The worlds of Studio Ghibli movies are places that I’ve always wanted to visit. In fact, many of them seem like the perfect setting for a role-playing game. I can imagine stopping in the quaint town of Kiki’s Delivery Service for a restorative break in between battles or seeking out important magical items in the Spirited Away bathhouse. Even the cast of Howl’s Moving Castle feels ripped out of a Japanese RPG, with a cursed old woman, a shape-shifting wizard, and a sentient turnip all teaming up for a long, arduous quest.
This is part of the reason that 2013’s Ni No Kuni was so exciting. It was the first time Ghibli had ever worked on a game, partnering with Level-5, the studio behind acclaimed RPGs like Dark Cloud and Dragon Quest IX. It merged the engrossing feel of a world-spanning role-playing experience with the style and storytelling of a Ghibli movie. Now, the series is back, with the release of Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. Though Studio Ghibli isn’t technically involved this time around, the sequel builds on what made the original so great, while expanding the scope and refining the experience.
Revenant Kingdom begins with a coup. A young prince named Evan is nearly kidnapped right before a ceremony to swear him in as king, but he’s eventually rescued and forced to strike out on his own. Early on, the game feels somewhat like a typical fantasy RPG, buoyed by the whimsical nature of Ghibli productions. Evan comes from a kingdom of cat people — he sports a pair of cute kitty ears along with a flowing blonde mane — who are at war with what seem to be angry rats. As he ventures out and tries to find some safety following the kidnapping attempt, Evan cultivates an eclectic group of helpers, including a pair of gruff sky pirates and a politician who is mysteriously transported from our world to the game’s fantasy realm. (The story takes place centuries after the original Ni No Kuni, so you don’t need to have played it to understand what’s going on.)
The game has all of the trappings of a Japanese RPG. There’s a satisfying and surprisingly complex real-time battle system that feels both visceral as you slice through foes, but it also has an element of strategy as you manage your team and a horde of cute magical helpers. Combat represents a huge chunk of the experience. You’ll get into numerous battles as you explore the world, which, in turn, will allow you to earn useful experience, items, and money to improve your characters. In between, there are towns to rest in, and there’s lots of dialogue to flesh out the story.
But a few hours in, Revenant Kingdom reveals itself to be something larger than a typical RPG. As Evan sets out to restore peace to the world, he doesn’t attempt to retake his throne. Instead, he builds an entirely new kingdom from scratch. And when the foundations for that are laid down, he begins to travel the world in order to get other nations on board with his plans for peace. Occasionally, he’ll need to summon an army for large-scale skirmishes with troublesome factions.
These aspects all manifest themselves through game mechanics. Most prominently, you’ll spend a lot of time creating your kingdom; you need to build structures, research new magic and weapons, and assign jobs to citizens. Everything feels connected. When you start to farm and harvest produce, for instance, those eggs and vegetables can then be used by your chef to come up with new meals to aid in battle. When you go out on side quests to help people in the world with various problems, they’ll repay you by coming to live in the burgeoning kingdom, further expanding your budding empire. The kingdom building is intuitive enough that it never feels daunting or overly complex, but it has the kind of depth that makes it easy to lose hours figuring out how to get your blacksmith to make the best possible swords.
The result is a game that feels virtually seamless. Whatever you’re doing — whether it’s researching new kinds of magical creatures or venturing to a far-off kingdom to sign a peace treaty — makes sense within the story, and also has connections to other aspects of the game. More importantly, all of these aspects are a lot of fun. This also gives Revenant Kingdom the kind of variety that’s often missing from RPGs. If you get bored of battles, you can take a break to check on your kingdom. When that gets stale, there are always interesting new places to explore. Fetch quests actually feel like a productive use of your time, and the game has a very welcome fast-travel system that lets you skip ahead to the more interesting parts of the game.
On its own, this would be enough for an engrossing role-playing experience. Revenant Kingdom excels at both the macro — the feeling that you’re changing this fantasy realm on a global scale — and the micro, with a focus on smaller moments that still feel important. But when you layer on the Ghibli sense of style, the game becomes something amazing. Thanks to a shift to more powerful hardware, Revenant Kingdom looks even more like an interactive Ghibli movie than its predecessor.
It’s not just the art style, which has a similar look, especially when it comes to character design. There’s also an attention to detail that feels very Ghibli-esque, like the way Evan’s tail swishes around naturally when dives and rolls in battle or the expressive faces that show you how a character feels, even when they aren’t saying anything. Perhaps most impressive is the sheer imagination on display in regard to the different places you explore. There’s a gambling town that looks like Las Vegas crossed with small, winding Japanese village, where every matter of state is left to a roll of the dice. Later on, you’ll come across a glorious, watery kingdom where love is illegal and a giant eye keeps watch over citizens.
Even in the RPGs I admire the most, there are usually down moments, times when things can get tedious, or where the story meanders and gets confusing. I never really felt that while playing Ni No Kuni II. Instead, it’s a game where I always knew what I was doing and why, and, more importantly, I enjoyed doing it. Revenant Kingdom isn’t the Howl’s Moving Castle game I’ve always dreamed of. It’s something much better.
Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is available March 23rd on the PS4 and PC.