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Video game review: 'Ni no Kuni II' is one of the best role-playing games of 2018
"Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom" follows Evan, a newly crowned king with the goal of uniting the world under a single banner. - photo by Sam Bigelow
"Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom," PS4, PC, $59.99, ESRB rating: T for fantasy violence and mild blood

Crafting an exciting role-playing game with a lot of heart and new ideas can be tough, but "Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom" does both in spades. Developer Level-5 and Bandai Namco follow up on their collaboration with legendary animation house Studio Ghibli on the original "Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch" to great success. While "Revenant Kingdom" may not share quite the same heart as its predecessor, it is still a charming, emotional experience that should be recommended to any Japanese RPG lover.

"Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom" follows Evan, a young prince driven from his kingdom as the result of a coup. After losing everything to sedition and war, Evan sets out with Roland, a mysterious man transported from another world, to found the kingdom of Evermore, where everyone is welcome.

Along their way, Evan and Roland befriend several other individuals, including a sky pirate and his daughter, a royal advisor, and a comedic, colorful imp. Each party member is playable and carries their own personal character arc that runs alongside Evan's journey, without drawing attention away from the main goal. While the story isn't quite as emotional or deep as the original "Ni no Kuni," it still carries plenty of impactful moments that are made even better by great visuals.

Even though Studio Ghibli didn't play a part in "Revenant Kingdom's" development, their previous influence on Level-5 still shows. The game carries an art style similar to Ghibli's legendary animated films, so fans of "Spirited Away" and "My Neighbor Totoro" will be pleased by the bright, colorful visuals. PlayStation 4 Pro and PC owners also have access to 4K resolution and HDR, which adds greater contrast to the beautiful environments. Unfortunately, the high detail in some locations will cause the game's frame rate to stutter, which can be hard on the eyes.

Each game location carries a distinct art style and gimmick. The environments are unique, from Goldpaw, a Chinese-inspired kingdom in which every major decision is settled by a roll of the dice, to Broadleaf, a technologically advanced kingdom reminiscent of a Silicon Valley tech company. The story beat is also more compelling thanks to the game's grand, sweeping soundtrack composed by Studio Ghibli's Joe Hisaishi. "Revenant Kingdom's" art direction is incredible and amplifies the excellent, expansive gameplay.

"Ni no Kuni II" features basic hack and slash gameplay in its moment-to-moment adventuring. Players have access to light and heavy attacks and a handful of special abilities that can defeat powerful monsters in the blink of an eye. While this style of action is definitely more beginner-friendly than the original "Ni no Kuni's" turn-based monster catching, it all feels a little button-mashy and imprecise, especially when evading enemy attacks. Most battles aren't that difficult, but it would've been interesting to see more strategic fights outside of the colossal Kingmaker battles at the end of each chapter.

Despite this, the game provides different passive abilities through the Higgledies, small armies of nature spirits that can give your party of three additional abilities. Various gameplay boosts can be tweaked through in-game menu settings, making the game easier for anyone struggling to move forward with the story.

In addition to basic combat, "Revenant Kingdom" offers real-time strategy battles and a kingdom builder, both of which add a lot of depth to the game. Advancements made in the story often lead to improvements to Evermore, and Evermore's growth improves Evan's leadership in real-time strategy battles. Each element of gameplay feeds into the other in a compelling manner, giving the players something to engage with at all times.

"Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom" isn't as deep or complicated as many other role-playing games on the market, and that's OK. Level-5 has crafted a compelling adventure packed with hours of interesting content, all wrapped up in a Studio Ghibli-inspired art style. Fans shouldn't miss out on this excellent adventure, which will likely go down in history as one of 2018's best games.
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