Nioh 2: The Kotaku Review

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The Dark Souls formula is tried and true. It’s been adapted into science fiction settings, placed into 2D, and refined time and time again. 2017’s Nioh is arguably the most successful spin on the genre, adding flashy combat and the turbulent politics of medieval Japan. Nioh 2 is an improvement on every front. There’s no other way of saying it: I’ve never played a game where fighting feels as good as this.

This piece was first published on March 11, 2020. We’re bumping it today for the game’s release.

From time to time, writers describe video game combat as a complicated dance. You press buttons in time with an understood rhythm, dodging and striking as if you were timing everything to music. The best combat is creative, with enough of an underlying “beat” that you never lose pace even as you discover plenty of options for improvising. I’ve reviewed Devil May Cry games. I’ve waded through countless “Souls-likes” and their quirks, including the percussive parrying of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. I wrote a book on Platinum Games’ action-wonder Metal Gear Rising Revengeance. Many of those games can feel like you’re dancing. Most have a sort of music that you perceive, a beat that you stick to in order to create bloody chaos.

Nioh 2 is different. You’re not a dancer falling in line to a beat. You’re not a musician improvising your own flourishes. You are the whole goddamn opera.

Nioh 2 is actually a prequel to Nioh and is set in the turbulent Sengoku period of Japanese history. It is the moment when three men changed the course of a nation. Oda Nobunaga, known for his nobility and temper, would come within an inch of uniting wartorn clans. The ever-patient Tokugawa Ieyasu played politics that would eventually gain him the title of shogun. Then there was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Nobunaga’s retainers who achieved his lord’s dream of uniting the land through a combination of might and guile. Nioh 2 focuses on that story, adding magical embellishments and monster battles that push an already epic setting into further heights.

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You play as Hide, a monster slayer with one foot in the human realm and another in the realm of spirits and yokai, which are mostly malevolent ghosts and demons . Born to a human father and yokai mother, you travel the lands slaying monsters for a pittance. In a change from Nioh, where you played as a fictional version of William Adams, Nioh 2 allows you to create a unique character through a robust character creation tool. A job to cleanse a nearby village of demons leads to an encounter with a magical stone merchant called Tokichiro. Tokichiro is the man history will one day know as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the two of you eventually enter into Nobunaga’s employ. The resulting adventure spans decades as you Forrest Gump your way through famous battles and cross swords with legendary warriors.

This sounds generic. Warring generals, yokai, a mysterious past and mixed parentage. These are well-worn tropes in a setting that’s been explored thoroughly. What makes Nioh 2 work is how thrilling the journey is. That is owed entirely to a combat system that is complex but never overwhelming. You start as a rookie warrior worried about the most basic of yokai and monsters. By the end, you will have such complete confidence over your movements that the fiercest generals and strangest creatures will crumple before you like tissue paper in a storm.

Nioh 2’s combat isn’t a radical reimagining of what came before. It’s a refinement, adding additional complexities that make it possible for players to express themselves and specialize to a greater degree. More weapons, more optional abilities, better ways to counter big attacks, transformations instead of living weapon bonuses. These changes exist within a familiar framework but come together into a better package. There are nine types of weapons to wield in Nioh 2. These range from traditional katana and spears to complex weapons like chain-hook kusarigama, dual hatchets, or the transforming switchglaive. You are able to take a high, medium, or low stance with any of these weapons whenever you like. High stanced attacks do high damage but drain your stamina quickly, medium stanced techniques are reliable and offer defensive bonuses, and low stance attacks are fast but don’t do a lot of damage. Each stance has a different set of moves and unlockable techniques. You are allowed to hold two melee weapons at any given time. This means that you have access to at least six different move sets, all offering distinct advantages and abilities depending on what stances you are in. If you want to be a speedy martial artist bashing enemies with a pair of tonfa, you can. If you feel like combining that with the massive swings of a two-handed odachi greatsword, you can do that too. Nioh 2 expands on the skill system of the original, adding a large tree of passive bonuses and special techniques for each weapon type. You can boost your defense with tanky bonuses, increase your ranged damage on rifles and bows, and

The result is that it’s possible to create a variety of character builds. The more you use a weapon, the more skills you can unlock, like big finishing attacks or guard-breaking blows. Mastery matters, and each battle is a sort of rock, paper, scissors match where you will shift stances to deal with the peculiarities of each new enemy.

Underneath the impressive weapons system, Nioh 2 has a powerful trick: ki-pulsing. This was the hallmark of Nioh’s combat and it returns here. It’s a small thing in practice but continues to elevate combat above and beyond peers. Whenever the player attacks, there is a span of time where they can hit the shoulder button in order to recover energy and stamina. This is later expanded so that a well-timed dodge also grants a recovery. Time it right and you don’t just get back the stamina you used, but you’ll actually gain a little more. You don’t just attack in Nioh 2, you attack and then time your recovery perfectly. In, hit, pulse, follow up. Hit, dodge, dash. Enemy yokai can place stamina-draining ripples on the ground. Ki-pulsing dispels these hazards. Success isn’t simply a matter of dodging or landing strong attacks. Ki-pulsing forms the backbone of any fight, creating a rhythm on par with the pulse pounding sword battles of Nioh 2’s closest contemporary, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. A skilled Nioh player is constantly shifting weapons and stances, pulsing their ki to regain energy and press the advantage.

This would be enough to make Nioh 2’s combat great, but there is another layer to the cake. Players can train in magic and ninjutsu to further augment their abilities and create new combat possibilities. Magic can be as simple as imbuing your weapon with a boss’ elemental weakness but investing heavily in magical training leads to the creation of talismans that can slow down an enemy’s movement, greatly bolster your defenses, or immediately dispel dark yokai energy when you touch it. Ninjutsu offers bombs, traps, and tools that can poison foes or paralyze them in place. These aren’t gimmicks for highly specialized builds; plan properly and these tools can become an essential part of any warrior’s arsenal. In some cases, they prove essential to defeating Nioh 2’s difficult bosses.

Nioh 2 Second Boss Battle
Even if you fall back to a more traditional weapon like a katana, the pace of Nioh 2's combat is fast and exciting.

Nioh 2 is not content to leave it at that. There are new additions that further improve combat. You can find a variety of friendly spirits to bond with and enemy “soul cores” to collect. The former grant access to powerful transformations—a hard hitting brute form, speedy feral form, and tricky teleporting phantom form—and an absolutely essential “burst counter” ability that can nullify an enemy’s most dangerous attacks. This makes combat even more reactive and opens up the possibility of offensive pushes in a way that the original never managed. If you’re feeling technical, this ability can be used to cancel pretty much any of your characters animations. Suddenly, there’s a way out of overcommitted attacks and other mistakes. Nioh 2 offers more control over your character. With such useful tools, it’s easy to be confident even in the face of daunting odds.

Soul cores grant access to a smorgasbord of attacks. You can throw spears from a distance, flip forward with demonic hammer strikes, pull a rain of energy from the sky, instantly grapple enemies to the ground or summon skeletal archers to attack from distance. These could have felt like curiosities, skills that you use once and then forget. That’s not the case; you are bound to find enemy abilities that complement your own playstyle. Soul cores could have been little more than a knock off of systems like Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow’s “tactical soul” system. Instead, soul cores are incredibly useful tools that help build unique play styles. I’m an aggressive player who uses agility-boosting magic spells to reduce my stamina loss. Attacking furiously means that I can drain an enemy’s posture and leave them in a weakened state where they can’t defend. One particular enemy soul—gained from defeating a one-eyed yokai—allows me to smash a mighty hammer down. If I do this after initially breaking an enemy’s guard, I can place even the largest demons in a weakened state and strike a devastating critical blow akin to Bloodborne’s visceral attacks. This move wasn’t a throwaway ability; it was a hallmark of my playstyle.

I am over one thousand words into this review and I have spent most of it merely outlining how the combat works. If this seems like a lot of moving pieces, it is. Nioh 2 sometimes struggles to explain all of these pieces but the more you engage, the more it starts to make sense. What’s astounding is how none of these feels superfluous and how the new additions increase the pace. Every aspect from weapon stances to stamina management to enemy soul collection builds out a robust and amazingly rewarding system where each player will find a way to express themselves. Far from being clumsy or clunky to execute, each piece flows as swiftly as water from a kitchen tap.

While you might have a huge collection of tools to progress through levels and assert dominance in combat, that doesn’t detract from the challenge. Nioh 2, like its predecessor, is a stark and difficult game in a way that not even contemporaries like Dark Souls or The Surge are. Some of this is artificial. No matter how many points you dump into improving your health stats or the rarity of armor you collect from fallen foes, enemies hit like bricks to the face. You can be facing a giant saw-wielding horse demon or a common foot soldier. Make a mistake, and you will be punished sorely for it. That can be frustrating in the moments when an errant slash or arrow ends your life but it is ultimately for the best. I respect Nioh 2’s enemies far more than the dregs I might find in Jedi: Fallen Order or other games.

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The experience is a little shakier when it comes to boss battles. Every mission you undertake culminates in a climactic battle against dangerous yokai or skilled warriors. More often than not these battles are approachable. In the case of duels against fellow swordsmen, Nioh 2 exhibits wonderful confidence. There are trick movements, altered timings, dangerous grab attacks that you need to guard break, and powerful transformations brought about by spiritual allies and magical stones. Fights against demons are less consistent. Every enemy is evocative in design—a fiery cat demon that’s part animal, part chariot, a massive snake whose arms that can detach and slink around the battlefield—but the battles themselves don’t always hit the mark.

Bosses usually have gimmick mechanics that can be exploited. The aforementioned giant snake is made easier if you focus on destroying his minion-arms before they detach, a gaseous fire creature can be tricked into splashing water on itself, which drains its stamina. It’s not hard to stumble into these tricks, but they don’t quite turn the tides of battle in an appreciable way. These tricks could have allowed players to feel like guilesome heroes, but you’re probably better off investing in useful magicks than worrying about Nioh 2’s mediocre combat puzzles. Damn if these fights aren’t a spectacle, though. From twilight duels on bridges and mercenary ambushes all the way to skittering spider-bulls and swooping three-eyed owls, every encounter is memorable. Without getting into major spoilers, I will say that Nioh 2 also has one of the most visually impressive and exciting climaxes that I’ve ever played.

All of this is best experienced without aid, but if players find themselves running into trouble, Nioh 2 has a few multiplayer options for smoothing out the difficulty. In a new addition players are able to place markers throughout the world that other warriors can use to summon an AI version of their character to help in battles. If you character helps another player, rewards are later sent back to you. It’s also possible, as it was in the previous game, to place offerings at checkpoint shrines to beckon help from other players directly. The first option is well-integrated and always available. Using it for a few fights, it seems an excellent tool for players who hit a wall. The second option works well, but given the small pool of reviewers and YouTubers playing before launch, I only tested it once. It’s quick and should be easy to use at launch, but I think Nioh 2 works best when players are unassisted, else it gets a little too chaotic in a way that upsets the fine combat balance. It’s not all friendly interaction, however. Whenever players die, they leave behind a grave. It’s possible to interact with these graves to fight AI revenants for extra loot and experience. That loot can be offered up at shrines for currency to buy healing items and other supplies. This means that there’s always decent loot or summoning items available to you, provided you defeat a revenant. It’s a smart way of making sure players have what they need, while ensuring they still need to work for it.

Nioh 2 has some glaring flaws in spite of the fantastic combat and challenging encounters. Chief among them is level design that turns most of the game into a blurry slog. The Sengoku period is packed with battles and sieges, but Nioh 2 delays on embracing a more magical presentation until the latter half of the game. As a result, there are strings of levels that are either muddy battlefields, crumbling towns, or dilapidated castles. These are broken into many different paths. While they’re all worth exploring, it’s easy to get turned around. Shortcuts back to checkpoints never create the same powerful moments of recognition as Dark Souls’ lengthy elevator rides to previous areas or The Surge’s devious loops and turns. There is a small twist: certain areas of a level are covered with demonic corruption. Entering these areas reduces stamina regeneration, and all monsters within gain boosted defense. Defeating the toughest enemy in the area will dispel the aura, usually giving access to great loot, fresh shortcuts, and checkpoints. It’s an interesting idea, but drab environmental design still drags levels down. That changes later on. Burning temples, frost-cursed corpse fields, and world-bending crystalline mountain paths break the mold, but these are exceptions rather than the rule.

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This calls to mind Nioh 2’s biggest problem. In both the pace of individual levels and storytelling, there’s a sense that everything is a half-step off. Narratively, Nioh 2 is an improvement over the first game. William Adams’ journey is an interesting historical curiosity—he was the first Caucasian foreigner to be granted the title of samurai by the shogunate—but he was a dull protagonist. Nioh 2’s player-created hero doesn’t have any dialog lines, but their connection to Tokichiro and direct role in the rise of Hideyoshi means that the plot flows more naturally. The core cast is likable. Hideyoshi’s jocularity and cunning develops into a tempered intellect. Nobunaga’s stern commands bely a surprisingly noble character. Stout warlords are warped and twisted into monsters by spiritual stones. There’s foppish daimyos, sagely spirits, and even an excitable general cut from the same cloth as the Yakuza series’ captivating Goro Majima. The player’s shifting adventure with Hideyoshi is more compelling than William’s ronin-like wanderings. There’s a greater personal weight here and a gradual rise from bandit skirmishes to truly epic, world-shattering battles. In spite of this, Nioh 2 is really bad at conveying information. There are crucial plot revelations that fall flat, characters who enter the plot without context unless you complete side missions, and motivations that are better expressed in lore database entries than in scenes themselves. The ending in particular struggles in spite of a fantastic final battle, as it seems to lead to one climax only to pull the rug out from under the player again and again. There’s a lot of heart here, but the delivery is clumsy. Still, I was invested here in a way that I never was while playing the first game.

These stumbles are ultimately minor in the grand scheme of things. Nioh 2 is a big improvement on an already impressive initial outing. With more weapons and powers, combat expands into something truly special, while the story holds more emotion and impact. Fans of the first will enjoy returning to Japan and seeing familiar characters; they’ll also welcome the fresh challenges. If you’ve never played Nioh or shy away from Soulslike experiences, I can’t stress enough that Nioh 2 is worth checking out. It’s an incredibly smart game that rewards you for your time and patience.

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Also: there’s a fat cat spirit called Scampuss. What more do you need to know?