Nioh is somewhat of a darling to me, partly because it kind of came out of nowhere and really took me by surprise. It took in all the great elements of Dark Souls’ gameplay style and managed to mix in enough of its own ideas (interesting ideas at that), such that it felt truly unique. It also mixed all this into a neat linear package in the world of the samurai and Yokai, and as a fan of all things ancient Japan, it was an absolute treat. I have heard various complaints leveled against it, especially regarding its length (mainly from WellPlayed Editor-In-Chief, Kieran Stockton), which upon further reflection I am inclined to agree with. It definitely did have an issue of outstaying its welcome as well as an enemy variety that left a bit to be desired (things that I failed to note in my review of the original, admittedly). The game also had an issue of the difficulty curve just basically disappearing after a certain point in the game. So here I find myself with Nioh 2, Team Ninja’s triumphant return to a Soulslike that seeks to continue the tradition of maintaining its own unique identity in the unique hardcore hack and slash genre. They’re back and bigger than ever and after spending a few too many hours in the game, I feel ready to discuss how Team Ninja took the criticism leveled against the first Nioh and aimed to rectify them in this sequel.
Nioh 2 places the player in the shoes of a nameless character, in a similar fashion to Dark Souls. You witness the death of your mother at the hands of unnamed assailants and then the game fast-forwards all the way to when you are an adult. You’ve been living a peaceful life, distanced from the rest of society due to the nature of your birth until you receive a letter from someone who knows what you are – a shiftling. Your father was a human and your mother a Yokai, you can channel the abilities of the Yokai but without destroying your human form through a transformation known as the ‘Yokai Shift’. Naturally, this makes the people fear you, but there are some who would dare to trust you and it is with these people that you venture across all of Japan through a warring period and assist actual historical characters in their quest to take over various provinces and clans of Japan. You meet figures like Oda Nobunaga and Saitō Dōsan and you carve your way into the history books. In terms of timeline placement, Nioh 2 is a bit of a weird one. While it is a sequel in and of itself, a large portion of its events take place before that of the original Nioh, and it isn’t towards the end of the game where the events take place after the first game.
Back to the actual story writing, that was a point where the first Nioh took me by surprise. The story wasn’t exactly excellent but it was a little more direct than I was used to, especially when compared to Dark Souls’ less-than-direct approach to storytelling. Nioh 2 felt improved for me, while I’m not really a big advocate for the silent character as I feel that, in most cases, it leads to tone-deaf character interactions. Nioh 2 definitely is not an exception to this as it feels like your character more or less stands there with the same facial expressions and only serves as the story’s monster killer. However, the story is still surprisingly well written and cleverly interwoven in Japanese history. As previously mentioned, you come across key historical figures and you play out their significant battles within the feudal Japan time-period. I won’t name what events you take part in and how they have all been altered to better fit the Yokai-invaded world of Nioh, but it is quite cleverly interwoven in an almost seamless manner (though I would not be surprised if Japanese history buffs easily pick apart the inaccuracies that probably exist).
One of the strongest points that Nioh 2’s story has is definitely its storytelling. While a majority of the events take place in front of you, it’s the smaller animated sections that captured me as they use an art style and storytelling approach that remind me of the animated sections in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. It’s just such a beautiful approach to storytelling that easily communicates the depth and emotion of the themes being conveyed. You learn about various characters’ backstories, their motivations and reasons behind their actions. It’s just so beautiful and it really adds a lot of depth to the characters that you interact with. Instead of a gruff dude with a sword, he’s a father who doesn’t know where his kid has gone. It’s these little things that make the events within Nioh 2 (when it comes to introducing characters and taking others away) feel a little more impactful.
While we are already on the subject of animations, Nioh 2 is a surprisingly well-crafted game in terms of its in-game animations and respecting the swordsmanship that is its primary form of combat. While there are a large number of weapons, I predominantly used the one-handed and dual katanas (just because I love that swordsmanship so much). What I did pay attention to, however, was how careful and precise the animations for these manoeuvres were. Little things like the stances and poses, even down to sheathing and unsheathing the blades, is just so beautifully accurate that I could not help but fall in love. One of my favourite things I noticed was how, after fighting an opponent that bleeds and you put your weapon away, your character does a fancy flick of the blade to get rid of the blood. This was made even better when I realised that the blood from the blade gets flicked onto the ground or nearby environmental details. The animators at Team Ninja have done an outstanding job to make sure that the game respects its source material as much as possible.
Nioh 2’s combat is not wildly different to that of the original, it still makes use of the stance system and an upgrade tree for unlocking skills in the weapons that you use without forcing you to use weapons you don’t like. There are still no stat requirements for gear, instead, the stat requirements are for activating the various additional attributes that a piece of gear may come with. This is still one of my favourite changes that Nioh has made to the Soulslike formula, instead of giving players a hard barrier for trying new weapons, players are encouraged to experiment however they see fit. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have specified character builds as stats are still meaningful to power scaling for weapons, but it is a much more friendly approach than other games have. The biggest change made with Nioh 2’s combat comes in the form of the Yokai Shift. Like I mentioned earlier, your character possesses the ability to channel their Yokai abilities in the form of a Yokai without destroying their body and so this translates into some cool gameplay changes. Firstly, pretty much every enemy has their own form of perilous attack which will either consume most, if not all, your stamina if you block it leaving you wide open or just outright hit you incredibly hard. You either have to try and get out of the away, compensating for the insane tracking that the enemies have, or you can do a Yokai deflection where you briefly channel your Yokai form to deflect the incoming attack. This behaves similarly to a parry where you have to time it correctly or risk copping some damage (I’ve found holding block while I do this at least gives me a chance to not cop the damage if I mistime it). These deflections are incredibly helpful when it comes to Yokai as depleting their stamina is a must, especially towards the end of the game where they get tougher and tougher. They aren’t quite as essential when facing off against other humans but they still help quite a lot.
There are still a few Yokai abilities available to you outside of the deflection. You can absorb the souls of the various Yokai that you defeat and temporarily channel their abilities to aid you in combat, which can range from throwing projectiles to paralysing enemies. These abilities have quite a lot of versatility and it would be wise to use these as often as you can, especially against tougher targets like Revenants (basically AI invaders/black phantoms). Lastly, there is your actual Yokai form. When customising/creating your character, you are given the option to customise the look of your Yokai form, with a choice between Feral, Beast and Phantom forms. These forms are chosen based on what guardian spirit you choose and essentially behave like a subclass/super ability from Destiny. As you fight things your Yokai Shift gauge, also known as Anima, fills up and then you can eventually perform the Yokai shift. Every action you make decreases your remaining time in Yokai Shift while you are transformed, including blocking and taking damage. I personally didn’t use this form a whole lot but it definitely can turn the tables in your favour when used correctly. Each Yokai form is notably different from one another, with one behaving as a range-based class, one being a heavy/high-DPS sort of class and the other being a rogue-like class (not to be confused with the roguelike genre). You are given the opportunity to test out each Yokai form before you make a definitive decision so play around with them and see which one you like the most.
The last really notable gameplay change has to do with the Yokai realm. In the original Nioh, Yokai would leave AOE pools known as Yokai Realms. When standing in these pools your stamina regeneration is drastically slowed, to the point where it can potentially kill you if you are not careful. The way to purify these areas is to perform a Ki Pulse, a technique which allows you to regain a majority of your stamina used, based on timing (kind of like Active Reload from the Gears franchise). Nioh 2 has added the Dark Realm which behaves almost identically to the Yokai Realm but instead of it affecting a small area, entire portions of the missions are under the corruption of the Dark Realm. Your stamina regeneration is still slowed, but the only way to purify these areas is to beat the big Yokai that controls it. Early on this usually comes in the form of a Yokai who appears from a cloud, but later on, these Yokai are just strolling amongst the other enemies within the Dark Realm. Any chests that are within these areas cannot be opened until the area has been purified and some Yokai even have extra moves within the Dark Realm. It’s a really interesting gameplay mechanic that really makes you be more aware of your stamina consumption and actively use your Ki Pulse (if you don’t already). They even use this mechanic in boss fights and there are a variety of ways to purify the area, depending on which boss encounter you are doing.
To complement the various combat scenarios and boss encounters, Nioh 2 boasts a pretty decent soundtrack. While it’s nothing truly impressive like NieR: Automata or DOOM Eternal, it still knows when and where to use music. I especially like the fact that the game plays tense music when you are low on health and fighting enemies. It’s a very, very subtle way of trying to get in your head, not only communicating how much danger you are in but also trying to play against you and force a mistake. I’ve always loved games that use diegetic music (music that is played through in-game audio sources like the music played by O’Rin of the Water in Sekiro) but this use of incidental music (music only heard by the player, like your standard boss theme) is incredibly effective. The game’s music also makes great use of dissonant notes and chords to try and unnerve the player, especially when in the Dark Realm.
With all this praise, there is one minor gripe with the general gameplay for Nioh 2. One of my main criticisms of the original was that the difficulty curve basically disappeared as you progressed through the game. Now games don’t HAVE to be hard but they do have to be consistent in their difficulty language. It’s why bosses like Pinwheel in Dark Souls are just laughed at, their messaging is paradoxical when compared to the rest of the game. Nioh 2 tries to address this issue but not in the best way. You tend to climb in power quite quickly and to stop players from steamrolling through the game, Nioh 2 likes to make use of either cheap manoeuvres (which are not inherently a problem) or just absurdly hard-hitting basic attacks from enemies. You very quickly get used to the possibility of being one-hit or two-hit killed by a number of enemies and this gets old incredibly fast. I don’t mind bosses being this powerful as they are bosses, they are meant to be difficulty walls. But when an enemy type that you have been fighting since the beginning of the game can take out half your health in one hit, it’s a bit silly. This is not to say that the game is by any means impossible, as overcoming these things is very doable, it’s more to say that Team Ninja did not go about difficulty in the right way.
All this discussion of difficulty and hazards is a perfect segue into the level design. While it would be unfair to expect a Dark Souls or Bloodborne standard of level-design in a game like Nioh, which is notably linear compared to the Metroidvania-like design of FromSoftware’s worlds, Nioh 2 still has some brilliant level design within it. Team Ninja took the criticisms leveled against the original and learned about the importance of environmental hazards and enemy placement. Yokai are placed to bait you into traps, others are hidden to try and surprise attack you, it’s all so beautifully and intentionally placed. I never felt a need to try and pivot my camera to see around a corner in the first game but I found myself frequently doing that in Nioh 2.
Nioh 2, like its predecessor, offers a performance mode, high-resolution mode and a mix between the two. On the PS4 Pro, the performance mode runs at 1080p 60FPS while the high-res mode runs at 4K 30FPS, with the mix sitting somewhere in between. While I didn’t get to try the game on the base PS4, the first game’s modes were either 720p 60FPS or 1080p 30FPS and I’d hazard a guess in saying the same remains true for the sequel. I played in the performance mode (what a surprise) while using my 4K HDR TV, and while the resolution was only 1080p, the game still felt quite sharp and HDR really made the bright and rich colours pop. The Dark Realms really felt deserving of that dark title in HDR and there was even a boss where I could barely see anything save for its eyes and the point I had to attack to purify the area. Nioh 2 manages to maintain is 60FPS target (in performance mode) quite consistently but it definitely is not perfect. Fog and particle-heavy moments saw the framerate dip a little bit, but it didn’t take long for it to jump all the way back up to 60FPS. Alongside this, the framerate of the UI was weirdly inconsistent. Some menus are rendered at the full 60 frames whereas others are only rendered at half the amount. I wouldn’t exactly hate for the menus to be a 30FPS if it were at least the standard across the board, but the UI performance is just confusing in its inconsistency.
Nioh 2 is definitely a celebration of the Soulslike category in a series that has an easy time keeping its unique identity. If you mixed the level design and gameplay atmosphere of games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne with the tendency to throw frustrating one-hit/two-hit kills from pretty much every enemy, you would have Nioh 2. It is not perfect, not by any means, but it is still one of the most interesting and compelling games in the Soulslike category to date. Team Ninja has done an outstanding job and I can happily recommend this game to any fans of the Soulslike formula.
Reviewed on PS4 Pro // Review copy supplied by publisher