When a main character wants a world free from war, leading the cast of a JRPG might not be the best plan.
During the first two hours, Ni No Kuni 2 almost convinced me it was a very different game. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but the wasted possibilities, coupled with a beyond tiresome trope, indelibly stained my following 80 hours of play.
Two Rulers, Two Protagonists
We begin the game with a cutscene of the president of some fictional U.S. stand-in driving across a bridge. A missile streaks across the sky and utterly destroys the city on the other side, throwing the president’s limousine aside like a brittle leaf in the wind. As he lays there dying, some mystical force teleports him away to a place we will learn to be Ding Dong Dell.
After some storybook exposition, we learn of a plot unfolding to usurp the throne of Ding Dong Dell perpetrated by a weasel name Mausinger. Our near-dead president, Roland, appears by mystical means in the bedroom tower of young King Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, a boy naive in every sense of the word.
Evan hesitantly pulls a small dagger, holding it in front of him with shaky hands and shakier threats. Roland, looking 20 years younger and sporting a ponytail, pointedly ignores both boy and blade – first running to a mirror to admire his reclaimed vitality and then sneaking quickly out of the bedroom.
This meeting of Ni No Nuki 2’s pair of protagonists is an emblematic showcase of their respective characters: Evan knows next to nothing of warfare or combat and tries to compensate for any real-world experience with a deep well of optimism. Roland, on the other hand, is realistic verging on pessimism (at least as much as the fairy tale structure of NNK2 will allow), always contemplating the ramifications of his actions and pondering five moves ahead of opponents. He’s also a crack whip with a blade and pistol.
We learn Evan, though the nominal leader of his people, is all too comfortable following Roland as the two make good their escape from Mausinger’s rebellious forces. He copes with the apparent crumbling of his rule with a shell-shocked disbelief, answering Roland’s questions as they pick their way through collapsed halls filled with the bodies of guards.
Later, as they are surrounded and outnumbered, a woman named Aranella appears to pull them out of the fire. She backstabs a sorcerer, flips over a couple of guards and fends off attacks with nothing but a dagger.
Aranella is a badass.
She also turns out to be Evan’s governess, who gave him an education as well as teaching him the principles of magic. Aranella is as close as Evan has to a mother, and he trusts her implicitly and completely. That should have been my first clue.
As the trio headed for the sewers and the hidden exit purported therein, I noticed NNK2 was not giving me access to Evan… at all. From promotional material, I knew he would wield magic and take part in combat, but as the player I only had access to Roland’s stats and equipment. Only he brought steel to bear against the traitor knights inside the castle.
What if that was by design? Roland and Evan were foils for each other – rulers with two drastically different skill sets and outlooks. Perhaps Roland would continue to embody the brutal but necessary justice necessary to run a country, while Evan personified the hopeful peace and non-violence that inspires good rulers. If so, I was on board.
At the end of the sewers, our intrepid crew found the way blocked by the massive Black Knight, the most fearsome of Mausinger’s underlings. We trade blows, and it looks like another victory for team King/President until the knight explodes with some foul, purple-black energy and morphs into a quadrupedal nightmare. Spitting caustic blue flame, the party scrambles for ground. The Black Night almost catches Evan flat-footed, but Aranella intercepts and takes the blast head on.
Roland shoots out the creature’s eye, and it blindly stumbles over a cliff and into the darkness below. But it seems too late for Aranella. Propped against the wall and backed by emotional, farewell-laden music cues, Aranella admits their relationship, while not legitimized by blood, brought her happiness. She tell him he has a good heart and will be a great king. Then, Evan watches the final moments of his surrogate mother bleed away.
“You have to build a kingdom where everyone can live happily ever after,” Aranella said before sloughing her mortal coil.
Crying over her still body, Evan swears to fulfill her last wish and build that fairy tale kingdom of happiness. “For you, Nella,” Evan said.
“Bullshit,” I said.
Even if you aren’t familiar with the phrase “fridged woman”, you can likely recognise its execution: someone close to the protagonist is killed off, often by a main bad guy or someone working under them, and the emotional fallout serves to fuel the protagonist’s quest.
The name itself references a storyline in the 1994 Green Lantern run, where Alexandra deWitt, the girlfriend of Green Lantern, is strangled, mutilated and stuffed in a fridge for the hero to discover. The loss, among other factors, eventually leads to the villain’s downfall.
Writer Gail Simone coined the term “women in refrigerators” to refer to the recurring trope of women being violently murdered in service of sending a message. Since then, the trope expanded and evolved to encompass the too-many ways women characters are abused and discarded for the sake of plot contrivances.
It’s been widely panned as lazy, manipulative and particularly unkind to female characters – shorthand for telling the audience her only real worth was to be sacrificed on the altar of motivation, often for a male character. Still, the trope persists at all levels of media, including fridging Morena Baccarin’s character in the first 10 minutes of Deadpool 2.
Never mind that the entire plot of the first film culminates with her accepting Wade Wilson’s new existence and them deciding to build a life together. It’s an emotional gut punch and inciting incident all for the low, low cost of one woman’s body.
Yet, JRPGs don’t seem to fall prey to this trope in the same manner. You may instead see a hometown or business or way of life upturned, but women characters are hardly ever fed to the storyline gristmill in the same fashion.
Imagine then my frustration that the kickflipping, dagger weilding Aranella bit the dust about a half-hour after appearing, and her final words might as well have been the 10th grade writing assignment thesis statement for the whole game.
Peace at the Tip of a Blade
Evan and Roland take some time to mourn Aranella, speaking intimately about their next steps and where it will lead them. Peace is all Evan can think of: attaining a peace that will make premature deaths at the hands of violent people a thing of the past. Roland is skeptical but signs on anyways, and the pair begin an epic quest to unite every nation of the world together.
If it sounds trite and cloying, NNK2 understands and does not apologize. Its story traffics in grand archetypes of good and evil, riffing on fables and a stark dichotomy of morality. As soured as I was following Aranella’s fridging, I held out hope that my original assessment of the ruling duo would play out, with Roland wielding the sword at problems and Evan the quill, so to speak.
Yet, the game seemed determined to prove me wrong as quickly as possible. Evan picks up a weapon in the next scene and hacks his way through the rest of the game with it. Like the majority of JRPGs, NNK2’s primary verb is attack. Whether that’s with a physical weapon or spell, your party carves a path through their enemies from location to location, goal to goal. Apparently Evan can conveniently compartmentalize his bid for peace long enough to dispatch the local rabble.
Speaking of rabble: I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the casual way the game paints some creatures as morally bankrupt monsters. Take the groups of rodent mercenaries that inhabit the plains where Evan eventually establishes his kingdom of Evermore. Despite admitting they lived here first, the party holds no qualms about killing them in droves as they rush to protect their territory. Later on, Evan will speak to a slightly more peaceful tribe and run an errand for them, proving them capable of culture, family, language and… well, anything else at this point.
By falling back on tired colonial imagery, the game brushes what should be a fraught moral issue for Evan and Co. under the rug. He is the savior of mankind, and therefore his path is righteous. Any opposition must axiomatically be evil, or at least too underdeveloped to know better. His grand vision of world peace must not have room for the rodents of the plains who dare squat on the future grounds of his palace.
As the player, I guess I had the choice to sideline Evan permanently. You gain access to more characters than will fit in the active party of four. But that was not something the game intimated as the right choice or rewarded me for doing: no special ending for keeping Evan’s hands free of blood nor option for seeking a more diplomatic solution to problems in a narrative about signing a pan-national peace treaty.
In fact, every nation signed my accord only after suffering a catastrophic event that threatened to level their entire civilization until Evan and Co. stepped in to avert disaster with their sundry weapons. Sometimes it was the personality faults of those in charge and sometimes it was old blood feuds, but peace in this game was always bought with steel and sorcery.
Reading this sounds like I didn’t care for the game, and that isn’t entirely true. Ni No Kuni 2’s kingdom building systems devoured a clean half of my total playtime, and the smaller vignettes that convinced subjects to join your fledgling kingdom were often touching or playful. But I never could shake the disappointment I felt during the game’s opening chapter.
Was it my fault to expect something different from this game? Maybe, but if we ever expect games to throw off tired tropes like fridging women, we must criticise the practice. Aranella deserved better than having her bones become the foundation for an empire, no matter how peaceful. And we all deserved better than another empty ethos.