Ahead of its March 23 release, Namco invited us over to play a portion of upcoming JRPG Ni No Kuni II. And, with the release date finally (almost) here after having been delayed twice, the next instalment of Ni No Kuni looks in great shape, offering up a design that rivals the first game, a revamped combat system, and a story that looks to blend the idealism of the first game with that bastard we call pragmatism.

When Studio Ghibli decided to step away from The Revenant Kingdom, a lot of players feared that the new title would take on a wholly new design – or worse, rely on a poor imitation of Ghibli’s masterful work. Well, rest easy, people, because Level 5 have managed to recreate the design they knew and loved from the first. And whilst Revenant Kingdom does miss out on that unique Ghibli feel, it’s definitely more than just a bad imitation, offering up doe-eyed character models, sharply dressed talking animals, and environments that span across the whole spectrum. Based on what we played, it looks as if forestry will be the main environment, but expect expansive green valleys, sun-kissed desert canyons, and bright, neon-lit cities. All of the stuff we got a glimpse of was on only one continent of the world map – so it’s seems safe to assume that the game has a few more surprises up its sleeve.

Also returning for The Revenant Kingdom is the aforementioned world map. Deciding that some RPG tropes are still worth having around, Ni No Kuni 2’s world map shows off some stunning vistas, complete with floating islands in the sky and miniaturised models of the cottages, cities, and villages you’ll come across throughout your playtime. It’s a feature that’s good to see making a return for Ni No Kuni 2, with Level 5 seemingly not phased from the universal move away from the world map in JRPGs; it’s another inclusion that played a huge factor in fans falling in love with the first game, and will seemingly play another big part in doing the same for the sequel.

Ni No Kuni 2 Preview | GGS Gamer

That’s not to say that The Revenant Kingdom has stuck to everything the first game did, with the revamped battle system being the standout difference. Gone is the turn-based system of the original, being replaced with the much faster, much more common live action system that’s dominated RPGs in recent years. Whether or not this is a decision made to attract new players to the game doesn’t matter too much, because the system flows so well. You’ll have the choice of close combat melee, ranged attacks, and dodges to overcome most fights. Throw into this the choice to change between three weapons during battle, and you can see how even with the frantic live action system being introduced, there’s still that strategic aspect, as you use slower heavy weapons for greater damage or lighter weapons for a series of quick attacks before making a break for it.

Along with the weapon choices, you’ll also be able to switch between your party members, again providing some strategic thought into the system. Based on the time we had with the game, the differences between characters isn’t anything hugely different. We have Tani and her father – both sky pirates,  who provide the biggest variation of fighting style, with Tani flipping around and specialising in quick attacks, whilst her father is the brawny slow type – perfect for landing a few well-chosen big hits. Both protagonist Evan and the gun-wielding Roland seem to have a more balanced fighting style, offering moderate speed and useful with both ranged and close combat, so unless you prefer speed or strength, you’ll proably be switching between these two a lot. Still, it’s a nice inclusion that means there’s always an opportunity to mix things up if you find yourself struggling with a certain boss.

I’ve held back from commenting on the story so far, simply because we only had a chance to play Chapters Three and Four, and having to take much of the game out of context. That being said, much of what I saw unfold in those chapters suggests that The Revenant Kingdom is looking to not quite move away from the quaint innocence of the first game, but perhaps dealing with some issues that are more grounded in the problems we face in day to day life. This is underlined best in the segment of Chapter Three, in which Eva and co visit a gambling town where the folks who are in debt are harassed incessantly by chickens that look like they’re halfway through a crack binge, screaming “YOU OWE ME!” And this is what the game has done so well; taking subject matter that could easily have flopped or seemed at odds with the game’s tone and instead treating it with enough light-heartedness (thanks to the naivety of Evan) to make the topic still seem somewhat whimsical. We can’t say for certain whether these darker tones run throughout the entire game, but from how these topics were dealt with in the parts we played, it’s obvious that Level 5 are capable of injecting charm into even the most banal issues.

Overall, Ni No Kuni II looks and feels in excellent shape ahead of its release for PS4 and Steam on March 23, 2018. Both Level 5 and Namco have done well to keep what works in the game, with character design and tone staying the same in most parts. Though it’s refreshing to see the game evolving where it needs to, doing away with the slower turn-based system that – after the likes of Persona 5’s stylish use of the traditional system – looked a bit worse for wear; the new combat system introduces a new energy into the game, making fights a lot more fun. And whilst the story may have matured in some respects, it’s clear that underneath the thin layer of realism we saw in the segments we played, The Revenant Kingdom is still very much a game about those clear-cut ideals of good and evil.