Level-5 rose to prominence as a video game publisher thanks largely to the popularity of its Professor Layton and Yo-Kai Watch franchises, but the company's highest-profile release is arguably Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a touching and visually stunning collaboration with legendary animators Studio Ghibli. Despite its pedigree, however, the title was ultimately mired by its uneven pacing and clunky battle system. Whether or not Level-5 has addressed the former with its follow-up, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, remains to be seen, but the developer has certainly revamped the latter, taking a more action-oriented approach to combat for this installment.
Set hundreds of years after the events of the first game, Ni no Kuni II follows the story of Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, the boy-king of Ding Dong Dell. After his throne is usurped in a coup, Evan embarks on a journey to unite the different peoples of Ni no Kuni and build a new kingdom. With the aid of Tani (the daughter of the head of the Sky Pirates) and a mysterious visitor from another world named Roland, he undergoes trials to prove himself worthy to be a king and drive back the darkness that has been engulfing the land.
The demo we got to play on the E3 show floor revolved around two boss battles, showcasing the radical changes Level-5 has made to the series' combat system. In the first Ni no Kuni, players battled foes primarily with the aid of their Familiars--Pokemon-like monsters that could be tamed and evolved when sufficiently leveled. Ni no Kuni II eschews Familiars completely, and in their place are tiny elemental sprites known as Higgledies. Higgledies have a more passive role in battle than Familiars; when a group of them congregate on the battlefield, you can stand in their circle to cast a spell. These spells vary depending upon the type of Higgledies that have gathered together and typically provide buffs and other beneficial attributes to your party for a brief period of time. Fire Higgledies, for instance, grant the party a temporary fire shield, allowing you to withstand flame attacks for the spell's duration.
The lack of Familiars isn't the only difference in Ni no Kuni II's combat system; this time around, battles unfold entirely in real-time. There were traces of real-time elements in the first title; you could maneuver your Familiars freely around the battlefield, but the action would pause while you cycled through menus and issued commands. In Ni no Kuni II, however, Level-5 has done away with battle menus and mapped your attacks to different buttons instead. Evan can unleash weak and strong attacks with his sword by pressing either Square or Triangle, while holding the right trigger brings up four additional (and more powerful) skills to use during combat. There's also a dodge button, allowing you to roll out of the way of enemy attacks. As a result, the game feels much closer to an action-RPG than before. Battles are more immediate and satisfying thanks to their heavier emphasis on action, and each confrontation plays out more briskly without the need to pause the battle and sift through menus.
Of the two battles available in the demo, the more difficult was against a dragon named Longfang. In addition to being the first major boss encounter in Ni no Kuni II, Longfang is one of the "kingmakers" in the game's world--guardian beasts that are assigned to protect the different kingdoms throughout the land. For some mysterious reason, Longfang has begun attacking the kingdom he is charged with protecting, and it falls to Evan and friends to stop his rampage. As the first major obstacle you face in the game, Longfang poses a considerable challenge thanks to his high HP, but the battle with him also illustrates how vital the Higgledies are to your success on the battlefield. Like a typical dragon, Longfang's most powerful attack is spewing fire at your party, and you'll need to cast a fire shield at the right moment to protect yourself from the screen-consuming flames.
It's difficult to tell whether or not Ni no Kuni II will address the other pacing issues that plagued the original when it launches for PlayStation 4 and PC later this year on November 10, but based on the small sampling we got of it at E3, adopting a more action-oriented, real-time battle system is a promising step. You can get a closer look at the revamped battle system in GameSpot's E3 2017 stage show segment with Bandai Namco's Dennis Lee, who showed off the game's E3 demo and discussed some of the other Western influences Level-5 looked to while developing its new Ni no Kuni title.