March 13, 2020
It’s fair to say that Nioh was a sleeper hit back in 2017, showing that From Software weren’t the only ones who could create a tantalising action RPG loop that was incredibly difficult while remaining addictive and rewarding. Team NINJA continue their high-quality legacy with a game that was filled with determined demons, lots of loot and provided a fast-paced alternative to the genre Dark Souls had created.
Nioh 2 comes to us now as an even more refined and tactical experience, with the focus on tweaking the formula to create an even tighter combat system rather than being a gigantic evolutionary leap forward. In that sense, it absolutely succeeds. Its predecessor was already an amazing experience that had me hooked for over a hundred hours, and with additions to the core gameplay features, this sequel is as satisfying as ever, despite a tough-as-nails learning curve that could easily put off the faint at heart.
In Nioh 2, you play as a Shiftling – a half-human half-Yokai hybrid. Set in 1555, the story is your expected good versus evil stuff, with your pal Tokichiro serving as your sidekick and vocal companion, considering your character is mute. It means there’s lots of long exposition dumps where people are talking at your character in cut-scenes, but at least the Yokai elements make for some visually striking storytelling, even if the writing can’t quite match the spectacle. It’s not just your character that’s half-Yokai, either. While in the first game there was a clearer line between human and mythical creature, the lines are blurry in this sequel.
Every enemy has the ability to tap into an inner Yokai ability, normally when they’re on the ropes and close to death. These attacks are indicated by a flurry of red appearing around them as an indicator, and that’s a sign that you need to be prepared for a counter – or get the hell out of the way. These attacks, even from the most common foes, can result in instant death (or close to it), meaning you have to be on your toes more than ever. To counteract this, you have a Burst Counter that can be used, which instantly stuns enemies that are in the middle of one of their devastating attacks. While these moves made combat risky and honestly scary at the beginning, learning to time your Burst Counter makes for some satisfying results as it allows you to really turn the tide and deal some massive damage. At first, I feared these red-aura moves, but it didn’t take long before I learned to love them as they gave me a good opening to deliver some pain when I needed to most.
This shift to further integrate the Yokai world into the gameplay goes beyond this though; enemies in Nioh 2 have a chance of dropping a Soul Core, which can be picked up, purified and then added to your character so that you can literally steal their ability to use on foes. These powerful moves can get you out of some sticky situations, and given there are many to collect and test out, it allows you to try different builds and strategies on particularly painful bosses.
During each mission there are also times when you must enter a Dark Realm, filled with powerful enemies with one in particular that needs taking down to clear it. These prove to be even more challenging, but your abilities charge faster while inside, which helps when activating the powerful Yokai shift that essentially makes you invulnerable and powerful for a short period. It feels like this sequel is tapping deeper into what made the original stand out, by incorporating these mystical creatures in a way that has a direct impact on combat, rather than just being a story beat.
It’s a good thing that combat in Nioh 2 feels so slick and satisfying, bringing in new elements to add to the existing Ki management (mastering the Ki Pulse to assist with stamina regen is still vital). Battles really feel dynamic, and enemy variety (a criticism of the original) has improved dramatically. While it will cost you many (many) deaths, learning attack patterns of new grotesque creatures will truly make you feel like a badass as your cutting through multiple foes in long stretches between rest points. Maps still interweave and loop back on themselves via shortcuts in the best way, something that has become a bit of an art form in and of itself within the genre. There’s a finesse to the level design here that makes missions feel insurmountable yet still achievable, and that goes a long way in making you feel like you have a fighting chance – even after an embarrassing defeat.
There is also some work to be done regarding skill trees and gear to get the absolute most out of your character and remain competitive with the trickier enemies. Each weapon has its own range of skills and upgrades, with different abilities linked to each stance. Gear is also plentiful, and it becomes a constant thought process around which pieces you keep, upgrade, break down or sell. If you don’t care for inventory management, this might put you off, but every possible advantage here is critical so it’s worth spending some time getting to know these systems intricately.
“There’s a finesse to the level design here that makes missions feel insurmountable yet still achievable…”
If the multiple deaths don’t keep you playing for a long time as it is, the breadth of content in Nioh 2 is also astounding. Main missions are pretty long haul to begin with, but there are multiple side missions that provide a different kind of challenge, including gauntlets of baddies that really test your skills. Once you finish the 40+ hour campaign, there’s a New Game+ mode called “Dream of the Strong”, which increases both the challenge and the rewards in a big way. There’s even expeditions to play cooperatively with two friends, for a less lonely experience.
Players from the original will find this strong sequel to be a refined and solid step forward, though it may take you some time to really see how the changes to combat have added to the balance and depth. At first, you may not feel like the differences stand out enough, but instead of spending three years reinventing the wheel, Team NINJA have instead doubled-down on what made Nioh so successful in the first place and added thoughtful updates that keep things feeling fair while still being a true challenge. Where enemies have new devastating attacks, you yourself have a strong counter that can maximise damage and turn the tide of battle. Dark Realms are tough but your abilities charge faster, changing the pace. Missions can be long and painstaking, but you can use a Benevolent Grave to summon an AI companion for a brief assist. Even though it does no favours for newbies, those who are patient enough to learn will discover how truly rewarding Nioh 2 can be.
- Refined gameplay is challenging yet so satisfying
- For every tough new addition, there's something to balance it
- Evolves, yet keeps what made the original special
- Yokai skills add an extra layer to an already complex system
- Steep learning curve for newcomers
- Story is a bit forgettable
Nioh 2 manages to evolve the series in a step forward that is not necessarily bold, but certainly intelligent. When combat is such a crucial component of the experience, ensuring that it’s balanced and fair while still being incredibly challenging is certainly not easy, but the game manages to nail it. Even the nights I was stuck on a boss for actual hours, I still had the mentality and belief that I could take them down if I try just one more time. Nioh 2 empowered me to feel that. The new additions to the core gameplay keep battles feeling dynamic and interesting and there’s more enemy variety, not to mention the huge amount of content to sink your teeth into. While newcomers may certainly find it intimidating, Nioh 2 is a confident sequel that, in a year full of exciting game releases, commands your attention and won’t let it go easily.