(Pocket-lint) - Back in 2010 Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was the epitome of a cult game, delighting the non-conformist subset of gamers who harbour an obsession with Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs, as they're universally known) but refusing to pander to those who prefer their action real-time and preferably involving guns. Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, however, is a thoroughly different beast.
While it may share an achingly cute visual style with its predecessor – it looks like a movie created by the legendary kings of anime, Studio Ghibli, where developer Level-5's art director Yoshiyuki Momose used to work – its gameplay has more in common with heavyweight, action-based open-world RPGs like The Witcher 3. There's the no doubt that it has the chops to launch a bid to establish JRPGs as legitimately mainstream.
Cat-ears and kookiness
This time around, you play as Evan, a young boy-king with cat-ears. As a native of the land of Ding Dong Dell, he is a cat-human known as a Grymalkin. Following the death of his father, Evan is about to ascend to the throne of Ding Dong Dell, when disaster strikes in the form of a coup by Mausinger, a mouse-human who was his father's most trusted advisor. With the aid of Roland, teleported in mysteriously from a world which looks suspiciously like our own, Evan escapes and embarks, in classic RPG style, on a series of quests.
Initially, those involve local Sky Pirates, and when Evan has performed various missions on their behalf, he's finally elevated to full kingship, after proving his kingly status with puzzle-solving and a boss-battle, and being bonded to a Kingmaker – in his case a tiny creature known ironically as Lofty, whereas all the other Kingmakers are giant bosses which must be fought at some point.
But while Evan is now officially a king, he has no kingdom. So, after more questing – much of it in the gambling-obsessed, glorious-looking city of Goldpaw – he lays the foundations of his own kingdom, Evermore. At which point Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom reveals the full extent of its scope and ambition.
In its first four or five hours Ni no Kuni II feels a bit linear, mainly because it is determined to introduce you to its various gameplay mechanics and protagonists as gently and understandably as possible. But Evermore brings a Civilization-style Kingdom Builder element to the game, which chugs away in the background and cleverly feeds into every other aspect, becoming increasingly crucial as you progress.
Ni no Kuni II retains plenty of the classic elements that habitually constitute JRPGs, such as a battle system (thankfully real-time rather than turn-based this time around), monster-battles that pop up while you're traversing the world, and an ever-growing cast of characters you can draft into your three-man party (each of whom you can switch between during battles).
But it adds several gameplay elements more commonly found in Western RPGs. Along with the Kingdom Builder, there's a Skirmish system influenced by RTS games, which sees you control an army split into four battalions and which adds a more tactical element to proceedings (although in truth, Skirmishes aren't as much fun as the main action).
Plus the game has a set of mazy dungeons which feel procedurally generated. And Evan gradually accumulates spells which let him access previously inaccessible paths (for example by making mushrooms grow so that he can jump onto them).
Once Evermore is established, the open world really unfolds, rewarding exploration.
At the heart of the game lies an exemplary battle system. It's easy to grasp, giving you light and heavy melee attacks, a block, a ranged attack and four magic attacks that must be charged with mana.
At first, you're inclined to stick to the default party of Evan, Roland and Tani – the last of whom is a young Sky Pirate with ranged weapons specialism. But when you start to come up against high-level monsters and difficult bosses, it pays to shuffle party-members, and to pay attention to how to use the Kingdom Builder to learn new spells and upgrade existing ones.
There's no skills tree, but equipping the right armour, weapons and kit, along with adding new spells to your armoury, is vital – again, you can return to Evermore to research weapons and armour.
Sink into the story
Story-wise, Ni no Kuni II is imbued with a similar vibe to the Zelda games. Its narrative is told from a child-like perspective, but that doesn't mean that it fails to explore serious themes, such as how power inevitably corrupts. It even has a pop at the hubris of modern Silicon Valley companies which essentially acquire the power of full-blown nations without the accompanying responsibility.
Underlying everything is Evan's rather naïve take on the world, signalling a theme of how innocence can triumph over creeping evil. So while the game superficially seems directed towards kids, in reality it operates on an adult level, too. Which will strike a chord with anyone who has played a Zelda game.
It's satisfyingly meaty, also, with a main story that should keep you occupied alone for more than 30 hours, and countless side-missions and activities for those looking to secure the most desirable loot.
Its visuals are also to die for: its vibrant, primary-colour palette alone puts all those games seemingly constructed entirely from black, brown and grey to shame. The cities, in particular, are visual feasts occupied by interesting characters that you will spend hours exploring from top to bottom.
Overall, Ni no Kuni II shows that JRPGs can retain their unique and very Japanese charm, yet provide all the depth of gameplay along with instantly accessible and enjoyable action, that the very best Western RPGs provide.
Anyone who has any sort of penchant for RPGs will therefore find Ni no Kuni II utterly irresistible – it really does feel like the never-previously-achieved intersection between the Zelda series and the likes of The Witcher 3.