I've played Ni No Kuni 2 a couple of times now, and I can't shake my growing concerns for it. I loved the first Ni No Kuni and was delighted when - after four years - a sequel was finally announced. More than anything else about the first game, I remember its warmth: the story of Oliver and his mother in our world, the characters in the fantasy world of Ni No Kuni itself, and the cast of Pokémon-style familiars I picked up along the way.
And, of course, I loved Ni No Kuni because of developer Level-5's partnership with the anime masters at Studio Ghibli. The fruits of this collaboration shone through the game - long after its opening sections, when the frequency of its animated cut-scenes had petered out and you were left with extended stretches of open world exploration instead. Right through the credits, and on into Ni No Kuni's generous post-game storyline - its character designs, monsters, flippin' Mr. Drippy - all were lifted by the painterly hand of Ghibli itself.
Ni No Kuni 2 suffers from a lack of this influence, although to be fair this is hardly Level-5's fault. Studio Ghibli has been on extended hiatus pretty much since the release of the first game - around the time Hayao Miyazaki's last film The Wind Rises was released. As of this summer, Miyazaki has, once again, decided to ditch retirement for yet one more movie, but this has come too late for any real involvement from Ghibli in Ni No Kuni 2's development. With the notable exceptions of Ghibli character designer Yoshiyuki Momose and longtime music composer Joe Hisaishi, the animation studio's involvement has been, by necessity, minimal.
It's where Level-5 has decided to tweak the formula of the original on its own that my worries lie. The changes - a new world map design with chibi-style characters to fuel an odd new kingdom strategy game, and a brand new real-time battle system - do not feel like a case of change for improvement's sake. Ni No Kuni's turn-based combat was one of the best bits of first game, and was part of a deep system of Pokémon-esque training, evolving and battling which soaked up hours of my time. By swapping the Pokémon-like familiars you could capture and train up to fight for you with a new battle mechanic - Higgledies, an army of nameless imps more like Pikmin you can command around the battlefield - the game has lost a real part of its charm.
More to the point, these additions take Ni No Kuni 2 in a very different direction to the original. The first game was a story about a young boy working through trauma while adventuring in a fantasy world. It was nuanced, it left the exact nature of Oliver's imagination up to the player, and its story was very much rooted in a quest for understanding and acceptance. Ni No Kuni 2's story - to date - appears to be set entirely in this fantasy world. I don't mind the lack of returning characters - Ni No Kuni's story was wrapped up perfectly and would feel artificially extended if its plot was returned to, or its ending unpicked. But by removing the more subtle elements of the original's structure and going for a straight fantasy tale, I feel like the series loses the one thing which set the original apart. Ghibli remains the master of transporting ordinary people - often children - to a world of the supernatural or fantasy. Right now, Ni No Kuni 2's story feels like more straightforward fare.
The sequel's main character is another young boy, Evan, a resident of the fantasy world who also happens to be the king of its cat tribe, and its from here the new kingdom conquering gameplay and other themes originate. Ni No Kuni 2's new world map design offers a very different, 3D chibi design to the rest of the game which sticks out like a sore thumb. The new kingdom conquest mode, which takes advantage of this map, also feels shoehorned in. It's a top-down mode where you can command an army of followers against enemy forces, and rotate your legions to attack enemies in rock-paper-scissors matchups. Again, the influence of Pikmin can be felt pretty clearly, as you marshal your troops around you and ensure the right squads are pointed to enemy legions of the opposite type. The mode works as it is supposed to, but the emphasis on wiping out a landscape of enemy troops is far removed from the gentle themes present elsewhere.
And yet... when not in an overworld map, Ni No Kuni 2 still exudes much of the charm of the original. When chatting with NPCs or hearing replacement Welsh fairy Lofty natter on, Ni No Kuni 2 is suddenly every bit as good as its predecessor. It's maddening, to see a good half of the game I loved from the original back here. I want to get to know Evan's followers, to journey around the fantasy world's towns again, to hear the skits between party members and have Lofty guide me on, 'mun. Maybe there are hidden depths to the game - maybe its story, which remains almost completely under wraps, will fit the strange kingdom-conquering gameplay. I'm still trying to keep an open mind.