one in the prologue. It doesn’t take a student of history to see how this naive ambition might have taken a darker turn. “If the world is one kingdom,” Evan declares at one point, gazing up at the camera with those cutglass blue eyes, “there will be nobody left to fight.” That’s the kind of thing you generally see written in entrails on the faces of toppled statues – it’s as though somebody had transplanted Alexander the Great’s brain into a Furby. The story does have a crack at investigating what happens when Benevolent Tyrants Go Bad in the shape of other rulers, who you’ll persuade one by one to join Evan’s cause, but none of that bleeds back into the core of the story. I wasn’t expecting Crusader Kings: Princess Mononoke Edition, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.
Complacency about cliches aside, Ni no Kuni 2 owes its lack of intrigue to the fact that is more a game about building a world than discovering one, a premise that harkens back to Konami’s venerable Suikoden series. Its plot is lashed unromantically to the scaffold of a city management subgame, with key chapters unlocked by expanding your youthful kingdom’s population and enhancing certain facilities. Fortunately, the subgame itself is gentle good fun, a sunny top-down diorama of spell factories, lumberyards, inns and armouries, roamed by perky chibi versions of people you’ll encounter in the field. In addition to filling your pockets with money and resources, and delighting you with its pint-sized magnificence, the city serves as a customisation and development hub where you can improve or research abilities, customise your gear and take on the odd sidequest.
Most importantly, though, it keeps booting you out to the far corners of the map in search of new subjects – around a hundred of them – to staff your crafting and production facilities, who’ll usually ask you to fetch or fight something before they’ll sign up. Each character comprises a handful of stats and a trait that corresponds to a certain building type or research tree; some of them are, again, essential in order to progress the plot. Recruiting citizens can be a drag if you chew through a dozen such missions in one go, but each individual personality is bold and quirky enough to rescue the game from its tepid sidequest design. Among the oddballs you’ll stumble on are a bard whose voice has been stolen by a witch, a dog soldier who’s wasting away for want of a special omelette, and a snooty outfitter who won’t budge till you dazzle her with your knowledge of flowers. At the more arcane end of the spectrum, there’s a professor who tasks you with collecting dream fragments from procedurally generated labyrinths, a nod to the Mystery Dungeon subgenre that could almost be its own game.
If the busywork wears thin, Ni no Kuni 2’s battling is excellent throughout. Where the original struck a balance between real-time movement and issuing commands as in Final Fantasy, the sequel goes full arena brawler with characters swinging, rolling, blocking and loosing spells in a maelstrom of damage numerals and snazzy, swashbuckling SFX. Up to three out of six party members feature in battle at once, and you can switch between them at will on the battlefield, lacerating foes with Tani’s spear before tagging in prissy mage Leander to summon a firestorm. It feels great in the hands, though party-member AI occasionally leaves something to be desired, and the customisation elements that underpin it all are gratifying to experiment with – you can often short-circuit the level curve by equipping the right mixture of elemental attacks and abilities. There’s also the “Tactics Tweaker”, a pleasantly nobbly Fisher Price settings panel that lets you boost things like resistance to poison or mana recovery speed at the cost of weakening your party in other respects.
Best of all, though, are the Higgledy-Piggledies, gaggles of dancing elemental sprites who blow about underfoot like leaves as the melee unfolds, duplicating themselves and coughing up the odd buff, debuff or energy projectile. At intervals groups of Higgledies will briefly form a circle and call out to you: hit X while standing in that circle, and they’ll perform an ultimate move such as a group heal or conjuring up a water cannon to hose down an elusive boss. They’re a powerful, semi-randomised terrain variable, in other words, and the consequence is that Ni no Kuni 2’s clashes feel surprising and exhilarating long after you’ve committed character combos and ability hot-keys to memory. I won many a bruising encounter by triggering a Higgledy special in the nick of time with the last person standing.
You can bring up to four Higgedly sets into the fray and there are dozens to concoct, collect and level up. Matching them effectively takes a fair amount of science. Higgledies have personality traits like Shy and Outgoing, for example, performing better when they’re partnered with Higgledies who have the opposing trait. Some Higgledies may also imitate other groups when they perform their ults, granting you two mega gravity attacks or mass defence buffs for the price of one. Tactical nuances aside, Higgledies create a wonderfully silly ambience in combat, shrilling for attention like stray ducklings only to be sent flying by some cataclysmic AOE spell.
On top of the party combat there are less frequent army battles, some mandatory as part of the story, some initiated by strolling up to war banners on the world map. These see you picking units from four varieties – spear, ranged, sword, hammers – who form a cross around Evan as you rove the terrain duffing up opposing forces. The basic trick is to rotate the cross with the shoulder buttons so that units come into contact with enemies they have an edge over, while spending finite Military Might to replenish their ranks and activate special abilities such as airstrikes or poisoned ammunition. Rock-paper-scissors meets Total War with a splash of Pikmin, in short. It’s skin-deep next to the baroque frenzy of party combat, but it’s a decent palate-cleanser and later battles put the fundamentals under stress. You’ll often find yourself in situations where rotating a squad to meet its optimal foe means sending another into harm’s way, and there are fortifications and giant monsters to worry about on top of other units.
With time, Ni no Kuni 2’s lavish array of systems grind away any ennui you might feel about the story. There are the usual JRPG sins of a world bloated with loot and resources and missions that are essentially there to sponge up the hours, but most of it feeds satisfyingly into kingdom-building and the party combat. Is a loss of awe and mystique the price we must pay for a game that is so ripe with little things to do, poke at and throw around on the field of war? I’m not sure it is – the Suikoden games were similarly big-bottomed, and had terrific, gripping stories to boot – but I can’t deny that I’ve enjoyed the ride.