Game * Level-5 * An Unrepentant Utopia * 2018
Sometimes, in an effort to not go completely insane, we need to imagine a world which is not a chaotic horrorshow. A world in which people do the right thing because the simple pleasure of helping someone out is greater than short-term, selfish gain. A world in which even if you mess up, or do something that hurts someone else, forgiveness is still possible. A world where justice isn’t merely a means to revenge. A world in which people realize that communities are stronger when they embrace a diverse group of people. A world in which violence is only used as a last resort, and only in an effort to restore a lasting peace. Clearly, this world does not exist and never will. It’s an overly earnest, utterly naïve ambition which ignores the entirety of human history. But man, wouldn’t it be nice? There’s nothing to be lost in embracing a few moments of fantasy when everything else is hot garbage. Even here, a blog pretty much dedicated to examining the worst possible futures and the most terrible human tendencies, it’s okay to just lose the self-protective cynicism and reckless nihilism every once in a while and bask in the glow of something like Ni No Kuni II.
This game, this beautiful, wonderful, joy of a game, is pretty much the world described above. While the story begins in a dark place, it doesn’t take long to rebound and start trumpeting the values of determination, forgiveness, justice, and inclusion. Ni No Kuni II actually begins with an apocalypse, which is weird but eventually fits into the overall positive theme of the game. The first scene is of The President, presumably of the United States or its analogue, being driven across a bridge. He looks out his window and sees a missile outpacing him. Before he gets to the end of the bridge, the missile hits the city he was headed toward, ka-boom. The President then blacks out and wakes up a younger man, in the room of a castle, being accosted by a boy with cat ears and a cape. Turns out catboy is a prince, but his kingdom is in upheaval. The President, Roland, quickly accesses the situation and discerns that the prince is being overthrown. It’s a coup, and Roland and Prince Evan have to escape because the usurper is out to kill him and take his throne.
For a game I’ve introduced as being a lighthearted delight, it’s a dark opening. Here are some details which mitigate that darkness. First of all, the name of the kingdom is Ding Dong Dell. Secondly, you’re a catboy and your dad was a lion man. He died, and that’s sad, but he was overthrown by a bunch of mice-people with adorable little helmets. Third, this game is a beautifully animated, watercolor delight to look at. I played this thing for over 70 hours (and counting) and I’m not tired of looking at it. Finally, towards the end of the prologue, Evan is present when his childhood nursemaid/friend dies and he starts feeling revengey. Instead, he vows to uphold her memory by creating a new kingdom where everyone, and this is a mission statement repeated throughout the story, “can live happily ever after.” The entire rest of the game is young King Evan travelling the world with his inner circle trying to unite the various nations in a pact of nonaggression. As you travel around and meet people, the young king is also building his new kingdom, Evermore, with the citizens of the various nations. Evan does his recruiting by being understanding and helpful to the point of being a doormat. But really he’s just looking out for his constituents in the most direct way possible. Catboy is pretty cool.
Ni No Kuni II is an actual game as well. For the most part, the gameplay matches the overall breezy tone of the narrative, which absolutely works so long as you know what you’re getting into before you start playing. This is absolutely not a challenging game. You control one of a party of up to three characters in any given battle. The system is quick and fun, so if you’re worried about random battles or menu-based combat you can relax. You have three weapons on hand at any given time, as well as special moves and magic at your disposal. For a game this easy, there are a surprising amount of systems and quite a lot of customization happening. There’s a loot system, and a crafting system, and all kinds of other systems. In addition to the single-character action, there are also army battles and straight up kingdom building. There’s a lot, but it’s also all pretty intuitive and none of it is that essential. It’s all there if you want to engage, but if you just want to blast through the story that’s fine too. Ni No Kuni II isn’t here to tell you how to live your life. Most of the sidequests, which exist largely to populate your new kingdom with citizens, are unabashed fetch quests. Personally, I’m fine with that. I’m just here to exist in this world and enjoy the positive vibes that emanate endlessly from this world, which I’m happy to do even if that means traipsing around the smallish world looking for six chunks of fine-grained wood so a reluctant dog-man will join my kingdom. It’s all good.
Prince Evan is a kind-hearted young man who always has time for even the most seemingly pointless request of any of his citizens and everyone still respects him, which seems crazy but isn’t. He gives courageous speeches and instead of wilting when people make fun of his naiveté, he shames them into capitulation simply by being a good person. He commits to his earnestness. None of this is even remotely realistic, of course, but that’s what makes Ni No Kuni II so refreshing. It keeps the air of positivity and joy throughout the various story beats, despite dealing with actual, real-world issues. It’s just that instead of taking a realistic approach, Evan convinces everyone involved that by taking responsibility and acting right, everything will be okay. I mean, he solves labor issues and income inequality and racism all by being an idealistic young man with a strong sense of morality. Imagine every problem plaguing society getting solved in the best possible way and then everyone coming together to form a united, worldwide community that makes Star Trek look like a dystopian wasteland. That’s Ni No Kuni II. Allow me to get specific.
The overall structure of the game is following Evan and Roland as they attempt to found their nascent kingdom of Evermore by forging alliances with the various major kingdoms of the world. He’s got the idea of having all four of the world leaders to sign the Declaration of Interdependance and pledge an alliance to make a world where everyone can live happily ever after. I know, right? The problem is, every time Evan shows up in a new kingdom, their leader is busy being some kind of irrational asshole. That’s… probably the most realistic aspect of the game. Anyway, Evan does what he can to learn about the nation and their problems by talking to the various citizens and clearing out dungeons and whatnot. It’s not too long before we figure out that some jerkass is sidling up to these leaders and pulling an Iago on them, corrupting their better sensibilities by appealing to their base natures. In addition to this, the mysterious baddie is also corrupting the world’s kingmakers – giant fantastical monsters which bond to the world leaders. Evan has one too, a weird little cockney imp who is adorable. Anyway, Doloran (the mysterious baddie) corrupts the leaders and jacks their kingmakers and bounces.
For me, the most fascinating kingdom in the game is that of Broadleaf. The first place you visit, Goldpaw, is a very Eastern Asian influenced city based on gambling. The second is an island city-state that is having serious problems with authoritarian laws and constant surveillance (by an enormously creepy eyeball atop a massive tentacle). Broadleaf, however, is like a fantasy Silicon Valley. And it’s weird. The leader of this nation, which is depicted as a technology company that got so big it turned into a nation, is an amalgamation of every tech CEO that comes to mind. His name is Zip, and his corruption is that he overworks his workforce chasing a pipe dream while also destroying the environment. An aspect of the world of Ni No Kuni II that gets kind of buried in all the other stuff is that there is a relationship with a parallel world that looks a lot like ours. That’s where Roland comes from, after all, even though it doesn’t get mentioned much. Anyway, Broadleaf and things they’re getting up is the clearest real world analogue in the game. Of course when Evan is finished, everything is great. Zip is then good to his workers and redoubles his effort to clean up the environment. As for the workers, they’re all super gung-ho about making the world a better place and connecting people of different backgrounds while bettering themselves in the process. This game, man.
If you’re looking for a story that’s going to surprise you, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. I’m not really going to talk too much about the ending, because if you’re paying attention to what kind of game Ni No Kuni II, it’s pretty clear that everyone is going to… wait for it… live happily ever after, even after experiencing loss. The game has no interest in pulling the rug out from under the player, you know? There’s a chapter about two-thirds of the way through the game which suggests that maybe Roland is a traitor who’s been playing young, gullible Evan the whole time. I bought that for maybe thirty seconds before realizing, no, that’s not at all what kind of game this is. And of course I was right. Ni No Kuni II is a game about the best of us. It tells a story where things go wrong and people commit to misguided and bad actions. Yet through cooperation and determination what goes wrong is made right, and through forgiveness and self-reflection, people are redeemed. It’s a beautiful sentiment and a beautiful world, which is why I’m happy to spend my time there. Sometimes it’s nice to pretend that such a place could possibly exist.