RPGs tend to wallow in the familiar. Once a franchise establishes a winning formula, many developers stick to what works, simply refining and tweaking the core elements. With change comes risk, and that’s scary when financial viability is on the line. It can feel like if you’ve played one game in a series, you know what to expect from them all; see Etrian Odyssey and Tales. That doesn’t mean these game aren’t fun, it just means they’re comfortable giving its fan base more of the same. I have plenty of favorite series that are prone to this, and part of me likes knowing what I’m getting, but another part starts to get bored with the same old mechanics.
Doubling down on improving a series' bread and butter makes sense, but in the quest for perfecting these features, some creativity is lost and the magic fades some. Franchise fatigue is a real concern when developers aren’t doing enough to make their games feel new and exciting. That’s why I’m so impressed with Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. After the success of the first game (which I didn’t like nearly as much as most people did), Level-5 could have stayed complacent and just worked on creating a new story. Instead, it radically changed the gameplay and it’s a better game for it. Ni no Kuni II feels drastically different from the first Ni no Kuni in its gameplay mechanics, but it still retains the gorgeous Studio Ghibli-inspired visuals and the imaginative landscapes. Playing the game has been refreshing and fun for this very reason.
Instead of a turn-based battle system, Ni no Kuni II introduces real-time combat, giving you access to both melee and ranged attacks. You control only one character, but have an arsenal of special attacks and the ability to activate higgledies which come equipped with their own powers. While I miss collecting and growing familiars, finding and creating higgledies became just as engaging. I like that you balance between activating their powers, making sure you don’t place your character in a vulnerable position, and powering up your special attacks to do heavy damage. The only knock I have at the game is the battles are easy, but if you face special, optional bosses, you can find a challenge there. This battle system is leagues better than the first game’s and it also doesn’t hurt that the A.I. is much improved, too.
However, my favorite addition to Ni no Kuni II is the kingdom building. Look, the Suikoden fan in me will never stop loving this part of games. Finding new people to recruit and seeing where they fit best in the facilities you build is always a treat, but what I love most is managing where my money is most effective. You can level-up facilities for better research opportunities, build new ones to bring in better resources to your kingdom, or invest in the current research options, which provide various bonuses. Watching my kingdom grow and finding new members to bolster it is a highlight, and I like how it connects to the story, uniting kingdoms for the betterment of the world.
Skirmishes are another new addition, though I was less than captivated. They have a bit of a learning curve, but when you get the hang of positioning your troops and using your special skills, they can feel really rewarding. I just wish my soldiers were a bit easier to move around, as plenty get lost in the environment.
I’m really enjoying Ni no Kuni II and a lot of it has been because of these gameplay changes. I’m so damn hooked to the kingdom building and recruiting. While the story certainly connects to this well, it has yet to completely pull me in, but there’s still plenty of time for it to heat up since I’m only around 15 hours in. It may not nail every new element, but it gets the stuff it needs to right.
Still, what keeps striking me is how rare it is that we see such a shakeup in a successful series’ formula, and I applaud Level-5 for listening to feedback and giving the second entry its own identity. In a risk-averse industry, that’s worth celebrating, and I wish more developers challenged themselves to be bolder. Our time with any RPG is long; getting a different experience can make a huge difference for engagement.
For more on Ni no Kuni II, you can read Joe's review here.
How are you enjoying the game so far? Let me know in the comments below.