The original Nioh from 2017 was a legitimately great action role playing game from Team Ninja whose reputation was bolstered by the fact it caught critics and players completely by surprise. No one was overly excited or expecting anything special; despite reviving Ninja Gaiden with spectacular results in 2004, the studio had been running around like a chicken with its head cut off after the departure of Tomonobu Itagaki. It culminated with the one-two gut punch of Metroid: Other M and Ninja Gaiden 3, both bombing so hard they made even Hiroshima and Nagasaki blush.
Which made it all the sweeter when this Ninja Gaiden–Dark Souls hybrid returned the studio to form with a sadistic style and grace that stabbed you in the face. Now, more than three years later, the series returns for another “git gud” go-round, and while this sword has a familiar glint, the edge remains sharp as ever.
Dark Souls: Prepare to Sengoku Jidai Edition
Nioh told a fictionalized story of William Adams, an Irishman finding himself wrapped up in the final days of the Sengoku Jidai, or “Warring States” period of feudal Japan on a journey to save his guardian spirit. Despite being inspired by real-world history (Adams himself being a British sailor and the first Westerner to be deemed a samurai), it took a more fantastical bent by incorporating Yokai demons and Amrita, their spiritual energy that served as the impetus for the conflict.
Nioh 2 follows suit, but with two major differences. First, the story takes place several years before the original, in theory serving as an entry point for newcomers. Customization also takes center stage, with players making their own avatar, a half-human, half-yokai Shiftling named Hide, as they follow Tokichiro in navigating this treacherous stretch of Japanese history.
Frankly, Nioh 2 doesn’t concern itself with telling an immersive story. Despite the stylized historical setting you can gleam from the margins, it’s very easy (the only easy thing about the game) to get caught up in the fast-paced action for hours at a time, losing track of the narrative completely. That said, all the incidental world-building, particularly your surprisingly complex relationship with Tokichiro, works as an effective reminder you’re journeying through a war-torn country that’s been thoroughly considered. The work just doesn’t come through in the traditional cutscenes, making every moment fall flat even if you’re familiar with the source material.
It’s generally a good thing when exposition takes a backseat, but in the case of Nioh 2, the narrative comes off as undercooked. Fortunately, the game compensates for its inconsequential narrative with perhaps the finest gameplay loop in the entire action-RPG genre.
Stances Are Ki to Success
On the surface, Nioh 2 takes several cues from the template laid out in Dark Souls and its deluge of “Souls-likes.” Players choose from missions on a map screen and enter brutally unforgiving gauntlets of combat and exploration. Unlike Souls, Nioh 2 goes out of its way in providing EVERYTHING THE PLAYER NEEDS TO KNOW at every opportunity. The trade-off is that the tutorial feels legitimately necessary, as combat features far more complexity.
At the heart of Nioh 2 is Ki, the equivalent of a green stamina bar in Souls games (quite literally, as the Heart stat governs it). Managing stamina in Souls requires patience, i.e. not spamming attacks, but Nioh 2 switches things up with a Ki Pulse. With a proper tap of the R1 button, players can regain a large chunk of Ki in the middle of a battle, requiring dexterity and creating opportunities for extended attack strings. The trick lies in waiting until the meter recharges during the pulse for restoring more Ki, discouraging reckless R1 spam (again, like in the Souls games).
Stances add an additional layer to effective Ki management. All of the distinct weapon classes have three stances: High, Medium, and Low. High-stance attacks do the most damage but use the most Ki, while Low stance uses the least amount of Ki, making it useful for quick dodges, with Medium being the best choice for steady defense. The system allows for combo experimentation and a sort of rock-paper-scissors mentality; while the right stance-weapon setup can turn the tides, every tool in the toolbox stands a fighting chance, giving battles a variable feel similar to Team Ninja’s signature Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive franchises.
Devil May Yokai
Nioh already has a lot on its plate in terms of mechanics and role-playing systems (maybe too much), and the sequel builds on this foundation by tapping into Hide’s hybrid heritage. The Soul Cores of yokai can be absorbed and turned into support attacks, not unlike weapons gained from beating Robot Masters in the Mega Man games. Managing them requires judicious use of your new Anima gauge, which also powers a new Burst Counter technique for parrying specific attacks. Nailing Burst Counters and picking the best one for each situation proves eminently satisfying, along with using the Yokai Shift. With a full gauge, players can transform into a powered-up state similar to the Devil Trigger from Devil May Cry, turning the tide of a boss fight in an instant. All this might sound overpowered, but certain attacks can break through these supermoves, so they’re not an invincible trump card.
Yokai can also literally shroud the world in darkness as a countermeasure. In the first game, they could create Yokai Realms, small pools of dark energy that can drain Ki, reinforcing the need for a perfectly timed Ki Pulse to dispel them. Now, entire sections of the level can be covered in so-called Dark Realms. These greyish voids obscure your vision and gradually reduce your Stamina unless you can find the source and destroy it, usually surrounded by supercharged yokai that can and will kill you in a single hit.
With all these moving pieces and harsh consequences, you’d be forgiven for having an aneurysm at this point of the review. Or at least thinking Nioh 2 has complexity for the sake of complexity, like using a Swiss army knife for cutting a piece of birthday cake. Amazingly, despite everything to keep track of, it’s easy enough understanding the basic concepts; the challenge is applying them. Burst Counters and the Yokai Shift are valuable tools, but success relies on reading and responding to various enemy tells, sometimes the hard way. Similarly, while each of the weapons and stances might have obvious advantages, every build stands a legitimate chance, a testament to the excellent balancing.
Because all the information is presented well, there’s no need for overbearing tutorial sections. You might misunderstand concepts or make bad judgment calls early on, but that’s due to the learning process rather than Nioh 2 obfuscating its rules. You’re given everything you need to grow as a player, and even if that growth is painful, it’s ultimately rewarding.
Emphasis on PAINFUL.
Trapped in the Dark Realm
Much like the first game and its forebears, Nioh 2 isn’t afraid to present a legitimate challenge. Simply fighting the lowliest grunt without getting caught in a combo that cuts off three quarters of your health is a tall order, and navigating groups of Yokai while contending with the Dark Realm will test your sanity as much as your reflexes. If you thought the RPG systems, normal enemies, or even the controller-shattering bosses of the first game were tough, you’re in for a rude awakening. For all the tools at your disposal, the onus is on you, not the game, to make the most of them.
Unforgiving as Nioh 2 can be, it never becomes unfair. Rare is a game that can have you swearing like George Carlin off his Tourette’s medication one moment, and squealing with delight like a BTS fangirl when you succeed. Nioh 2 just about nails it, and with a multitude of controller and even framerate options, you can’t blame the game for your failures.
Burning the Summoner’s Candle at Both Ends
Those extremes, of exasperating failures and exhilarating triumphs, come from a similarly extreme amount of investment, which leads to perhaps the biggest issue with Nioh 2. Refreshing as it is not having obnoxious hand holding, the flipside comes for those who easily suffer from information overload. There are tons of skills to master, Soul Cores to manage, and weapon stats to manage, and while the interface isn’t bad, it doesn’t do newcomers any favors in understanding the finer points.
Nioh 2 also turns sour on occasion. In a few missions, the game sometimes spawns additional enemies, even bosses, while players are busy tackling up the last of a mob. It can feel like things are getting needlessly dragged out to the point exhaustion, even if it never gets cheap. In a game that otherwise nails its challenge curve, these bumps in the road stick out more than usual.
You can and will spend just as much time optimizing your character on the stat screen as you will optimizing your performance in a boss fight. It does offer a tangible sense of progression, but it takes a lot of dedication and understanding to truly appreciate. So long as you accept this and the reality that it’s okay to fail even from a SINGLE SPLIT-SECOND DECISION, the game will consume you.
[Sidebar: Much as I praise this kind of design, there’s no shame in opting out or giving up if it’s too much. You might remember there was a dust-up this time last year over the lack of an easy mode or accessibility options in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and while it’s true both sides had their fair share of jerks, you shouldn’t feel bad about your preferences. Anyone that tells you otherwise should “git gud” at overcoming their lack of empathy.]
A Tale of Samurais and Souls, Commendably Retold
Nioh 2 is an action-RPG focused on playing a game and not necessarily playing a role. If you need a player-driven narrative with characters and dialogue choices to keep you engaged, then steer clear. But if you enjoy games for what makes them different from other entertainment mediums, put aside some time on your calendar, and get ready for a top-shelf gameplay experience. A single enemy encounter in this game has more intensity in 5 minutes than most other games manage in 50 hours. This is all without even touching on the multiplayer functionality, or how readily it support New Game+.
That intensity won’t be for everyone, however. It has little to offer genre veterans bridled with challenge fatigue, and even less for anyone intimidated by complex mechanics and a practically vertical learning curve. But for those willing to put their noses (and thumbs) to the grindstone, Nioh 2 provides one of the most rewarding senses of pride and accomplishment on the market today.
All without the Executive Avarice of Loot Boxes.