A kingdom in your hands - Ni no Kuni II Switch first impressions
It's been too long since I've jumped into the unique world of a JRPG, and even longer since I've looked at the Ni no Kuni games. With the first game coming to the switch two years ago, the release of the second game on this titan of a portable platform seemed likely, but is the transition to the small screen just as smooth?
Now I'll just come out and say I never actually bought Ni no Kuni II. With @Prans covering the game at its original launch, my only exposure to it was during a Bandai Namco press event several years back. I had a great time playing it, but I let it slide into obscurity to a certain extent. Coming back to it now I can say pretty confidently that this was a mistake; this game is great.
The opening is something pulled straight out of Sonic Adventure 2. You have Roland, the president of what I assume to be the United States driving along an unspecified bridge towards a city. I'd by lying if I said I wasn't expecting Tails to pull alongside in the Tornado 3, but unfortunately there was nobody there to catch up. Disaster strikes as a missile files overhead to level the city in an instant, but just before his demise, the president disappears from the world to appear in the grand castle of Ding Dong Dell amidst a chaos of a coup against the yet to be crowned child king Evan. Still figuring out how he got there and exactly where "there" is, they escape together, giving you time to get used to the control scheme and basic combat mechanics. I genuinely loved everything about this escape sequence. Roland finds a sword to fight with, and the combat is a really great implementation of largely standard action RPG mechanics. There is just something a little jarring about using a gun in a fantasy world. Not a blaster, no random alterations or obscurities. The president just pulls out a gun and shoots a guard. And that's his ranged weapon. It's not necessarily something that adds to or takes away from the larger game, but I did have to pause for a moment to ponder a gun in my happy-go-lucky JRPG.
Once you've managed your escape, the plot follows Evan, the child king to be, and Roland as they set out to establish a new kingdom. There's a really great mix of action RPG gameplay and management simulation as you work to make Evan's new kingdom thrive. If you're wanting a more in-depth look at the larger game, I encourage you to check out our original review. Even years later, it's a fantastic JPRG, but the question we need answering today is whether it's worth playing on the Switch. And that's more difficult to answer than I'd have liked.
As well as the base game, the Switch version benefits from a number of upgrades that have been added over time to improve the experience. That means right out of the gate you have bug fixes, additional content, and perhaps most notably, three difficulty settings to switch between on the fly. The difficulty settings go a long way in making the experience unique to you and allowing you to find a challenge wherever you really want one. I had a really good time playing on the hardest difficulty for regular gameplay and toning it down for bosses where it got just a bit too much for what I was wanting from the game. As well as making things more challenging, you do actually receive better drops from enemies for your troubles, so your efforts feel well-rewarded. As is expected of such a release, the game also features both pieces of DLC content for a complete and really quite compelling package.
Looking at the checklist, we have a great base game complete with the improvements updates have brought since its original launch, as well as the previously-premium DLC content bundled together. On paper it's a homerun, a complete knockout I can wholeheartedly recommend. Reality is different though, much to my dismay. The Switch version falls short where many Switch versions before it have fallen: in performance. To say the game is choppy would be a gross understatement. To be as fair as I can be, it isn't unplayable. It isn't bad to the same extent as Arc of Alchemist was, which actually gave me a headache trying to play, but it is noticeable and it does hinder the overall experience. Even in the smaller indoor areas the game just doesn't feel good, and it only gets worse when exploring the world map.
Comparing this to the Switch port of the first Ni no Kuni title is like night and day, but that could just be the difference between trying to port a natively 720p title from the PS3 era and a much more advanced PS4 title. Despite the performance disappointment, the game doesn't really look bad on the small screen. Though I'm unable to record footage due to a few personal limitations at the moment, the graphics don't seem dissimilar to playing on PC on minimum settings. It gets the job done, and most likely thanks to the art style, it still manages to look good. The one quirk I would point out is that mouths aren't rendered properly when they're closed. It's definitely odd, but not necessarily game-changing.
Outside of performance there's one more glaring issue, and that's the price. Coming in as a full-priced £49.99 title, you have to question exactly what you're wanting. If you have a PS4 or even a budget PC build, you get pick this game up for as low as £10 for a much better experience, albeit likely locked to a sofa or desk to play. Being fortunate enough to own a GPD Win 3, I decided to pick up the PC version after trying out the game on the Switch, and I can't say I regret it at all. It runs far better, being capable of maintaining 60fps for the majority of the time playing. This is a handheld costing three times the Switch however, so it's something I struggle to hold against Nintendo's platform.
If you're eager to experience this adventure and the Switch is your only option, or you just value handheld play and don't happen to have a Windows handheld lying around, I will say the game is worth playing, and worth trudging through an unstable framerate for. If you are sensitive to that kind of thing however, you should steer clear in favour of other versions, or even the first game if you're still yet to enjoy the gem it is. The world of Ni no Kuni really is magical and even if the Switch can't show it at its fullest in this release, I'm happy that more people will be setting their eyes to it for the first time.
No no Kuni II Official Review (2019)