Challenging combat is the hallmark of Nioh 2.
Despite critical acclaim and solid sales, Nioh always seems to get overlooked when talking about top PlayStation 4 exclusives and Dark Souls style titles, dwelling in the shadows of games like Bloodborne and, more recently, Sekiro. Now, developer Team Ninja, which cut its teeth on the always-tough Ninja Gaiden series, gets another chance to join the conversation with Nioh 2, a punishing action RPG that’s set to test gamers’ mettle.
If you didn’t play the original, be prepared to endure a learning curve as you sort out how to mix attacking and evasion effectively while keeping an eye on your Ki (read: stamina) meter. Practically every foe you encounter is capable of ending your life if you get too lazy or think a straightforward hack n’ slash approach with topple lesser enemies without incident. Creating that mindset was the first challenge we had to overcome. It would not be the last.
While some of the functionality is straightforward — you have strong and weak attacks that you chain together to create combos, blocking prevents damage but erodes stamina and so on — Nioh 2 does have some unique elements at work, most notably burst counters and soul cores. Neither one is a wholly unique idea, but they’re both smartly implemented to the point that they end up feeling like the game’s signature combat elements.
Burst counters work like glorified parries, requiring precise timing to open up your opponent to deal massive damage. What differentiates them is that they can only be used against special unblockable attacks, and if you mistime the counter you’ll find yourself in a world of hurt. It’s very intimidating at first, though eventually you’ll come to welcome their arrival due to the opportunity they present.
Meanwhile, soul cores are items dropped by defeated foes, and once you’ve taken them to a shrine they can be equipped to allow you to execute a signature move from that creature. Like burst counters, these attacks can extract a heavy toll on enemies, but if you miss you’ll leave yourself vulnerable. Both moves drain your anima (magic) meter, which prevents any sort of spamming.
It all works well, and soon you’ll be switching between stances, learning new weapon-specific moves and deftly mixing in your soul core and burst counters. The lock-on function is crisp and easy to switch between enemies on the fly. Ranged attacks are a little dicier as the aiming feels a bit too touchy, especially if you’re under pressure.
Seeing the options for creating a custom protagonist at the beginning is impressive, and the cut scenes are first rate, but once you jump into the actual game the graphics don’t wow. Enemy design — particularly the larger bosses — feels inspired, and animation is smooth, but Nioh 2‘s menu-selected levels feature few additional pathways to explore within areas; it’s not enough to keep things from feeling mostly contained and linear.
By casting a silent character in the lead role, Nioh 2 needed the supporting cast to deliver to maximize the story elements. Sadly, it comes up short with Tokichiro being pretty much the only one to generate much personality. The English dub is brutal, so if you can possibly stand subtitles, that’s the way to go.
While Nioh 2 dips into actual Japanese history to ground in reality a story filled with demons and other fantastical elements, it never really gets out of neutral. The characters are dull, and cut scenes seemingly exist primarily to dump exposition on you. That’s not great for a campaign that easily pushes past 50 or 60 hours, and that’s bypassing many of the game’s side quests — those optional missions house some of the stiffest challenges, which was a smart decision by Team Ninja.
Anyone with experience playing the Dark Souls-style games will recognize a lot of familiar beats: you collect souls (called amrita here) from defeated foes and can only level up by praying at shrines. If you’re killed before that you’ll drop all the amrita you’re holding, and if you die before reaching and touching your grave site it’s gone for good. Praying also resets basic enemies, though the more dangerous Yokai bosses stay dead.
Loot management is also a cumbersome experience as enemies are constantly dropping new weapons, armour pieces and various consumables for you to sift through. On one hand, it’s cool that your created character dons everything he finds, allowing for a clear transformation into a bad ass. On the other, there are so many weapon types that the sheer amount of loot can become overwhelming and undercuts the fun (Diablo III it is not).
Despite some missteps here and there, Nioh 2 provides challenging and intense gameplay from the get go, offering something deeper than the relatively streamlined combat of the other giants of the genre. As mentioned earlier, it can be a lot to digest, especially early on when you’re trying to get a feel for what you can and can’t do effectively within the constraints of your Ki.
Team Ninja does offer some lifelines in the form of temporary companions. The best of the bunch is the ability to invite up to two other human players to join your game and help you along, though you can also hire an AI buddy to accompany you at specific points. So if you’re really struggling to advance the option to call for backup exists.
Nioh 2 is a deep, intense and punishing experience, generating moments of hand-wringing frustration and borderline euphoria. If you’re looking for something to test your skills, this is well worth your attention.