Ni No Kuni II review: This ain’t no anti-war game

Ni No Kuni II has a problem with its theme.

Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum says he wants to create a world where everyone can have a happily ever after. He’ll do this with a constitution of interdependence, so that the world will build everlasting peace together.

It’s a lofty goal that he’s eventually able to achieve, but he has to wage a lot of war and spill a lot of blood in order to get there.

And that’s where the game’s central theme breaks down for me.

First of all, Roland is the real protagonist

Before we get further into this, I think it’s important to note that I don’t think Evan is the real protagonist.

Evan Tildrum is clearly the main focus of the game being central to almost every quest, but the opening scene of the game isn’t focused on him. It’s focused, as it was in the first game, on a person from our world.

In the opening, Roland’s nation is destroyed and he’s then transported into the world of Ni No Kuni. He’s made a lot younger in the process — mostly so he can take part in battles, which I thought was a bit too convenient.

Anyway, there are more connections back to Oliver, the first game’s protagonist, in Roland than there are in Evan.

Oliver was a young boy whose mother had just died when Ni No Kuni starts. His journey helps him come to terms with loss and he does that by saving the antagonist from her despair. It’s a beautiful story that relies on Oliver using his compassion to change the world.

Roland was an older man whose nation had just been destroyed when Ni No Kuni 2 starts. His journey helps him come to terms with the ways that he failed as a leader and helps Evan become a king/president he wished he could have been. It’s a story where Roland uses his experience to influence others into creating a world that he envisions as being an ideal version of his own.

He also shoots a character in the first five minutes of the game, so there’s that too.

Roland is also a key source in Evan’s motivation to become a world-uniting, kingdom-building leader. He’s also willing to sacrifice anything to ensure Evan is able to rule this world. That’s not to say that Evan can’t make his own decisions, but he’s strongly influenced by Roland.

I’m also not the first person to talk about this, so there are others who recognize Evan but ultimately look to Roland as the main character. The article linked above also has an interesting note about the subtitle of the game. The Revenant Kingdom can be applied to Roland’s return to his world as much as it can be applied to the new kingdom that Evan builds.

So in order to make everlasting peace, what do Evan and Roland have to do?

War, what is it good for?

Ni No Kuni II begins with a coup. Evan’s father has died and his chancellor is taking over Ding Dong Dell. Cats will no longer hold down the Mice, or so that’s the plan. Evan escapes, but Nella, his best friend and guardian, is killed. She instills in him a quest to make the world a better place, but Roland gives this plan its shape in building a new kingdom.

The first step is to find a Kingmaker.

Kingmakers are symbols of power that give individuals the divinity to rule. They’re also living examples of the Deterrence Theory. They have the power of an entire army that can be unleashed on your enemies at any time.

The one Evan gets is named Lofty. He gives helpful prods on how to advance to the next chapter and critical background on the bonds between the kingdoms. The two also establish a physical bond through a magical force, which can be weakened and stolen.

The game’s antagonist, Doloran, wants to steal this power.

In a previous chapter, Evan gets a stick that’s similar to Oliver’s first wand. It’s a nice call back to the previous game and represents the kind of peace that Evan wants to achieve. It’s the idea that Evermore, his kingdom, can have a symbol that is soft not a sword, hammer, or spear. It represents innocence, but not naivety because it’s a powerful magic item that can heal as much as it can harm. It’s a great symbol for Evan much to the consternation of Lofty who would rather him have a weapon.

Later on in the game, this wand is replaced with a sword called Mornstar, which is another call back to the previous game. (This is a really interesting link to the University of Michigan’s Online Symbolism Dictionary for Fantasy). This absolutely delights Lofty who believes this to be a much more powerful symbol than the old stick.

A sword is as much a symbol of courage as it is of power. It’s not the symbol of a king who wishes to never wage war ever again. You kill people with swords. This is one of the major disconnects in the game’s theme for me and actually reminds me of another video game.

Ok, well maybe this is a bit of a stretch.

Evan isn’t running on a mantra of peace through power, but as he defeats all of the other Kingmakers he’s ultimately left with the vast majority of the world’s military might. Lofty is the only Kingmaker left by the end and that’s got to be in the back of every other leaders’ mind. The thing that makes Evan different is that he’s benevolent in his leadership, or he is right now.

What happens when Roland leaves his kingdom? Will Evan be able to see through the deception of others? Will the Sky Pirates get tired of being under Evan’s control and lust for more property in the sky? Will the people of Broadleaf share their technology with other cities?

Evermore has dealt with these issues in the past with diplomacy, but sometimes it fails. Then he has the power, an array of advisers, and now a vast kingdom to back him up. What could stop him if he wants to use force to ensure peace reigns?

Evan’s expanding kingdom

There’s also the problem of the shape Evermore takes.

In the game, you create structures that generate wealth. Some of the first buildings you’ll likely create are the outfitters and the forge. Both of these structures provide you with armaments and stand adjacent to the path leading to the castle.

It’s an odd juxtaposition for a kingdom so opposed to war.

There’s also a mini game you take part in where Evan leads little armies of men and women into battle. It’s a pretty simple one that relies on a Fire Emblem like system where swords beat hammers, hammers beat spears, and spears beat swords. At one point during a side quest, Lofty mention something along the lines of, “It’s good to have an army because you still have to defend your own.”

There’s a bandit named Tyran who was previously living in the area where you built your new kingdom. When you move into the area, he’s forcibly removed. He’s a bad guy who terrorized people, but so were the sky pirates like Batu and Tani who eventually join your kingdom. In fact, when you first meet them they explicitly tell you that they are going to murder you for trespassing on their territory.

Tyran eventually joins you, but it’s very late in the game and only after defeating him several times. He’s pacified after being defeated over and over again by a superior force. Pretty brutal, Evan!

The point of all of this is that in order to unite all of the kingdoms in the game, Evan and his group have to use force. There’s a structure no how the game’s story works. They talk to the other kings, negotiations break down, and then they defeat the realm’s Kingmaker. These monsters are convenient because they limit the bloodshed that normally would have been another leader’s army.

There’s a monster, it has red eyes, and it’s snarling, so you feel justified in taking it down.

If Goldpaw didn’t have a Kingmaker and only had an army then Evan would have fought them. There would have been hundreds of casualties. If negotiations couldn’t be reached then maybe Evan would go to another kingdom to try again. Then it would be a 2-on-1 fight, which would then force other kingdoms to create alliances to fight against Evermore.

Matthew, it’s a game!

I get that most of these systems exist because this is a video game. It would be a pretty boring RPG if you didn’t have the option to fight random battles to advance the story. It also wouldn’t be Ni No Kuni without these systems in place. There’s precedence and I get that.

It’s important to note though that there are games out there that do have systems in place where you can get your enemies to surrender instead of being killed. Undertale is a game that definitely comes to mind with it’s mechanics that emphasize pacifism. It gives you the option to speak to your enemies and get them to surrender or have you show mercy.

There’s just a dissonance between how much Evan emphasizes living in peace with others while killing tonnes of sentient enemies.

There’s a quest in the game in a placed Greenglade Cave where you end up taking on a quest to help out a group of mice that are normally enemies in the overworld. They’re worried about some other monsters in their cave and ask you for help. First of all, these enemies can talk. It’s not like that makes other enemies who can’t talk dead meat, but it shows that these aren’t just animals. They’re people.

I just find it difficult to have this anti-war theme on one hand and a whole bunch of random violence on the other.

Also a quick note, what’s up with the enemies in this game? There’s just a handful and the rest are just re-colours with higher health and damage values. It’s not like Ni No Kuni was much better, but there was more variety.

The game’s ending

There’s one thing I hate more than anything else in a story’s ending. It’s when a characters say, oh I’m actually from the future and just wanted to see how this all plays out. It blows my mind every single time though I can’t really think of too many examples.

Throughout Ni No Kuni II, there’s a young boy who talks to Evan in dreams. He provides Evan with some guidance in exchange for pleasantries. You’re left wondering the whole game who he is, but instead of leaving it a mystery they straight up tell you that he’s Evan’s son from the future. He has the power to send his mind through time and chose to see his father as a child because he wants to continue on his journey toward peace.

Why? Why did they have to do this?

In the game, you’re given a peek into the distant past to another king who united the entire world. It turns out that this wasn’t a look into the past, but a prophecy into the future. Time travel and prophecies are infuriating because it makes you question the protagonist’s motivations.

Evan wants to make peace, but he’s being guided towards it by Roland, Lofty, Nella, and now knowledge from the future. Evan isn’t leading his own destiny like Oliver. It’s already been decided and that really takes the wind of his sails.

What would have happened if Evan’s son hadn’t been there to provide his guidance at the beginning of the game? Evan may not have trusted Roland and went off on his own perhaps getting killed. That, at least, would have been a destiny that he had control over.

Another part of the ending that’s bad is Roland’s return home.

We see the same opening cutscene play out, but instead of a missile it’s fireworks that light up the sky. The idea, I guess, is that Roland returned to a time before the crisis and had a second chance to work on the negotiations with the knowledge he gained from Ni No Kuni.

I would really have preferred that he return to his home as it was when he left. He would have to help rebuild his world from the ground up instead of getting another try at negotiating world peace, a process that we don’t see.

There’s the also the fact that Doloran who is Roland’s counterpart in Ni No Kuni (another unsurprisingly revelation given that Doloran is almost a anagram of Roland) doesn’t get his kingdom back by the end of the game. He doesn’t get a happy ending, but Roland does?

This revelation that every person in Ni No Kuni has a counterpart also opens up a lot of questions. Who is Evan’s? Is it Roland’s son? Does that even matter? Why’d they do this?!

Ni No Kuni has had illustrations in the credits of both games. I would have loved it if these scenes weren’t of Evan as a kid running around with Nella, but of Evan and Roland building their kingdoms in tandem. It would have given more closure then seeing repeats of the experiences we just had.

Final thoughts

Ni No Kuni 2 is a good game. I spent more than 60 hours playing it and upgraded my kingdom to its highest level. I’d recommend the game to most people, but here are some vital stats from my game that I’d like to share:

3,148 enemies defeated

541 enemy units defeated (about 5,410 defeated since there are about 10 soldiers to one unit)

To achieve world peace, around 8,500 beings had to be killed. They were killed, so that my team could be experienced enough to defeat the final boss. They had to be killed, so that I could gather resources to build my kingdom. They had to be killed, so that the game’s mechanics could be displayed.

I killed all of those people… but to be fair I didn’t use Evan for most of the game. Roland, Batu, and Bracken is a way cooler team.

I know I’m being a bit of a killjoy to a game that’s largely very peaceful compared to most, but more could have been done to enhance the central theme. Push weapon-making to the side, create a mini game more about diplomacy than war, and have enemies faint instead of being killed. I dunno that might declaw the game, but it would be more in line with what Evan wants.

The memorial to those 8,500 better be pretty massive, Evan.

Anyway, those are some thoughts on Ni No Kuni II.

Oh, there’s also no gambling, which is my guiltiest of RPG pleasures.

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