I’m not going to lie – Nioh 2 has kicked my backside a lot throughout my time playing it. But I’ve always been compelled to persist until I’ve also done my fair share of ass-kicking.
Perhaps it’s because – thanks to making decent progress at an earlier preview event – I expected it to be easier than its predecessor; you have new Yokai abilities, after all, and Benevolent Graves allow you to summon helpful AI companions. But now, having put in a considerable number of hours, I think Nioh 2 is generally just a more punishing game. Yet, it’s also more fun to play.
Taking place years before the original Nioh, you’re no longer stuck playing a preset character. You create your own using a very robust character generator and then you’re thrust into a harsh world. There’s a story to follow if you care for it, but I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm. All I needed to know to get me going was that I had demonic powers and there were things to kill. Still, if you do care to follow the story intently, you’ll be happy to hear that there are plenty of entertaining cutscenes, and both English and Japanese voice acting.
For me though, the draw of a game like Nioh 2 is the combat. And I’m pleased to report it is absolutely wonderful. On the face of it, it isn’t all that different from the original Nioh. It’s still very much stamina (or Ki) based; there are still three stances to make use of; and the Ki pulse system rewards those with timing. But combat in Nioh 2 is made all the more exciting by the introduction of Yokai abilities – skills of your demonic enemies assimilated and turned against them.
At the start of Nioh 2, it’s up to you to choose two starting weapons from a pool of nine types, and one of three guardian spirits. Fear not: your choices don’t limit how your character can be developed in the future. Depending on the Guardian Spirit you choose, you gain access to unique Yokai form which can be activated when a gauge is full, allowing you to really lay the hurt on your enemies for a short period of time. Even more useful is the Burst Counter ability that your guardian spirit imbues you with.
Enemies have never been deadlier than they are in Nioh 2. Even the feeblest of foes can take you down in one hit unless you’re over-levelled. If you see an enemy winding up an attack alongside a red flash, it’s time to get out of the way or get pummelled and/or slashed into oblivion. That is unless you have the reflexes and positioning to perform a Burst Counter, a move which momentarily turns you into a Yokai in order to nullify such an unblockable attack, throwing your attacker off balance. Then it’s time to counter with an attack or two of your own.
Mastering the Burst Counter is pretty much pivotal to your success in Nioh 2. Whether you’re up against a standard enemy or a boss, failing to counter – or at least failing to get the hell out of the way – will generally lead to an instant death. Unless you’re lucky (and strong), you might escape with just 50-75% of your health bar depleted. Initially, the system can seem overly punishing as a result, especially when you’ve been putting up a good fight but then have a lapse of concentration – but eventually you’ll come to like how it changes the dynamics of each encounter, and how it promotes you to be aggressive.
You’ll find a build that works for you in Nioh 2. I went with the standard katana and mid-weight armour for a good balance between toughness and manoeuvrability. With that, I can skirt around opponents, baiting them to attack if needs be before dodging and countering. Being so agile, upon seeing a red flash I can quickly move in and perform a Burst Counter, leaving the enemy open for a short while to do some real damage. Most enemies can’t withstand more than that; only bosses force me to make a hasty retreat until such an opening opens itself up once again.
The Burst Counter isn’t the only extremely helpful Yokai ability you have at your disposal though. Upon defeating any Yokai in Nioh 2‘s world, there’s a small chance that its soul will remain, ripe for the taking. Collect it and get it back to a shrine, and it will be cleansed, allowing you to attune it to your Guardian Spirit. The benefit is two-fold; not only does attuning more powerful souls increase your stats, but each soul also has an ability to impart to you. When used correctly, they can truly make the difference between victory and defeat in battle.
Some Yokai abilities are great for doing damage at range, for example, while others have limited range but do massive Ki damage if they hit. Only by trying out Yokai abilities as you find them can you discern which ones effectively complement your build. You can’t spam them to simply steamroll through Nioh 2, either. Once used, you need to build Anima to be able to use them again, and to get that you generally need to do damage to enemies. Again, it pays to be aggressive.
The Yokai ability system lays on top of a whole other heap of systems that should make Nioh 2 a confusing mess, yet somehow it isn’t. There’s so much to consider in Nioh 2 at any given moment – your stance, your gear, your Yokai abilities, your skills – but they all work together harmoniously. You’re not overly penalised for failing to pay razor-like attention to each of these systems, either. It’s better if you make use of the multiple stances available to you, but you can stick with just one if you like. Likewise, you won’t hit a brick wall if you don’t spend any skill points that you acquire. You’ll simply perhaps make the game a little more harder for yourself.
Nioh 2 certainly is a game in which you’ll want every bit of help you can get. As already mentioned, enemies hit hard. Sometimes they’re placed in horrible positions to catch you off-guard, too, which is both frightening and a little frustrating. And then there’s the Dark Realm, in which your ability to recover Ki is reduced and enemies are even more dangerous. Only by finding a specific enemy or object in the Dark Realm and destroying it can it be cleansed, allowing you to make use of any helpful rest shines within the area, and open a chest or two as a reward.
Areas affected by the Dark Realm can be the toughest to move through in Nioh 2, but rarely are you forced to enter them. Each and every one of Nioh 2‘s levels offers up multiple routes, giving you some choice as to how to proceed. One route might have stronger enemies but is assuredly shorter. The other might have lots of comparably weaker enemies. Of course, it generally pays to explore both – you never know where you might find a genuinely helpful item, or obtain a Soul Core by defeating a Yokai. The important thing is: you have options. Lots of them.
I would say that it’s the boss fights that make Nioh 2 so entertaining, but it’s not really. Not when simple enemies you can meet while adventuring are so well designed and almost put up just as much of a fight. You’ll find yourself cutting up human opponents like they’re nothing when you’re sufficiently geared up, but against Yokai you’ll always be on your guard. Nioh 2‘s boss fights are pretty epic though. You’ll probably die a fair few times upon reaching most of them – I know I have – but upon studying their moves you’ll return and put them in their place. The adrenaline rush that follows is exhilarating.
Like the original Nioh, there are multiple performance modes so you can prioritise picture quality or framerate. Playing on PS4 Pro, I chose to prioritise the framerate because it simply makes the gameplay feel better. The game still looks quite nice on PS4 Pro with priority given to the framerate, too. If you’re playing on a standard PS4, however, you might find it a bit blurry. Movie mode is decent on both if you don’t mind locked 30fps, but choosing movie mode with unlocked framerate is something you don’t want to do. The framerate fluctuation will just annoy you.
Nioh 2 is a huge game, and on top of that, the crushing difficulty often means that making progress is slow. If you don’t mind working with others, however, there is a ray of hope: online co-op. It’s easier than ever to group up with others in Nioh 2, tackling missions as a team. You’ll need to cover each others’ backs if you want to succeed, but even the toughest of foes can be made manageable with strong warriors by your side.
If I were to nitpick and try to find fault with Nioh 2, I’d say the difficulty is perhaps too harsh when you first start; it can sometimes be hard to spot the telltale red flash of an incoming attack when fighting some of the game’s larger enemies up close; and that summoning help via Benevolent Shrines can sometimes feel like a waste of Ochoko Cups due to the AI’s gung-ho nature. It can also be a bit of a pain to grind for Elixirs when you’ve ran out. But they’re all quite minor issues in the grand scheme of things. There’s nothing here really that diminishes your overall enjoyment of the game, just minor annoyances.
Undoubtedly set to be one of the highlights of 2020, Nioh 2 is a confident follow-up that leaves the core of the game intact, renewing the experience by adding yet another rewarding layer. With its Yokai abilities, it further distances itself from the Souls-like genre, making combat deeper and more exciting then ever. This is effectively Ninja Gaiden cranked up to eleven with RPG elements and your own custom created character; one that has a demonic past that inexplicably provides them with otherworldly abilities. And if that doesn’t make you want to play Nioh 2, I don’t know what will.
Nioh 2 is available on PS4. We reviewed it on a PS4 Pro with code provided by the publisher.
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