Design Review: Ni No Kuni 2 – When valuing the players time allow them to value your game

Hello, I’m Kinglink and today let’s do a design review on Ni No Kuni 2, which is one of the most impressive Japanese RPGs I’ve played in a very long time, possibly for the entirety of this console generation.

As always rather than just review the game we’re going to focus more on why Ni No Kuni 2 stands out and what it does that elevates it above other games in its genre. That genre is Japanese RPGs or JRPGs and they become kind of standard fare, they’ve been around since the 80s and most stick to the same tropes.

We’re going to start with the beginning of the story here. This is Prince Evan, a prince of Ding Dong Dell whose father, the king, has been murdered in a bloody coup. This game starts as a standard JRPG with the trope being father being murdered in a coup, however much of the game is focused on Evan’s desire to build a peaceful kingdom, we will return to that story a bit later.

We also have another main character here, Roland, and onscreen is an older version of Roland from the opening credits, where he is what I’m calling the President of the United States, at least that’s the presidential seal I recognize. I’ll skip talking more about this because it’s all very late game spoilers, as in the last hour is the only time this comes up again, but It’s strange that the game starts with a version of a president from Earth and does nothing with it even with those final moments, I think this was a wasted potential. But the idea is so over the top I had to mention it, maybe that was the point.

Roland is who I focused on most of my playthrough playing and will run around and shoot enemies with his pistols or slice enemies with his swords. I mean.. I’d vote for Roland. Sadly, Earth and his former presidency don’t appear to have a huge impact on the story here, but I do love the guts of doing this, especially in 2018. It just really needed more of a reason for existing.

The characters in Ni No Kuni 2 are a little older than the characters in the first game, and while Evan is still a young prince, he takes over a large amount of responsibility making him seem older. These characters have real problems, and while there is an adventure going on, there’s also a lot more at stake with this adventure, and the game makes that clear, and as such the story feels more developed because of this.

The anime-style here is solid, and the game is beautiful at times. The anime cutscenes are a little rare but the character designs are top-notch, and there’s some great work here. You’re going to want to keep pressing on to see the next scene, character, or location.

One thing that keeps Ni No Kuni 2 moving towards the next scene in the story is the battle system. Instead of a modal battle system that has to switch from the map to the battle system to a reward screen requiring multiple loading times or breaks in the action, the battles in Ni No Kuni 2 are done seamlessly in dungeons so players fluidly drop in and out of battles quickly.

Besides, the battles themselves are rather fast even on the world map screen, which does have minor loading times. Most battles will take under sixty seconds and I think most battles felt like they were closer to twenty seconds. While there are a decent amount of enemies that can feel like a grind, with the quick battles, they don’t feel like a bad experience, and they are just minor obstacles the player will have to get through.

Admittedly though, the battle system isn’t perfect here. In an early patch, the developers added difficulties into the game and I played most of Ni No Kuni 2 on Expert, the highest tier which gives better rewards. Even on Expert, there’s not a lot of challenges in the game, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to play this at launch because the battles are easy on normal. Granted I’d rather a game be too easy than too hard, but still, the difficulty even with expert difficulty is weak.

The dungeons in Ni No Kuni 2 are well-paced and don’t feel indulgent. There’re not many extremely long dungeons here. In fact, the one on the screen was a rescue mission which involved just a single boss battle, and while this feels like it sets up a trap back at the nearest town, it doesn’t.

Many dungeons in Ni No Kuni 2 feel like they’re shorter than the average dungeon in a JRPG, but that works well with the game trying to tell a story and allows for better pacing of the narrative. Rather than spend two or three hours slogging through a dungeon with almost no cutscenes, Ni No Kuni 2 focuses more on shorter and more interesting dungeons with minor puzzles.

You see Ni No Kuni 2 does something that I feel like most JRPGs don’t do that often. It values the player’s time and feels like the player is making constant progress, and I was ready for that big level jump which mandates grinding of enemies that is in almost every JRPG but it never happened.

However, this isn’t just a discussion of grinding. Instead, it’s about the massive number of ways Ni No Kuni 2 provides the player with an enjoyable experience, mostly resting on quality of life improvements and a lack of forced game systems. I can only imagine that this game was playtested a lot as almost anything the player wants to do is offered and most optional content is not required.

The biggest example of this in the game is the ability to travel through these Trip Doors, that’s what the game calls them. If you find a Trip Door, which is shown as a blue indicator on the screen, you can fast travel to that location from anywhere in the game when you’re not in a battle. That sounds good, but once you start using it, it’s incredible, there’s usually two or three of these in any large dungeon, so if you do need to return to town, you can return to where you were in the dungeon in seconds.

That means if there is a boss at the end of the dungeon, and you are under-leveled or need some gear, you can usually leave and do what you need, then return to the dungeon when desired and arrive at the end of the dungeon. I admit I didn’t use this function for about ten hours as the game is mostly linear there, and there wasn’t a need, but once I used the Trip Doors I never stopped, because they were hugely beneficial to the point that I considered using them just to teleport around towns. I didn’t need to do that often, but it was a valid option.

One other piece of the dungeons in Ni No Kuni 2 is that they’re interesting. Dungeons are always going to be in RPGs no matter what, but most games have a major flaw in that there is a clear design to their dungeons. Dungeons have a theme, and then you will walk through multiple screens with minimal interaction with the dungeon, and then at the end of every dungeon without fail is a boss battle no matter where the story takes you.

Ni No Kuni 2 rarely follows these rules. Dungeons and bosses can occur together but oftentimes bosses are about the story. You might have to go fight the Incinoraptor here. This is a major boss that the player has to get an item from, but it was in a dungeon that players traveled through earlier. There are also a couple of bosses that are in very small caverns.

There’s no set pattern to Ni No Kuni 2 dungeons or story progression. This made me more interested in going to the next section of the game because I didn’t know what I’d find, and the fact that I didn’t feel like I had to repeat the same action of a long dungeon followed by a standard boss made it more interesting to find out if there was either a dungeon, boss or one of the rare times they had both.

Considering the game took me over fifty hours, it’s not a lack of content or length, but a lack of a repetitive pattern that kept me interested.

The boss battles are good here, but they’re a series of super boss battles. Exactly what these are would be spoilers, so just realize there are a couple of better boss battles, and these knock it out of the park, almost every one of these super bosses are interesting, and have unique mechanics, including using these smaller summons to get some ability.

These small characters are called Higgledies, and the gold circled ones are special for the super boss battles, and give you some advantage. But the Higgledies are a great aspect of the battle system. I’ll be honest, they could have been explained a little better, but you bring some with you and you can use them to summon special powers. My favorite is the dark type, which seems the most powerful but I didn’t go super deep into the system. Hold on to the idea that I didn’t go deep into them for a moment.

I want to go back and talk about our main character and his desire once more. Prince Evan, eventually in his quest to end the war, creates a new Kingdom and names it Evermore. This becomes a major part of the game where the player can level up the town using the town’s currency and get benefits from the placed shops there.

Evermore is the secret sauce that makes Ni No Kuni 2 feel amazing. There are parts of it that will feel like Farmville, where you collect money, build up pieces of the town and start research on new topics, but that comparison is unfair because the player gets huge benefits out of all this research and rather than pestering people to do stuff in your game, you complete quests to find new residents.

The quest system here is top-notch, and there’s a lot of them, over 170 quests, and at least 100 citizens to recruit throughout the game. I loved collecting these quests and chasing down the goals because similar to the battle system many quests are rather fast, some are just completed with your inventory, but even quests that require the player to kill a specific target rarely take more than a few minutes at the most, especially later on in the game when the map has been fully explored, and your trip doors are set up.

As I said, the quality of life systems are good with Ni No Kuni 2. Each quest also gives some money, experience, and items so players will be rewarded no matter what they need and is a quick way to gain levels if players feel the need to grind.

So to go back to your kingdom quickly there’s a lot more that happens in the kingdom, but the one piece that surprised me with it was upgrading the kingdom to level 2. In level 1 the kingdom feels a bit small, so when I saw level 2, I was ready for a few more stores to open and maybe another small goal. Instead, the kingdom doubled in size with twice as many shops available, and every current shop got new tiers of progression.

This felt like a whole new addition to my kingdom and that’s really what I wanted to see. This is a major expansion and as such reaching level 2 is a major accomplishment, not just the changing a simple value. The experience feels like the player is growing a real country rather than a small village.

There are a ton more elements we can talk about such as skirmish battles, the tactics tweaker, there’s a ton of bonus dungeons, which do repeat maps a bit too often. There’s a deep inventory system if you want to explore it, and players will have tons of little features to mess with if they want to.

But that’s important here. Remember the Higgledies? I said I didn’t go super deep into them, which is true. On-screen is the Tactics Tweaker, a system I never touched after I got it. I just didn’t find it that interesting. I saved most of the quests for the late game, I barely developed or made my equipment at all. The Kingdom was mostly developed in the late game. There are entire features such as a couple of useful spells like unlocking special chests, and talking to spirits I didn’t even know about until the last chapter of the game. That’s a lot of stuff I didn’t play with.

And yet, Ni No Kuni 2 never required them, it never forced me back to playing with its various doodads, or missions. If I didn’t enjoy building Evermore, the game let me ignore it for the most part. If I didn’t like the Tactics Tweaker, which I didn’t like I didn’t feel penalized for ignoring it, and there was a way to recover all spent points if I did want to retry it.

This is the exact opposite of what Doom Eternal did. In Doom Eternal, every feature in the game had to be used by players, to maximize their chances to win, even on lower difficulties. Whereas Ni No Kuni 2 offered a bunch of content and if players decided they didn’t want those bonuses, they weren’t forced into using them.

There is a part of the player’s stats and skills that are tied to each of those systems mentioned, but the key is that this is the difference between an easy win, and a slightly more challenging win, rather than being a complete requirement for success. That’s what I found made Ni No Kuni 2 stand out. If the player wants to sink time in your bonus games, reward them for doing so. But at the same time, don’t make side quests and mini-games mandatory, and accept that players may choose to not utilize every function of your combat system.

This is one of the reasons that Triple Triad in Final Fantasy VIII or Gwent in Witcher 3 have become extremely popular. They were excellent modes that players wanted to participate in obsessively, rather than required game systems that players were forced to use. I personally like Blitzball a lot in Final Fantasy X, but the initial introduction to Blitzball is an extremely difficult match that most players will lose and they will feel jaded from that experience. When an interesting experience becomes a requirement it changes from a fun diversion to a chore the player has to use.

There’s tons more that Ni No Kuni 2 does, an auto-equip system for gear, the ability to skip cutscenes and dialogue if players want to, and great minimap icons. What Ni No Kuni 2 is doing with each of these choices is to think of the player, and not force them to play the game their way.

The key is that while almost all the side content is not required, a lot of it is still fun, and if you make great content like building Evermore, players will choose to do it. I love talking about just Evermore because I enjoyed my time with it. I could imagine needing to reach a certain development goal at different parts of the story to proceed and that would have robbed so much of the enjoyment out of the experience instantly because as mentioned that’s a chore.

So what do I think of Ni No Kuni 2? I honestly like it a lot. I was in love with the game for a good portion of it. I have a couple of small opinions on the final hour or so, mostly to do with weird story pieces, but nothing that ruins the experience as a whole. I still adore playing the game and have quests I’ll return to and try to complete as well as DLC that is waiting for me.

The experience of Ni No Kuni 2 is what I enjoyed, this was an JRPG that reminded me that I still love the JRPG genre when it avoids feeling bogged down with forced mechanics, required sidequests, and grinding. Ni No Kuni 2 is a light fluffy adventure, and somehow it still feels that way after 60 hours. There are not many RPGs Japanese or Western I can say that about.

The story is well done but honestly, I haven’t spent that much time on it here because a lot of JRPGs have good stories, but not many have figured out how to keep telling those stories over 60 hours without slowing down the game into repetition. And that’s what Ni No Kuni 2 does differently.

Good game design stands on its own and Ni No Kuni 2 feels like it knocks this out of the park. This came out at the same time as Dragon Quest XI and dear god, I wish I played Ni No Kuni 2 instead of Dragon Quest XI, luckily I still can do so today.

Ni No Kuni 2 is a complex game though, so my next Design Review I’ll be talking about one of the most simplistic games ever made and how that simplicity makes it stand out for me over 15 years after the original release. Though I do have a Humble Choice review coming out before that.

If you got this far, thanks for watching and checking this video out. Consider subscribing and ringing that bell, and let me know what you think down in the comments.

I’ll be popping up two videos here. One I feel passionately about is my video on Achievements and Trophies and why I love them, as well as a video on exploration, another piece that Ni No Kuni 2 does well in giving the player a massive world and rewarding them for exploring it.

Until then, I’m Kinglink, and thanks for watching.