Welcome to our Game In Progress review of Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. This second installment covers everything through Evan’s return to Ding Dong Dell. As always, we invite you to play along as we continue King Evan’s quest to unite the world of Ni No Kuni.
There’s no two ways about it: The villain of Ni No Kuni II is a human embodiment of government corruption. Sure, the game gives Doloran, an evil sorcerer in a pretty badass golden cobra helmet, a personal motive for his potentially world-ending plot, but before he can put that scheme into action, he has to go around pushing world leaders to treacherous extremes, eventually severing the figurative and, because this is a weird fantasy land, literal bonds between them and their nations. We already saw this in Goldpaw, the glitzy casino town where the people entrust all legal and tax matters to chance and whose ruler Doloran drove to rig the system.
It was surprising to see Ni No Kuni II take that much of a political turn. It’s been even more shocking to watch how hard it leans into it as the story progresses. Every new kingdom brings with it a new ruler with a new weakness for Doloran to exploit, and each rubs up against some legitimate real-world concern in a way that manages to be impressively forward while maintaining the game’s fairy tale feel. The common thread, as is usually the case, is good intentions. In the Mediterranean-inspired Hydropolis, the Queen’s over-protection in the wake of a great calamity has turned the island nation into an irrationally policed surveillance state, complete with a massive, magical eyeball looming over its white stone buildings.
Queen Nerea is doing what she can to save her people in the only way she knows how, but it comes at the cost of restricting their freedom and distancing herself from them. Unlike in Goldpaw, where the population remained blissfully trustful of its flimflamming governor, this doesn’t go unnoticed by the citizens. They bemoan the laws—the most ludicrous being the criminalization of love, a bizarre twist that ends up well suited for Hydropolis’ operatic aesthetic and story arc—and even the effect they’re having on local business. Because of that, and the population’s wariness of Nerea’s seclusion, Doloran doesn’t have to do much to push the country over the edge and sever the queen’s connection.
There’s even more civil unrest in our heroes’ next destination. Broadleaf is a brass-covered steampunk nation inside a massive tower, and it’s treated as both a country and a tech company that employs all of its citizens. Your time there is full of subtle nods to the kind of corporate speak we associate with Google and Amazon—calling the tower a “campus” and its citizens “team members.” Its leader, the amazingly named CEO and president Zip Vector, looks like a Bill Gates stand in and has a backstory straight out of the Apple history books.
Upon arriving, you walk into the middle of a bona fide labor dispute between Zip and the protesting proletariat who he’s been working non-stop on a new reactor he swears will revolutionize energy. He just wants to complete the machine, and he doesn’t care about endangering the lives of his people to do it, we’re told. That much becomes obvious when, in a moment of top quality evil CEO talk, he declares he’s “going to have to let some people go” and calls upon Broadleaf’s kingmaker—the gargantuan beast whose blessing is required to rule a nation in Ni No Kuni II’s world—to attack the protesters. All the while, we see the purple glow of Doloran’s corrupting influence flaring up around him, preying upon his ambition and pushing him to disregard his people in the pursuit of progress.
The fourth and final kingdom Evan must convince to sign his global treaty is Ding Dong Dell, a place struggling with the racial tension between cat people and mouse people. It also happens to be Evan’s former home and the nation he was destined to lead until his father, a stately lion king, was poisoned and a military coup forced him to flee. In his absence the nefarious Mausinger has risen to power and made it his mission to oppress the land’s cat people, reversing what he sees as decades of racial discrimination against his mouse people.
The game does a great job of making this a trying homecoming for Evan, who spent his life in privilege, cooped up in a castle and unaware of any hardship the mice might have faced just because of their race. Hearing all the mice in Ding Dong Dell tell him how great it is that they’re finally free of that discrimination forces him to confront what went on outside those castle walls. With Doloran’s influence whispering in his ear, Mausinger goes so far as to claim he was made the King’s right-hand man as a way of pacifying the mice, making Evan question his father’s reign and seek out the truth about his relationship with Mausinger and all of mousekind. In the end, Evan finds a diary full of nothing but praise for his father’s companion and regret over not being better able to unite these two races, but Mausinger is too far gone to listen to reason.
In all four kingdoms, Doloran’s plan goes off without a hitch. He exploits the weaknesses of these leaders—whether greed, fear, ambition, or vengefulness—to the point that they’re no longer fit to rule and he can steal the mystical bond between them and their land. In the end, though, this is still a happy-go-lucky fairy tale. Their bonds may be broken, but the leaders seemingly stay in power regardless and their misdeeds are instantly forgiven. The rushed tidiness of these arcs is especially bad in Hydropolis, where the story goes off in some unexpected directions but glosses over enough specifics about what is going on that what we’re left with doesn’t even make sense.
But Ni No Kuni II doesn’t seem to care about the specifics of these stories. It cares about using these corrupted governments and rulers as the centers of simple political fables for young Evan to learn from. His big goal is lasting world peace, but this journey is just as much about shaping what kind of leader he’s going to be for Evermore. He’s definitely getting some good examples of what not to do, but from his time with these other leaders, all of whom eventually come to their senses, he’s learning empathy and courage and sacrifice.
His growth comes out most obviously during big story moments, but it also plays into one of the game’s largest other components: building your kingdom. At all times while you’re exploring the world, the folks back home are working hard to keep the place running and help you in your quest for peace. It’s essentially an idle clicker game, like Candy Box or Cookie Clicker, with progress bars that are constantly filling in the background and need to be maintained every once in a while by storing all the cash you’ve made, building new facilities, and directing research into all sorts of helpful perks. From the surface, it looks a lot like the kind of cold, capitalistic enterprise Zip is running in Broadleaf, but the game always pushes you to interact with your citizens as people—with specialties and dreams and growth of their own—rather than the bundles of 1s and 0s that help all your little meters go up.
After a few dozen hours of Ni No Kuni II, I’ve settled into a steady groove of progressing the story, improving Evermore (something you can largely ignore if you find it too tedious), and whittling away side-quests (ditto for these, which start to get more monotonous this deep into the game), but I keep being pleasantly surprised by the places this story is willing to go. When starting out on this whimsical anime game, I definitely didn’t expect to walk into a tech-company-turned-nation-state where overworked citizens are rebelling against their ruthlessly capitalistic Jeff Bezos-esque chief. It’s frankly amazing that the game pulls from real-world parallels that deep, and while it does approach them with the touch of a lighthearted storybook, I can’t deny how much I’m reveling in the unflappable spirit with which it sticks it to corrupt rulers like Zip.