Yahtzee reviews Ni no Kuni II.
You remember Ni no Kuni I: Wrath of the White Witch Who Doesn't Show Up Until, Like, Right at the End; it was that heartwarming Studio Ghibli JRPG about a little boy who fucking stone-cold kills his mum and then skips town so he can blow his allowance on pixie dust and parties up in Fantasyland with two older kids and a gonk. Well, they put out a sequel to it, one that's basically completely unconnected to the first one 'cos the protagonist of that is presumably stumbling on the side of a highway by now in a drug-addled haze. Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is, sadly, not a game about a society run by rocket launcher-wielding giant skeletons, but a typically twee cartoon fantasy JRPG with a slightly off-putting title.
Now, I wasn't sure I was going to do this game, because you know what I'm like with JRPGs that aren't called EarthBound or Persona 5: I'll be rolling my eyes dismissively at the first sign of hairdos that look like they were crafted out of brightly-colored mashed potato by an extremely bored child who can't leave the table. But precisely thirty seconds into the plot, I had a feeling I was going to have to talk about this one, firstly in a review, and then maybe in some kind of inquest into what the fuck Japan has been playing at for the last thirty years or so.
So here's how the story starts: the president of the United States is on his way to a summit of the U.N. when the city he's driving through gets hit by a direct nuclear strike. Don't worry, you didn't just turn over two pages at once; this is still Ni no Kuni II. Moments before death, the president is transported to a fantasy world; specifically, to the bedchamber of a little prince boy wearing cat ears. Well, that's one explanation, anyway, but maybe you should save it for the hearing, Mr. President. Also, he gets de-aged about thirty years for no particular reason except it's the law that JRPG protagonists can't look old enough to buy a health potion without getting carded. Fortuitously enough, the royal castle is in the middle of a coup, and the president rescues the prince from the ensuing purge by drawing his sidearm and straight icing some motherfuckers before deciding maybe he shouldn't go 100% Ash Williams on this shit and picks up a sword to ice motherfuckers with instead.
At this point, I was more on board than a superglue enthusiast cheating at a surf competition, but I got a sinking feeling after the president gets the deposed prince - Evan, he's called, which, you'll note, is very nearly "naïve" spelled backwards - to safety and the prince declares he's going to found a much better kingdom with blackjack and hookers. I was like, "Oh, don't you fucking dare make this little twerp the main character now, game! I want to be President Kickass! He's smart and capable, with a hint of darkness to him, and, all in all, is probably written by someone with archaic ideas of what it takes to be a world leader. But then again, the protagonist does need to go through an arc, and President Kickass is about as arced out as a McDonald's logo from the word 'go', so fine, we'll play it your way, 'King' Evan. But just so you know, the instant we unlock more characters than the standard party size allows, then you're going straight on the fucking bench; the guy in charge spearheading the adventuring party didn't make sense in Star Trek, and it doesn't make sense now."
President Kickass agrees to be Evan's chief advisor, 'cos hey, turns out statecraft is his primary skillset, and it's not like he's got any major dental appointments coming up, so the pair set out to find a new land and some subjects who'll agree to join their Treehouse Club for Cool Dudes, which turns out to be slightly easier than it sounds. There's a big old chunk of resource-rich, highly defensible land right around the corner that, for some reason, no one has claimed; maybe someone saw the unpopular kids hanging around it, so the fantasy United Nations declared it "That Smelly Land for Gaylords".
Sadly, after the effective opening hook that is President Kickass, the plot settles into achingly typical fantasy JRPG territory: Evan and friends travel from city to city, sort out major civic problem du jour, pick up a party member, fight a boss, and then all aboard the ship, or the airship, or whatever you need to unlock the way to the next city. Every city is having its own issues with a tyrant ruler, but of course, the only reason any of them are doing bad things is because the big baddie has corrupted them with wibbly-wobbly purple badness juice. When I say "bad", I suppose I mean "contrary to Evan's interests", 'cos I don't think he wants to be throwing stones in the "good/bad" area, considering that his stated goal is to take over the entire motherfucking world and create eternal peace. Yeah, sure, Evan; you just want peace! It's all these unhelpful types who don't want to be subjugated that's stirring up the trouble; you'd have peace in no time if only they'd calm down and hold still while President Kickass stabs them to death.
So Ni no Kuni II is juggling a few layers of gameplay: first of all, standard combat, which is a full-on real-time hack-and-slash affair rather than turn-based battling, or indeed, that godawful hybrid system Ni no Kuni I had, which was like being unable to decide if you're going to walk or take the subway train, so you try to do both at once with different feet. You've got your light attack, heavy attack, dodge, and block, but 90% of the combat is a visually-cluttered punch-up with groups of weak dudes, so you can get through most of it perfectly well just mashing "Attack" and occasionally doing a big clearing special move when they start getting too fresh and you need personal space. At other times, like in boss fights, you might as well not bother with blocking at all, since getting into "Block" stance on the spur of the moment takes, I'd say, without hyperbole, about 5,000 years; plus, it doesn't absorb everything and only works from a specific angle, like a very badly-designed tampon.
So that's the basic combat, but there's also the kingdom management element, which isn't terribly deep. Sadly, you don't get to set the tax rate or oversee the laying of the poo pipes; it's more your Facebook management game thing: build stuff to earn money to build more stuff to earn more money. So, management in the sense of tying a piece of string to a slug so you can "manage" it along a drain pipe. Your kingdom also generates a constant stream of vendor trash inventory that you can collect on the off chance that one of the game's several trillion fetch quests will ask for some of it.
Lastly, there are also skirmish battles that play like a basic real-time strategy where all your units are glued to the same Lazy Susan. It's not terrible as gameplay interludes go, but that's kind of what it and a lot of the kingdom management stuff feels like: an interlude rather than interconnected. The thing is, as the game wore on, I inevitably started to feel under-leveled for the main story missions, so I took time off from the plot to run through some side stuff, and after three hours of aggressive citizen headhunting, toy soldier battles, and fetching people sandwiches, I realized, "Hang on! My standard combat ability has improved by basically fuck-all! So what was the bloody point?!"
Overall, Ni no Kuni II feels a bit hacked-out, as sequels go; you'll note the conspicuously small monster variety and conspicuously absent animated Studio Ghibli cutscenes like what the first had, and the story runs the gamut between total predictability and utter nonsense. The conclusion to the ocean city segment leaps to mind: there was a disaster, but the queen is keeping the city alive with a magic time loop and a giant staring eyeball. What are you on about, Fishy Tits?! You forbid love, 'cos if the population changes, then the city explodes or something; well, I just headhunted, like, twelve guys from your main square, so you're... probably fucked? Have you considered solving everything with the power of friendship? Usually works for me! Fucking cheaper than fossil fuels...
- Hail to the king baby: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- People go on about creating world peace but point out that cemeteries are real fucking peaceful and suddenly you're the monster
- Power of friendship still outperforming hydroelectric