Welcome to our Game In Progress review of Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. This first installment deals mainly in the game’s story and covers approximately the first dozen hours, ending with the first signing of the Declaration Of Interdependence in Goldpaw. As always, we invite you to play along as we continue King Evan’s quest to unite the world of Ni No Kuni.
Ni No Kuni II is a hugely different game from the original, but what these two vibrant fairy tales do share is a jarringly grim opening. The first game used the death of a parent in the real world to set up a child’s adventure into a fantasy realm where the grief he’s feeling is echoed in the broken-hearted characters he’ll meet and assist as he tries to revive his mother. Dark as it may be, especially when compared to the dozens of hours that follow, it’s a pretty conventional story-book opening, sparking Oliver’s typical hero’s journey and setting up the game’s implicit focus on trauma and depression. It wouldn’t feel out of place in any of the Studio Ghibli films with which Ni No Kuni shares its DNA.
Its sequel also begins in the real world, but the tragedy that kicks off this game is bafflingly grandiose. We’re inside the limo of the president of the United States. As it drives toward some unidentifiable American city, a nuclear missile lands, decimating everything and knocking the president from his car. He looks at the destruction, collapses, and wakes up in the fantasy world of Ni No Kuni looking 20 years younger and embroiled in a coup over a kingdom called Ding Dong Dell. The president, who turns out to be named Roland, settles in rather quickly for a guy who just witnessed an unimaginable atrocity and found himself in an alternate reality. Soon enough, you find out he’s not even the focus of the story, which is instead built around Evan, the young former king of Ding Dong Dell, and his attempt to forge a new kingdom rather than seize back the one he lost.
But despite getting quickly tossed aside, that atom-bomb imagery is unsurprisingly hard to shake and ends up serving a similar symbolic purpose as the death of Oliver’s mother in the first Ni No Kuni. It’s there to frame the game’s endearingly optimistic political outlook. As Evan’s new kingdom, Evermore, takes shape, his goal shifts from just making a place where people are happy to live to connecting with the rest of Ni No Kuni’s countries and establishing what’s basically a fantasy U.N., uniting them under a banner of peace and prosperity. Perhaps later in this review series we’ll find out what exactly led to the United States getting nuked, but stripped of context, what we’re seeing is the game’s anti-war crusade kicked off with the most destructive act of war humanity has ever dreamed up. Add in the fact that it happened on the soil of a nation that’s unfathomably powerful and also foolishly hawkish (at least in our miserable reality; who knows what kind of president Roland is) and you have a potent warning for the horrible devastation Ni No Kuni might bring upon itself if its countries and races continue the kind of bickering that fills its history books and led to Evan’s ouster.
That bleak and timely omen sets the stage for Evan’s peacemaking journey, but it and even the violent coup against him take a backseat to the game’s overwhelming hopefulness, which manifests brightly in Evan himself. In the scene where he first blurts out that he’s going to put a stop to war, his adult advisers, standing in for any players older than Evan’s age, stare at him incredulously. President Roland, in another timely nod to real-world politics, even postulates that the only way to end war completely would be for countries to close their borders and cut off communication. But realizing isolationism is just another way of tearing people apart, Evan instead proposes bringing the world together with a “Declaration Of Interdependence,” a binding document by which every nation in Ni No Kuni will swear to never go to war with another. Reluctant as Roland and the other adults might be, everyone decides to roll with it. Evan is a king, yes, but he’s also a naive prepubescent catboy with a big heart and even bigger dreams. His unfettered optimism is just too infectious to deny.
The same goes for Ni No Kuni II as a whole. Beyond its anti-war story—which will take Evan and company to several kingdoms where, if the first is any indication, something has driven each local government to surreptitiously turn against its people—is a mercifully nimble JRPG with lushly realized locales, like Goldpaw, a ravishing fusion of neon-lit casino gaudiness and traditional Japanese architecture that’s led by a bug-eyed anthropomorphic pug. Although Studio Ghibli, which co-produced the first game, was not involved with the sequel’s development, outside of a single character designer and composer Joe Hisaishi, it dutifully replicates the legendary animation house’s colorful style, particularly when it comes to the game’s large, evocative monsters. And Hisaishi’s music is exemplary, greatly amplifying the game’s enveloping warmth with dense, woodwind-forward compositions. (Be sure to stop and listen in the Forest Of Niall. It’s gorgeous.)
That residual Ghibli spirit goes well beyond the look and sound. You can see the studio’s history of using accessible animated fare to explore deeper themes in Ni No Kuni II’s worldview. Just as the first game did with its undertones of loss, depression, and acceptance, the sequel spins a lighthearted tale about unity and the worthwhile struggle for peace, while also finding room for elemental sprites and a googly-eyed, Welsh-accented deity who flings boogers to solve problems. And while it most certainly has a simplistic way of looking at the world, when there’s so much cynicism surrounding us in our everyday, it makes entertainment this boldly, earnestly optimistic all the more revitalizing.