Created by Professor Layton developer Level-5 and animated by the legendary Studio Ghibli ( Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro), Japanese role-playing game was a surprise hit on the PlayStation 3. Its story, a touching tale of childhood loss, was combined with classic RPG mechanics to great effect. At a time when the genre was abandoning its turn-based heritage in favour of supposedly Western-friendly real-time action, Ni No Kuni showed how a traditional game, with a few modern touches, could remain relevant.
Imagine my disappointment, then, when publisher Bandai Namco revealed that Ni No Kuni 2-due out on PlayStation 4 and PC on November 10-drops the excellent turn-based combat system of its predecessor to replace it with real-time combat. Having played two challenging battles from Ni No Kuni 2 here at E3, I’d be lying if I said I was totally convinced by the changes (the loss of Familiars, the Pokemon-like creatures that you caught to accompany you in battle, particularly stings). But that’s not to say the new combat system is a failure-it’s a lot of fun, once you understand the quirks.
But let’s start at the top. Ni No Kuni 2 tells the story of King Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum (yes really), the young, fox-eared ruler of the mythical kingdom of Ding Dong Dell. While a kindly character, Evan is considered too timid to rule the kingdom and is ousted by his own people. Undeterred, Evan enlists the help of a human from the real-world-a middle-aged teacher named Roland-in order to help win back his crown (and, according to Bandai Namco, give the game a mature edge). Along the way he meets the likes of Tani, daughter of a group of pirates, along with tiny spirit creatures called Higgledies.
Naturally, there’s a cute sidekick to accompany Evan on his journey too, although sadly Drippy is nowhere to be found. Instead, there’s Lofty, an adorable faerie that imbues Evan with wizard-like powers. Meeting Lofty atop the King’s Cradle-a mountain only accessible with the help of Tani’s pirate planes-is an early quest, showcasing combat and the insanely kawaii, chibi-like visuals of the world map. Before Evan meets Lofty, he must defeat Thogg, a brutish beast with a short temper and a mean ground-pounding attack.
While largely real-time, there’s still an element of menu mashing involved in combat. Square and Triangle launch light and strong attacks, while holding down the right trigger brings up a choice of four special attacks and magical powers. These include a water attack, which requires a surprisingly precise aim to use, along with a pair of sword swinging flurry attacks and a healing ability. All the while, Higgledies roam the combat area, launching elemental attacks, which are based on their colour. Red for fire, blue for ice, green for healing.
Being real-time, position is as important as the type of attacks you use, but the Higgledies introduce another layer of strategy. Each group will periodically glow, during which time Evan can give them a morale boost by joining them in battle, increasing their attacking strength. Combat is, by design, a much more frantic affair than that of Ni No Kuni, with each swing of the sword accompanied by a quick dash over to the Higgledies to secure some much needed backup.
A later battle takes place at a casino kingdom called Goldpaw, ruled by a dog named Pugnacious. Like all kingdoms Evan wishes to bring back under his rule, it’s guarded by a beast, in this case a crafty dragon named Longfang. Longfang is a far more challenging opponent than Thogg, with a devastating fire-breathing attack that pummels Evan’s party. Here, the positional nature of real-time combat comes to the fore, with Evan needing to avoid falling boulders and blasts of fire, while maintaining a steady stream of attacks. Moving to a real-time system certainly hasn’t made the game any easier.
While the combat may have changed, Ni No Kuni 2 is about the sum of its parts. The combat is entertaining, and is strengthened by slick visuals, charming characters, and a story that, on paper at least, is every bit as whimsical as that of its predecessor. There’s even online multiplayer promised. As I discovered, then, change needn’t always be a bad thing.
Ni No Kuni 2 launches on PlayStation 4 and Windows PC on November 10.