Nioh 2 was originally released on PS4 back in March last year, plunging players back into the darkness of an alternate history Japan where demons roam the land, regularly smacking people about with such terrifying efficiency you might wonder how anybody ever survived to tell the tale.
Nioh was an interesting game. It told the story of real-life historical figure William Adams, one of the only non-Japanese people to become samurai. The sequel has eschewed this quasi-historical protagonist in favour of a mute, player-created character, and to be honest that doesn’t make that much of a difference. The character creator has a ton of options and it’s easy to come up with a character that doesn’t look weird as hell, which is a credit to it. In exchange, your interactions with the world around you are somewhat minimised – other characters exist to die, spout expositional dialogue, or both.
But this isn’t what you’ve come to Nioh 2 for. You’ve come for the classic Souls-like challenge, right? Everything else is just particularly bloody gravy.
Poor unfortunate souls-like
Nioh 2 is not as finely crafted as its inspirations. It has more immediate spectacle, sure, and on the surface it seems to give the players a much greater abundance of tools to combat the yokai hordes with. The game’s challenge comes from a deluge of overpowered enemies who barely telegraph their attacks and bosses with giant health pools that can annihilate yours in a couple of attacks. You might have more options on how to tackle these enemies, but the experience as a whole isn’t as artful as Dark Souls can feel. It’s like the thought behind it is that simply making the game as hard as possible will elevate it.
That isn’t the case. This could just be down to me being hilariously bad at these games (and yet, continually subjecting myself to their torments) but it’s just kind of exhausting after a while. Where Dark Souls has a mostly very careful balance of difficulty and fairness, making every failure into a lesson, encouraging the player to learn its rules with brutal efficiency. Nioh 2 feels cheap and precarious more often than not. For all the ways it gives you to fight your enemies, they have just as many ways to mess you up in seconds.
Combat is spiced up this time with the addition of Yokai Form, where your character taps into their demonic heritage to unleash powerful moves. The Burst Counter comes along with that, explosively returning enemy attacks with flair. These moves are powerful, and can wreak havoc in the right hands, but they can leave you vulnerable. The increased power also makes it way easier to be reckless and forget how squishy and fragile you really are, so you have to learn a measure of restraint that doesn’t normally accompany these rage modes.
As beautiful as it is dangerous
Much like my taste in women, Nioh 2 is as beautiful as it is psychologically damaging. The game world is richly detailed – every grotesque monster is offset by remarkable scenery, bringing this mythical take on ancient Japan to life in spectacular fashion. Nioh 2 is a gloomy game, and yet so very vivid – the quality of Nioh 2‘s world building is what kept me going back to it, death after death. That probably wasn’t the right motivator, because there’s only so much pain you can put yourself through for beauty’s sake.
The war eternal
Nioh 2 manages to stuff a massive arsenal of ways to fight your enemies, and uses a loot system not entirely dissimilar to Diablo, meaning for every inch of progress you manage to make, you’re regularly rewarded with incremental boosts to your power. It’s a trail of breadcrumbs, leading you through an incredibly hostile wood. Not only do you have an array of weapons with their own fighting styles to choose between, you can compliment them with different combinations of armour, different Guardian Spirits to change your Yokai Form, unique stances to change the way you fight – there’s a ton of ways to build your character up into who you want them to be.
A big complaint here is that despite essentially acting as a clean slate for the series, it does sort of assume that you’re already familiar with Nioh/souls-like games in the first place. The tutorial is completely optional but without it new players aren’t going to be organically introduced to the multiple facets of Nioh 2’s nuanced combat. Dark Souls has historically done a much better job of teaching players what to do without the need for “Press the triangle button three times!” procedural tutorials.
I think there’s also a bit of an issue with pacing. The second enemy you come up against (the first being a literal sniveling gremlin that takes a couple of hits) will absolutely wipe the floor with the uninitiated. It’s brutal. Bloodborne had a similar opening, but it felt more instructive than anything, and returning to that first beast with weapons instead of fists was so satisfying.
Nioh 2: An amazing world, but not quite right
I would love to see Nioh 2 try to do more with less tools. It seems like it’s in such a hurry to overwhelm you with features and choices to differentiate it from the games that came before it that it loses some focus. Simply adding more punishing bosses and ways in which to eventually kill them does not make this a better game. The complete edition with both DLCs available does deliver a lot of content altogether though, so if you’re impatiently waiting for Elden Ring and want a challenge in the meantime, I’d recommend giving Nioh 2: Complete Edition a shot.