When the original Nioh released, many expected yet another 'Souls-Clone', albeit with a historical Japanese set-dressing. What we actually got was so much more and laid the foundations for a new IP that flourished in its nuanced combat, intricate systems and brilliant gameplay. Now, three years later the series is back and thanks to the addition of some phenomenal combat mechanics, deep character customisation and fantastic boss fights it stands above its predecessor in almost every way. While an incredibly unforgiving difficulty will turn away many, those willing to put in the hard yards will be rewarded with one of the best entries in the arena of punishingly difficult Action-RPGs.
Set during the Sengoku Era in Japan during the 1500s, and taking place years before the events of the first game, protagonist William is not even a twinkle in his father's eye. Instead, players begin by creating an avatar using an in-depth character creator. The amount of options available here is excellent and offers a tremendous amount of variety to create your desired character. I spent a good hour fiddling with meters for things like my character's hair curliness level, highlights, and so much more. I can see plenty of players spending a bunch of time tinkering with their look, as the game allows you to change any detail once you've started playing.
The new additions don't stop with the excellent character creator either. There's the addition of Yokai Forms, Soul Cores, weapons and more, which we'll get to in a bit. Even coming in as someone who played at least eighty hours of the original, the amount of depth in Nioh 2 was initially overwhelming. The game does thankfully provide some good tutorials and explanations for its many systems, so, as long as you're willing to pay attention and focus, you will eventually have that 'eureka' moment where the everything just seems to click. If you're thinking that means things get easy once you've become accustomed to the complexity of combat, fear not. Nioh 2 is absolutely brutal and had me legitimately pulling my hair and barking obscenities at the Yokai on my TV. As a massive fan of the genre, that's exactly what I want out of this type of game.
There's just something so satisfying about that David vs Goliath feeling they provide and, while it likely raises the blood pressure to dangerous levels, it's one that has me coming back time and time again. If you're into that kind of masochistic challenge, the game delivers it in spades and is perhaps one of the toughest I've encountered yet. Despite a ruthless difficulty that could turn away the most seasoned gamer, the game does thankfully allow you to summon the avatars of other players. Doing so requires an easily acquired item, so there's frequently plenty of AI-controlled saviours able to help turn the tide of particularly challenging encounters. If you're feeling confident, you can also challenge player revenants to combat for extra items and loot, which is a fun way to crank up the difficulty.
At one point I hit that grove any 'souls-like' fan knows and blasted all the way to the boss without dying once, by nothing short of a miracle I beat said boss on the first attempt, holding my breath for the majority of the encounter. The sense of triumph was thrilling, and as I interacted with the prompt to finish the mission, my power went out, and everything went dark. Yup... I was fuming, but where I live, these are common, so I just waited a few minutes for it to come back on and eagerly went back to show that boss who his master was yet again. What proceeded was nothing short of karmic payback for my heady arrogance where he killed me at least ten times over. I did finally beat him, but it showed me, albeit, in cruel ways, that focus is imperative if you're to be victorious.
To succeed in Nioh 2, there are so many things to pay attention to. Enemies often have a wide array of moves and will keep you on your toes constantly. It's not uncommon to carve your way through a giant Yokai, only to be killed moments later by a sentient umbrella. I died hundreds of times throughout my sixty-something hours with the game and learnt something small from each death. Whether it was which side a boss was more vulnerable, or which stance, weapon or ability worked best. On a side note, dying and getting back to the action is alarmingly fast with impressively brief load times throughout.
Depth and complexity aren't just overflowing from the game's combat either. On the menu and stat side of things, there is a tonne of systems, items, weapons, skills and more. There's weapon familiarity which improves as you use a particular weapon and individual skill trees for each of the weapon classes too. Speaking of which, the newly added Dual Hatchets and Switchglaive (bringing the weapon total up to nine) are another welcome addition to the arsenal.
On top of the weapon skill trees, you have individual skill trees for Onmyo Magic, Samurai Abilities, Shinobi Abilities & your Yokai Shiftling. Playing with a particular weapon type will gradually give you skill points to invest in that specific tree. Each offers a decent amount of additional moves, stat bonuses and status effects imparted on your enemies. The amount of depth on offer here is staggering, and I have to applaud Team Ninja for their fantastic work.
The newly added Yokai Form and Soul Cores are the real stars of the show in Nioh 2. At the start of the game, players select from one of three Yokai Forms, with each offering unique stats of course. These are vital to combat and will have you building up a meter to transform into your Yokai form briefly. This makes you invulnerable for the duration and gives a significant buff to your attack power. Your Yokai is also used to perform Burst Counters which allow you to interrupt or block a new type of enemy attack in Nioh 2. During combat, enemies will frequently pull off a vicious move that is often unblockable by traditional methods. Performing a correctly timed Burst Counter delivers a massive hit to their Ki (stamina), which if you can get down to zero, will open them up to a hard-hitting grapple attack. Having to factor in Burst Counters along with the three stances and your Ki adds a wonderful element of additional complexity to the series' already excellent combat.
Along with your Yokai form, defeated enemies will sometimes drop Soul Cores. Once taken back to the Shrine, they can be slotted into one of the two available spots of any Yokai Forms you carry. Each enemy type drops a core unique to them, which allows you to summon their form during combat for a range of special moves. These go from morphing your arm into that of a giant Yokai swinging a huge sword, to materialising a Yokai wizard to hurtle fireballs. There's a lot of Soul Cores to unlock and each offer different stat boosts and synergies depending on the Yokai Form they are attached to. It's a brilliant addition and makes the combat in Nioh 2 feel even better than it's predecessor in every way. I can't think of any other title in the genre that has such well-crafted combat, which is not something I expected. There are plenty of things I haven't even mentioned yet, from weapon crafting and soul attunement and forging, to the plethora of items and abilities.
The game hands out loot at an alarming rate, which does lessen the excitement of getting an epic new piece but complaining about that is like saying "no I don't want free donuts". It does lead to a lot of menu management and deciding whether you want to donate, break down or sell weapons and armour can have you spending a decent chunk of time in menus. I didn't have a problem with it but can see some getting a bit tired of checking new gear every few minutes to see if it offers any improvements.
In the graphics department, Nioh 2 is a step-up from the first game. Colours are more vibrant, light is much more noticeable and beautiful, and there are some great particle effects throughout. Team Ninja also included different options for how you want the game to run. Movie Mode puts the focus on resolution and sees the game running at 30 FPS. In comparison, Action Mode provides a mostly stable 60 FPS with slightly reduced visual flourishes and a variable resolution. I much preferred playing in Action Mode as a stable frame-rate in a game that requires to-the-second precision like this is fundamental.
One area the first Nioh didn't exactly excel in was its story, and it isn't much better for the sequel, unfortunately. While the cut scenes usually offer plenty of visual splendour and are well voice-acted, it quickly takes a back seat to the action. It is however accompanied by some breathtaking music, with a score so good I put the controller down and just listened on numerous occasions. There are some jaw-droppingly beautiful orchestral arrangements, and some of the tracks that play during boss encounters do a fantastic job of getting your heart pumping.
Level design is relatively similar to the first game, with it's smaller self-contained areas. While they don't offer the grand sense of exploration seen in FromSoftware titles, they still feature shortcuts and hidden areas to discover. It does allow for a fair amount of variety between locations, and despite being smaller in nature, some of the regions still feel labyrinthine with their branching paths. The art design is excellent, and each location features enough visual flourishes to keep driving you forward to the next.
There's so much game on offer here. By the time I reached the end of the story, I had played just over sixty hours and had barely touched the game's co-op modes, which allow you to group up with two other players to run specific missions. I also still have several untouched side-missions and New Game+ to look forward to, so will likely still be playing in the months to come.
Team Ninja has done a tremendous job with Nioh 2 and improved on the original in almost every way. While the first game may not have reached the cult-like status of FromSoftware's titles, Nioh 2 deserves the attention and respect of any fan of the genre. The game is an indisputable masterpiece that should have its competition paying close attention. I can't recommend it highly enough.
+ Soul Cores add a lot of variety.
+ Best in genre combat.
+ Character creator is amazing.
+ Beautiful orchestral score.
+ Brutally difficult.
+ Excellent art design.
+ Heaps of content.
+ Excellent skill trees and systems.
+ You will die hundreds of times.
- Too much menu management for some.
- AI controlled characters sometimes get stuck.
- Some bosses will test your patience.
- You will die hundreds of times.