Many thought the original Nioh was going to be a copycat of Dark Souls. When the title hit the PlayStation 4 in 2017, gamers realised it was a unique experience, a brutally challenging game that could only be created by Team Ninja. Fast forward three years and the team is back with Nioh 2, an equally challenging game that is bound to ignite the passion of masochists the world over.
Land of the rising yokai
Though Nioh 2 is a sequel, the events that transpire take place before those of the first game. Players take on the role of a half-human, half-supernatural Yokai warrior. Given their supernatural abilities, the protagonist has taken it upon themselves to rid the world of demons.
While not everyone will look kindly upon a warrior who is also half the thing that is tearing the world apart, there are those like Tokichiro who will gladly team up with you. With the help of Tokichiro, you will hunt down precious Spirit Stones, defeat demons, and learn more about this mythological take on the Sengoku-era Japan.
The world that Team Ninja is displaying here is breathtaking in its beauty. Each mission takes you to a new and distinct location that begs you to explore every inch of the field. There are dark and compact villages, vibrant townships lined with cherry blossom trees, claustrophobic caverns and everything in between. Exploring every inch is also a necessity, as the levels themselves are so intertwined and knotted, that unlocking secret passages and shortcuts is essential to making a boss run easier.
But visuals are only half the palette with which Team Ninja paints Nioh 2. The other is the soundtrack. There’s an otherworldly quality to the reed instruments and strings that evoke a sense of Japanese culture and mythology. Combat is underlined by intense pulsing while the quiet moments in between – like crafting your builds in the menu – are serene, making the process more akin to trimming a bonsai tree than figuring out which Soul Stone best fits your build.
While the visuals and sounds are the paint, the canvas on which this creation comes to life is the rich systems and the deeply rewarding combat.
Enter the samurai
Before you get to the combat, there is one immediate improvement to acknowledge: the character creation screen. This exhaustive character creation screen allows the protagonist to be either male or female. This lets players create something that feels more like their own story, as opposed to experiencing the story of someone else.
As for the combat, the developers at Team Ninja have taken the intensity of Nioh’s combat and cranked it up to eleven. There are nuances of attacking and position that are present in Dark Souls, but also the rush of stringing together incredible combos and moves like that of Devil May Cry.
Every engagement with an enemy, whether it’s a lowly mob unit or one of the many unique bosses, becomes a dance that’s created on the fly. There are high, mid, and low stances, each with their own unique skills and abilities; Ki (stamina) management and recouping through correctly timed button presses; and the incredibly powerful yokai abilities.
These yokai abilities are a new addition and are thanks to the half-supernatural side of the protagonist. By defeating demons, you can gain their souls which are then fused with your own Guardian Spirit. These are attacks that are tied to pulling R2 and pressing either Triangle or Square. A yokai ability can chip away an enemy’s health and Ki, affording you more room to attack or retreat.
Much like God of War’s Spartan Rage, Nioh 2 offers the Yokai Shift. After pressing Triangle and Circle, the player transforms into a yokai, replacing the health and Ki bars with a single yokai shift gauge. This move opens up a range of possibilities in combat. More than once I was able to secure a boss kill thanks to the extra damage and invulnerability offered by the Yokai Shift.
As for the weapon you’ll be using to take down these foes, there are eight or so weapon archetypes, with dozens of variations within. At the onset of the game, two of these can be chosen but they will quickly get outclassed by the loot dropped by the enemies you slay.
The skills in Nioh 2 are also tied to these weapon archetypes. Become proficient with a spear, and you’ll be able to unlock more spear-specific skills. This allows players to really lean into a chosen build and become a master of their weapon.
While attacking is important in Nioh 2, managing your Ki makes the difference between life and death. This is where the Ki Pulse comes in. Whenever an attack is performed, a blue light will surround the player, press R1 at the correct time and the character will pulse, recouping some of the spent Ki. This allows the fight to continue despite you being out of stamina a second before.
This move becomes essential when fighting the game’s many bosses. Break the boss’ Ki, and they’ll enter a Dark Realm, significantly inhibiting your ability to regain Ki. The only way out of this Dark Realm is to deal enough damage to the boss, which obviously requires the consumption of stamina. It takes a system that could be overlooked, and makes it a vital part of the combat experience.
These bosses range in size, combat styles, and aesthetics. There’s a rich mysticism and fantasy element to their design, too. One of the first you encounter, Mezuki, is a large horse-headed demon with a swollen arm wielding a cleaver. The brutal design highlights the brutal combat, building more terror into each encounter.
Mastering the combat in Nioh 2, while rewarding in and of itself, also leads to other delightful pleasures, like seeing loot come bursting out of enemies. A defeated boss will shower the battlefield with treasure, making the taste of victory all the sweeter.
In brutally challenging games, it’s always important that the player never feel cheated out of success. A death should always be the result of the player failing to put into practice previously-shared information. While the majority of my deaths were chalked up to a failing on my part, there were times where the hitboxes in Nioh 2 felt downright unfair.
This soured a few fights where I had the boss on the ropes, but died to what looked to be an attack that should have missed but somehow connected.
To further this problem of clarity and precision, many of the game’s systems aren’t presented clearly. There is a whole lot going on in the menus, a lot of stats, and a ton of information to absorb. For veterans of the series, this is an absolute pleasure, but for newcomers, it’s bound to feel incredibly overwhelming.
However, given enough time and patience, newcomers to the series will eventually find the systems click into place. It’s just unfortunate that it’s so obtuse at the very start.
I’ve got an axe to grind about having button presses to move through loading screens. They’re more often than not entirely unnecessary. The only time they’re warranted is if you have the option to quit or there is a lot of information to read.
Nioh 2 is the latter of these two. Each loading screen has story and tips for you to absorb, and having a “Continue?” option is needed, giving players the time to fully absorb the world. Furthermore, the loading screens offer a shortcut to the tutorial, turning each death into a potential learning experience. This is good use of a loading screen.
The way of the samurai
Though it does sag with some questionable hitboxes and a glut of menus, mastering the interlacing combat systems in Nioh 2 is deeply rewarding. The developers at Team Ninja have crafted a deviously challenging experience that is bound to test even the best of players.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 code provided by the publisher. Nioh 2 is set to release on PlayStation 4 on March 13, 2020.
- An intriguing story
- Deeply challenging and rewarding combat systems
- Varied and unique boss fights
- Seeing bosses drop a ton of loot is fantastic
- Beautiful environments
- Gorgeous audio and soundtrack
- A lot of menus with an overload of information
- Some hitboxes are questionable and feel unfair
Sam Chandler posted a new article, Nioh 2 review: Crouching yokai, hidden samurai
Nice. I was hoping they didn't go too far afield in the mechanics.