Back in early 2017, the world faced a new challenger amongst the plethora of Dark Souls Imitators named Nioh – it was the first time a souls-like game could stand toe to toe with the master and became an instant success, garnering praise and sales the like.
Well, the inevitable (and welcome) sequel now Graces our shelves – has it evolved to slay the competition or will it have to respawn at the nearest shrine. Let’s find out!
*A Copy of Nioh 2 was provided by Koei Tecmo for review purposes
March 12, 2020
Action RPG (Souls-like)
1 Player + Online Co-op
(Screenshots will be taken from the first several hours to minimize spoilers)
Stepping out of the shoes of William the white samurai from the first game, Nioh 2 immediately thrusts you into probably my favorite character creator I’ve used. While there could have been a few more tattoo options, their tools allowed me to replicate everything from my two different colored eyes and my birthmark to my white hair in my mustache – All while actually looking like a good playable character! (I’m looking at you literally every Soulsborne game).
Taking place before the events of the first game, you play a half yokai, or shiftling, samurai who finds themselves teamed up with a goofy traveling merchant and a badass lady demon-hunter and tasked with hunting and killing yokai (those are Japanese ghosts and monsters for you non-weebs out there) throughout 1500’s Japan. The rest of the main plot points I will leave a mystery as to not spoil anything.
While everything is very well acted and the full cutscenes are something of splendor, the game’s main pull isn’t its story. However, its world and tone it creates is something of a splendor. A major gripe with the first game was its level design and mission system. Rather than a pseudo-open world game like most souls-likes, the Nioh series ran on a mission launching system with an overworld map. While this felt like more of a limitation for the first game, Nioh 2’s mission levels are sprawling layered maps, often with vertical paths and shortcuts. The mission map separation also made it easy for Team Ninja to diversify the maps, often with each one telling a unique story and housing an astounding number of different enemy types (addressing another criticism). While it is now using this system to mostly great effect, I did find difficult spikes within some of Nioh 2’s side missions that pushed the boundries of fairness that tried my patience. However, It did also made it easy for Team Ninja to experiment with special mission varients. For example, as a side-mission I found myself fighting on multiple waves of enemies in an open arena with a cartoon cat shaped like a ball helping me.
That last sentence holds what appeals most to me about the Nioh franchise – no, not the cat, well… yes the cat but let me explain. While Dark Souls tells an endlessly dark and somber story and games like it such as the Surge franchise grounded in its sci-fi premise, Nioh isn’t afraid to whiplash in tone. One minute you will be wading through a field of corpses through a somber battlefield to slay a dark Yokai and the next you will befriend a cat that fights by bouncing on enemies. Most games, especially western ones it seems, tend to be afraid of such clashing tones, but those of you familiar with the Yakuza franchise know that tone to be a draw in and of itself. Just because life is hard one moment doesn’t mean you can’t have fun the next. That tone is something utterly unique Nioh offers its genre.
While Nioh 2’s tone is wonderfully eclectic, this is the type of beast that lives and dies on its gameplay.. luckily it more than delivers. On a simple level, Nioh 2 starts with a standard action game combat system: light attack, heavy attack, block, dodge. This set-up is tried and true and has served the Souls series and many others well. The first Nioh mixed things up by adding a stance system that allows players to switch between the separate stances (low, mid, and high) and with it mixing up the speed and move-sets. It also created the Ki system, which essentially acts as a player’s stamina gauge, and different mechanics with it such as the Ki pulse, allowing players to time button presses to hasten recoveries (a la Gears of War active reload). These systems combined the fact that enemy Ki gauges can also be seen made Nioh’s combat system a game of timing and smarts to outwit the enemy as you look to lower their Ki to break their stance for some major damage. Nioh 2 takes that same system and throws a couple more elements to further make combat an active experience. The largest one that seems to be gaining the most attention in the media is the burst counter. Every enemy has an extra powerful attack that, when used, surrounds them in a red aura as they wind up. When the enemy strikes the player has a move specific counter that flips what could be a devastating attack on you into the largest opens for damage on them. This creates a marriage between thinking and reflex in battle – when an enemy starts to glow do you risk yourself for major gain or do you play it safe and back out of the way to continue the fight? This new system ultimately rewards skilled players for playing aggressive while still validating the careful fighters. Where I found myself throwing myself at enemies and running in reflex and skill in games like Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne this new addition of specific counters stacked on the already brilliant key pulse system made me have to play in a much more engaging way. This serves to make each encounter in Nioh 2 feel like a true battle of wits and reflexes.
The other main new addition is that of Yokia form and Yokia souls (careful, Team Ninja). Yokai form allows you to take on a chosen powerful monstrous form that grants you invulnerability and other powerful abilities. This new addition is solid but doesn’t allow for the nuance that it’s Yokai soul cores do. This system allows you to occasionally take the souls off of monstrous Yokai enemies and adopt their forms and attacks in short bursts when put into a loadout. This creative new feature allows you to not only customize how you’d like to play with crazy attacks (there is literally one where you turn into a jumping monkey that throws a spear) but it also allows you to create specific ability loadouts for particularly nasty foes and bosses.
Speaking of loadouts and nasty bosses, the sheer amount of content in this game is staggering. I logged a good 65 hours into the game and still feel there is much I haven’t mastered and seen. There is rarely a moment where you won’t be looting new items and encountering new enemies, mini-bosses, and bosses. It almost just feels like Team Ninja flexing at one point. I won’t state how many I fought in here as not to spoil anything, but the number of bosses is far more than I’ve ever seen in a single game. This isn’t all to say that the game is overwhelming. While wading through Nioh 2’s many menus and skill trees is initially daunting, the game felt more of an unfolding progression far more than its predecessor and competitors. Look always goes towards progression if you’re not using it and I often kept around much of it as the designs were awesome and storage space is aplenty. While once Nioh 2 gets going it doesn’t let up, those cluttered interfaces and difficulty spikes did hamper enjoyment for a short bit – but it also made those victories so much sweeter once you get slaying.
All of this combines to be a souls-like to challenge even the games the genre takes its name from – in both challenge and quality. Since I know it will call comparison, in my head, if the original series and this game fought to the death, Nioh 2 would be able to slay dark souls 2 with ease, best the formidable foe Sekiro, snatch a bloody victory from the jaws of defeat against Dark Souls 3, before being slain from the masterpieces that are Bloodborne and Dark Souls. Nioh 2 achieved this with the most compelling combat system I have played in the genre, an utterly unique tone, and varied labyrinthian levels, all of which combine into an endlessly recommendable piece of gaming – just bring something to bite down on (damn you snake boss)