Nioh 2 only really iterates on what came before, rather than offering anything bold and new as the first game did. A key mechanic that made the original stand out as a genuine Souls contender and not just another pretender was – and honestly, the pun is unintentional – Ki.
A delicious tactical twist on stamina management, you could either quickly recharge this gauge for another attack or leave yourself disastrously winded. Bringing down enemies’ Ki was crucial to opening them up to more devastating damage, an idea that seems to have been an influence on Sekiro’s posture and death-blow mechanics.
This sequel doesn’t have anything quite as game-changing, though it does its utmost with a few hooks. First, Nioh 2’s hero is a half-Yōkai – a supernatural entity originating from Japanese folklore.
There’s something of a gotta-catch-’em-all mentality to the action, as defeated Yōkai sometimes leave behind Soul Cores, each granting you one of their signature powers that can be used against other foes. Their effectiveness is, however, debatable. Despite already requiring a new Anima gauge (not to be confused with Amrita, the game’s equivalent of the souls in Dark Souls), these abilities run on lengthy cooldowns so can’t be used liberally.
The same applies for the new Yōkai Shift ability that’s akin to Devil May Cry’s Devil Trigger, which takes even longer to charge up, and never deals out substantial damage to make or break encounters where it matters most. Evidently, Team NINJA had no plans on giving players an easy out – the combat remains as hellishly brutal as its predecessor, arguably more so. But then, masochist that I am, I’d have it no other way.
There’s no shortage of threats, whether human or Yōkai. The latter are naturally the bigger concern, though don’t underestimate being pounced on by a group of guards who don’t politely wait their turn. The ape-like Enki and one-eyed Oni are obvious brutes, but it’s amazing how those at the bottom of the pecking order, like the Gollum-esque Gaki, still have the capacity to ruin your day in the late game.
Then there’s the boss fights: not content with being fiendish bastards with more health than one bar ought to represent, they can also transport you to the Dark Realm. This new trick is an extension of the old Yōkai Realm pools which would cripple your Ki recovery, only this time around it envelops the entire room, and you can’t dispel it like you previously would with a Ki pulse. That bosses tend to trigger this after you nearly have them in their death throes does sometimes feel like a step too far, difficulty-wise.
Fortunately, the enemy’s other nasty surprise, a much more powerful attack distinguished by a red glowing aura, can be nullified by the new burst counter. It’s one of the most compelling additions and utterly satisfying to pull off.
There are variations, depending on the guardian spirit you have equipped, but feral spirits prove to be the most useful since they let you dash into the enemy, all the better for the counter to connect. It takes a bit of time to get used to activating with R2 and circle, being one of numerous inputs you already have to juggle, from stance-switching to item shortcuts to ranged weapons. But players who felt too restricted by Sekiro’s heavily singular approach will embrace the burst counter, as well as the bevy of other options available.
Should things get overwhelming, there’s always the option of summoning up to two more players to help, though for friends the rule remains that the summoned must have already beaten said mission. If no-one’s around, there’s also the welcome addition of blue graves allowing you to summon benevolent AI-controlled players instead. The latter aren’t the sharpest, though, so when it comes to boss fights, they’re at best regarded as a kind of shield that will buy you a little time.
Mastering the punishing combat ultimately makes Nioh 2 every bit as great and gruelling as its predecessor. It’s only once you take your eyes off the combat that you’ll become acutely aware of where it falls short. Despite some impressive in-engine cutscenes bookending missions, the story is something of a shallow sojourn through Sengoku-era Japan, as embellished historical figures like Oda Nobunaga come and go with little fanfare.
The level design is also rather samey – once you’ve seen one burned-down, ransacked hut, you’ve seen them all – and while you do have shortcuts, it gets predictable, especially when you reach a checkpoint then find that the next approachable gate is of course locked from the other side; Miyazaki-style world-building this is not.
Still, as long as you’re prepared to put in the hours, those downsides will feel rather trivial. With the Souls series laid to rest and Sekiro signalling how far FromSoftware has moved on, Nioh 2’s presence is almost like eating nostalgic comfort food, if you crave that oppressive flavour.
But with its dizzying array of Yōkai to slay, a colourful abundance of loot drops, and all manner of weapons to master – and if you can play with friends – it’s not just the next best thing to old-fashioned jolly co-operation, but strangely akin to playing Monster Hunter.
With former protagonist William not yet in the picture, Nioh 2 lets you create an avatar that’s as diverse and detailed as you like. The level of customisation provided is frankly ridiculous, which does pay off during cutscenes. For the fashion-conscious, if you’re especially attached to an outfit with poor stats, you can even change the appearance of higher level gear to your preference.
Nioh 2 may only iterate on its formula, but when it’s a brutally brilliant one, you couldn’t ask for more.
Genre: Masochore action-RPG
Format: PS4 (tested)
Developer: Team NINJA
Release: Out now