It was only after playing it—or, rather, two boss battles featuring in what is probably quite a long game—that I learned that Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom had been pushed back to 2018. Originally slated for release in November, the Level-5-developed, Bandai Namco-published RPG will now come out on January 19th next year. Which is naturally a blow for anyone looking forward to the game this side of Christmas, a time when many are off work enough to put significant hours into an RPG of choice.
A statement was released. "We've decided that more development time is required in order to deliver the full Ni No Kuni II experience to our fans," read the words of Level-5 CEO and president Akihiro Hino. "I deeply apologize to those who've been looking forward to the game's release. Please rest assured, however, that we will continue to strive to provide a deep and satisfying single-player experience that our fans can look forward to enjoying."
Reasonable words, and far from uncommon in their sentiments when it comes to game development. Ones, though, that might set those fans into a panic. What's so far from ready that the game needs to move back in the schedule? I can't say for sure—but having taken the game's battle system for a couple of spins, I'm confident that this side of proceedings is about as tight as it needs to be.
Revenant Kingdom is set a few hundred years after the events of its predecessor, Wrath of the White Witch—as such, there's no immediate need, from what I can tell, to be too familiar with the adventures of Oliver and Drippy (aka the greatest Welsh games character that there's ever been). There's lore history to respect, of course, but the new game will likely fill in any necessary blanks.
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The sequel casts the player as a feline-looking sort called Evan, a furry-eared young king of his tribe no less, and surrounds him with supporting allies. And it's as Evan that you'll be taking the fight to all manner of creatures great and small, using a system much changed from the first game.
I didn't stick with Wrath until its completion—one day, I keep telling myself, knowing that it's incredibly unlikely I'll ever return to the PS3 exclusive. But I never got comfortable with its combat, where Oliver could wander around a gated area, tossing attacks at opponents, issuing commands from a little bubble menu in the bottom left. You could tame "familiars" to aid your effort, leveling up beside Oliver; but these are absent from the sequel.
In their place are the Higgledies, kinda Pikmin-like little sprites that cluster in color-coordinated groups and offer Evan various boosts, from elemental protection to increased attack power. Holding down a shoulder trigger activates a selection of special abilities, powered by the Higgledies and activated by the face buttons—fireballs for distance attacks, and increased damage close-range strikes, too. By approaching the different groups, Evan can benefit from their power and protection at the press of a button. Otherwise he can simply swing away at foes with action-RPG like sword slashes, both weak and strong, and both guard and dodge when needed.
Using the Higgledies is essential in overcoming one of the two bosses I face, the dragon-like Longfang, whose vast size is complemented by enormous amounts of health. Evan and auto-attacking companions can hack away at the beast, but its fiery breath can mean death in no time at all. Thankfully, the red-orange Higgledies, when Evan gets into the middle of them, can provide a barrier against Longfang's deadly blasts—and once I settled into a rhythm of going on the attack before scurrying back to this oasis of protection, that massive health bar slowly but surely shrank. Others in the same session had fallen to this behemoth several times, so when I got the better of it, you can bet I let them know.
Tough but fair, then—a slog, some might argue, but for me the balance between offense and cowering behind a magical flame shield (merely guarding can offer limited protection, too, at the expense of some health points—but not against Longfang's biggest attacks) was quite excellently managed. I felt on edge throughout, like one mistake could leave Evan a charred corpse. The temptation to land another blow constantly had to be beaten down, because I knew, from dying the first time, this was not an enemy to be given so much as an inch.
And the thrill of victory? Amongst the sweetest, the smuggest, I've felt in an RPG for some time—more so, indeed, than anything immediately memorable in either Breath of the Wild orThe Witcher 3. And those are my favorite games. I daren't say that Ni No II is much like that game with the initials "DS," you know the one, but knowing what I do about friends and peers overcoming considerable odds in those titles, hell, maybe this far-cuter-looking adventure has some comparable contests in store.
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Thogg, who is the next boss I face off against, isn't one of them. This is a part of the game where Evan has to prove his mettle in a kind of trial in order to progress the narrative, and Thogg, while pretty brutish looking, is merely a lumbering ape compared to the deadly majesty of Longfang. It swings its fists and leaps into jump attacks, causing damage to anyone caught in a small impact area; but Evan's dodge is enough to steer clear of significant knocks here, projectile attacks shaving away the enemy's health until, crash, down it goes. So again it's the Higgledies that play a vital role, increasing speed to allow Evan to better dash around the arena, picking off smaller enemies who shoot arrows his way. It can get a little hectic, but it's really no sweat.
It is bloomin' gorgeous, though—while there's no direct Studio Ghibli involvement in the second Ni No Kuni, as there was the first, the unmistakable aesthetic of the famous Japanese studio remains present and correct here. The story will be all important to Revenant Kingdom's chances of success, and I suspect it's here that some of that extra development time will be put to good use—and, no doubt, refining UI and UX elements. But I'm already totally down with the violent side of this visual delight, in a way I never truly was with the original. It's enough to keep me excited for the end product when it belatedly lands next year.