Joy Is Optional

As one might surmise, this Sunday has been all about Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom as well. Evan & Co. have already allied themselves with all the other world nations, which naturally acts as a cue for the main bad guy to stop skulking in the shadows and get on with the end of the world. Preparing for that gives me just enough time to hunt down an ancient magical sword which most likely allows me to give him a thorough royal beating… Or scratching, given Evan’s feline nature. I’m still only 29 hours in, so for a JRPG the story seems not just a little tired but surprisingly short, too. That’s hardly an issue, though, as the game is remarkably generous in its side content.

The most entertaining aspect of this adventure is turning out to be Evan’s new kingdom, Evermore. It’s a place that the player can develop ever further, limited mostly by the slowly regenerating funds of its national treasury. Tax revenue can be used to build, enhance, and fund dozens of miscellaneous establishments for which there are 103 motivated individuals to recruit. These places provide not just weapons, armor, spells, accessories, health items, and battle food, but also a huge array of resources used for trade and as ingredients for ever-better gear. The layout of Evermore is predetermined, so there’s hardly any creativity involved in building the kingdom but even simple managing like this has proven out to be surprisingly entertaining. Once the nation’s coffers are empty, it’s just a matter of waiting for them to refill by continuing the main story or exploring the game world in over 150 side missions.

As well as trying to create the most awesome kingdom ever, the world features 50 tainted (read: extra tough) monsters to beat, as well as an equal number of Higgledies to be found; cute little elementals that randomly help the player in battles with their special powers. As my inner completionist is very much looking forward to accomplish all this, the game certainly compensates its seemingly weak story rather amicably. Besides, should there ever be a moment of nothing to do, there are always randomly generated mini quests that reward the player with tokens that can be exchanged for useful resources or hints on finding new recruits to Evermore.

Ni no Kuni II is particularly considerate with its exemplary resource management. If any side quest or a piece of gear to be enhanced requires any ingredients whatsoever, the game is polite enough to tell where the needed items can be bought or found. Most RPGs force their players to wander around aimlessly for hours or consult the internet, but for once these obligatory loot mechanics have been implemented like they should! I’m also quite taken by the ability to save pretty much anywhere. There are traditional save points, too, good for restoring all HP and MP, but it’s still a most welcome bonus to be able to end a game session whenever you feel like it.

Granted, the generous amount of side content sounds impressive only by numbers. Everything can turn remarkably repetitious and the swiftly rising challenge level of the main story more or less forces the player to spend time with said content. Still, today Ni no Kuni II didn’t feel nearly as much of a disappointment as it did yesterday. While it’s hardly on par with its predecessor, it still has plenty of good things going for it.

Slow Simmer

Although the recent Japanese loot is awfully tempting, the exceptionally quiet start of the year finally turned into a veritable flood of slightly more interesting releases. Out of them, the first in line is naturally Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, the long-sought sequel to the PS3 JRPG gem Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch from almost eight years ago. The game follows the young, cat-like Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum who loses the kingdom of his recently departed father, and nearly his life, to a coup led by dastardly mice. Roland Crane, a young man mysteriously sucked into this same fantasy world from a parallel universe helps Evan to escape. Together they decide that if a kingdom is lost then the only option is to form one anew. All potential rulers first need a Kingmaker, though; a massive, magical beast tasked to defend its owner’s country. In Evan’s case, however, such beast turns out to be Lofty; just a yellow, pint-sized runt of a mascot. Even if adversities seem to follow one another, Evan is not dismayed but instead finds a piece of suitable land, sets up the foundations of his new nation, and heads off to the neighboring countries for official recognition.

I’m now about 20 hours in and at least so far, the game has failed to captivate in the same way that its absolutely marvelous precursor managed to. The story plays incredibly safe and straightforward, sending Evan and Roland from one kingdom and its related dungeon to another, making them solve conveniently appearing crises to forge new alliances and be joined by new party members. There’s a bog-standard, deliberately enigmatic bad guy dreaming of world annihilation, a ship to eventually enable traveling across vast seas, and an airship that opens up exploration even further but on whole, everything pivotal is such an overly familiar bowl of clichés that it’s really hard to get genuinely excited about any of it.

Even the unique charm of Level-5 doesn’t seem to be present in full force. The world map and some of the dungeons are once again astonishingly beautiful and in general, the game thoroughly looks like high-quality anime. Still, practically all event scens are not only woefully short but done with just the game engine, carrying no sensation of awe whatsoever. The same goes for the soundtrack. The orchestral music is always there and always “pretty nice” but the only track that has left a lasting impression so far has been the bombastic main theme of the first game and even that has been arranged more poorly. Even the amount of voice acting is remarkably stingy with most of the dialogue being delivered by text accompanied with a few random grunts and other utterances. This really isn’t the valiant Ni no Kuni we have been waiting for eight years but a feebly disguised Tales of game that Bandai Namco has managed to churn out four times in the same period of time.

There’s plenty of good in the side content and even in some of the design decisions, though, so expect a bit more positive rambling in the coming days as I dwell deeper into the adventure.

Almost all the other newcomers of this year fly the flag of PS4. Dead Island: Definitive Collection remasters two of last generation’s most impressive and entertaining zombie games in ages, so I’m definitely trying to find time to experience both of them again. Atari Flashback Classics Vol. 1, Atari Flashback Classics Vol. 2, Marvel Pinball: Epic Collection Vol. 1, and Yesterday Origins were all dirt-cheap bargain bin finds that carry no notable expectations. That’s hardly the case with Life Is Strange: Before the Storm and Final Fantasy XV, the former finally having been given a physical release and the latter having been released as a Royal Edition that contains all the DLC (although it was a massive disappointment to find out it’s just the vanilla game on disc and a download code for a few dozen gigabytes of additional content). As for The Witch and the Hundred Knight 2, that’s a sequel to one of the freshest and most beloved action-JRPGs I played last gen, so having really high hopes for it, too. Lastly, on hardware side, there’s the utterly adorable C64 Mini! It even features Winter Games, more or less the first game I ever played back in 1985 when my parents pampered me with a computer. Been a gamer ever since and wouldn’t trade away a single day!

Hanami Recharge

The complete lethargy that has been pestering me all this year is hopefully now a thing of the past, cured by the only way I know of. On Easter Monday, I flipped the bird at Finland’s cold and slushy spring and headed back to Tokyo after a break of a couple of years. That same day, the last winter storm hit the country pretty hard but the gallant professionals of Helsinki-Vantaa did a commendable job keeping everything running. Many flights were canceled, sure, but long-haul flights weren’t luckily among them. Although Finnair handled its part immaculately and the plane boarded on time, we still had to wait for connecting passengers from Sweden for over an hour. Because of Murphy’s laws, there also had to be that one poor sod whose luggage was already on the plane but the person was not. Still, we eventually got going and as a pleasant surprise, the originally overbooked plane had a couple of no-shows who would’ve been sitting next to me. The new Airbus 350-900 is a mighty comfortable plane even as-is with but when I had three seats worth of personal space, it was as much luxury as economy class can possibly offer.

Since my usual go-to- hotel, Ville Fontaine Kayabacho, had raised its prices uncomfortably high at least for the duration of the hanami season, I had to hunt down a slightly cheaper place to stay at. Equally near to the Tokyo City Air Terminal, I found a passable alternative in City Pension Zem. It’s a minuscule, 27-room family hotel that was quite modest and endearingly old-fashioned but as long as you don’t expect anything more than cheap accommodation, free Wi-Fi, and at least a little bit of breakfast every morning, it was most adequate. The sound proofing is abysmal but since each floor only has three or four rooms and fellow passengers were courteous enough to stay quiet most of the time, the nights were peaceful. The biggest drawback of the hotel is probably its location. It takes a five-minute walk just to the nearest metro station of Suitengumae, which isn’t even connected to anything noteworthy. Another five minutes of walking gets you to the slightly better aligned stations of either Ningyocho or Kayabacho but as these trips are always about plenty of walking, even short distances like these quickly add up to eventually murder your feet. Still, the hotel was good value for money and since the service was excellent, it’s certainly worth a recommendation on budget.

As for hanami, last year I was visiting the country a little bit too early and this time around a little bit too late. Japan had a chilly spring but at the last possible moment it turned into an unexpected heatwave that caused cherry blossoms to go crazy. Thankfully the first few days were still good enough to enjoy a bit of leftover spring celebration in Ueno Park, which was still teeming with people enjoying a relaxed picnic and food stalls offering all sorts of festival grub. Even Tokyoites seemed slightly perplexed of temperatures rising as high as 26° C but at least they later got down to more manageable 15-20° C. All in all, the weather was great for the entire week and for the first time ever, I never had to resort to an umbrella.

On whole, this year’s trip was mostly a best of selection from the past visits. I went to Odaiba to play some pinball and retro arcades (can be found from the fourth floor of Decks Mall Tokyo Beach), and enjoyed the new and impressively lit Unicorn Gundam in front of Diver City Plaza. For food, there was yakitori in the ever-wonderful Torigin in Ginza as well as on Omoide Yokocho, also known as Piss Alley, which featured loads of quaint little bars and grills on a narrow alleyway. The mandatory pilgrimage for Yakuza fans, Kabukicho, was also worth a visit. For thirst of culture, there was the Yebisu Museum of Beer, and a new Godzilla statue was featured in Hibiya, although it was a lot smaller than I thought it would be. Then again, the giant, steampunk-inspired Ghibli clock in Shiodome was truly a sight to behold, especially when it puts up an amusing three-minute show a few times a day.

I also checked out Yokohama, an hour away from Tokyo but easily accessible on the Tokaido line. For the second biggest city in Japan, it was a massive letdown. Sure, there was a little Nissan gallery, the observation tower of Minato Mirai, and Chinatown where steamed meat buns could be bought at practically every street corner, but that’s about it. The city is probably quite a bit more impressive during nighttime but as a day trip, it was just a waste of time. Thankfully Kawasaki, halfway between Tokyo and Yokohama, delivered big time. From the Kawasaki station, it’s just a five-minute walk to Anata no Warehouse, which very well might be the most wonderful arcade on this entire planet! This five-story complex, deliberately designed to look decrepit, imitates the Walled City of Kowloon and it’s just plain awesome! The entrance leads to a decontamination chamber good for a small jump scare, after which a dimly lit corridor leads you on a visually and aurally creepy time trip to the past. The elevator and the toilets in particular look like places to lose your life in bizarre circumstances, and the attention to detail is duly impressive. The main attraction, of course, are the games of which there are dozens and dozens, new and old, and many that can be played for just 50 yen a go. It’s a cheap, highly entertaining way to spend even an entire day, should your ears handle the cacophony.

Amid all this, there was naturally Akihabara. After paying a visit to the Kanda Myojin shrine and its wonderful manga prayer plaques, I rummaged through the arcades and game shops with huge fervor and ended up with a nice selection of all sorts of curios. For GBA, there’s Kessakusen! Ganbare Goemon 1+2: Yukihime to Magginesu, which at least looks like to be an action platformer of sorts. On PS2, it’s all about music (Taiko no Tatsujin: Tobikkiri! Anime Special and Taiko no Tatsujin: Wai Wai Happy Rokudaime) and bullet hell shooters (Dodonpachi Daioujou, Mushihimesama, Triggerheart Exelica Enhanced, and Twinklestar Sprites: La Petite Princesse). PSP retro comes in four flavors, namely Dariusburst, Capcom Classics Collection, SNK Arcade Classics Vol. 1, and SNK Arcade Classics 0. For the 3DS, SoniPro: Super Sonico in Production promises gravure, rhythm, and idol management while Vita is good for music (DJMax Technika Tune) and shooting (Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours). My PS4 collection is bolstered with the Japanese trio of The Idolm@ster: Stella Stage, Game Tengoku CruisinMix, and Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone DX, and I even happened upon an import shelf that had a EU region copy of Shovel Knight. That’s probably the next summer vacation all sorted out, then.