Somehow this game feels both traditional and totally new, and I'm loving it.
It's very easy for a JRPG to become repetitious - it can fall back into the same old tropes and get lost in its faux-grand storyline.
It's not the games aren't trying their best to be original - usually they are, but when you boil everything down it's always the same: Some evil group or person is threatening the kingdom, so a group of ragtag rebels seek to take them down all the while - something eviler lurks beneath the surface.
It's a simple formula, but it's effective. Hell, Final Fantasy has made an entire franchise out recycling that plot over and over and over and over again. But Final Fantasy makes the right changes - they fix up the game play or add a few more elements that previous games have never had before. They attempt to improve.
Level 5's Ni No Kuni II doesn't just attempt to improve - it succeeds. It takes it's simple plot, and packs it with so much fun things to do that you don't even realize that you've definitely played something like it before. Whether your mustering up your troop or building up your town Dark Cloud-style - you'll never stop having fun.
In Ni No Kuni II, you are introduced to the President of a pseudo-United States, just as one of his major cities is bombed. He is caught in the blast, but before he perishes, he is teleported to the land of Ding Dong Dell. Not only that, he appears in the room of a young would-be king Evan, just as his Kingdom is about to be taken out from under him. Throughout the rest of the game, you travel with young Evan to save the world and build a new kingdom.
There's a lot of good and most of it rests in the new stuff that Level 5 added to the game compared to its predecessor. The battle system is astounding and does away with the weird Pokémon-esque monster mechanics that made the first game a slog. Instead, they have smooth, dynamic hack-and-slash qualities. Meanwhile, mysterious creatures named Higgledies offer small support on the side. There's a lot going on, but the game never overwhelms you - and the system manages to bridge that gap of being both intense and simple enough to still be enjoyable.
Then on the other end of the spectrum, we have the game's lighter, mini-game-like Skirmish system. You see, as you are building your new nation, you have to go and claim land and also defend your land from invaders. So, you rally your troops and take them out on the battlefield. Evan rests in the center and you make the troops move around him - matching them up with the foes they are built to beat (i.e. small blades beat big hammers). All of this is done in a chibi style that takes the intensity out and feels much more fun.
Then you have settlements! Now, I'm not super huge on settlements in games - but this reminded me so much of Dark Cloud that I couldn't help but love it. Sure, you don't get to decide where buildings go, but you get to allocate villagers to do jobs and you get to grow a kingdom. It's surprisingly involved and doesn't feel like an unnecessary annoyance to an already great game.
Unfortunately, not everything is as amazing as I'd like it to be. While the chibis are a fun little bit of design in the Skirmish challenge - I wish they weren't our Overworld sprites. In Ni No Kuni II, you traverse a large Overworld map, and unlike the previous game (where you were just your characters moving along the map), you are now chibi-fied versions of your characters. It's a little too sweet, and while this game isn't supposed to be super dark - I would have liked to have felt more grandeur and less cutesy.
And it's lucky that the game is so fun, otherwise you would start to notice how familiar the story is. But again, when you've got a game this fun, it's difficult to really call it's story a flaw.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Buy this! Play this! Enjoy it! It's a fun game that will keep you entertained for hours - especially if you're a fan of the JRPG genre. It adds a lot of new and keeps a lot of the old, and it's minor flaws are overshadowed by literally everything. It's involved and has a layer of difficulty that's carefully masked by it's simplistic story and design - giving you a game that's as intelligent as it is exciting to play.
Shann Smith is a lover of video games and has played them since he could hold a controller. He is a freelance writer, playwright, screenwriter, and also writes the Video Gay-Mer column on Popdust. If you have any games you'd like him to unpack, hit him up.
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