Nioh 2 Review

April 3, 2020
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The premise of Nioh 2 will probably sound strikingly familiar to anyone who has played a Japanese videogame or watched an Anime in the last two decades. Feudal Japan has been overrun by Japanese monsters known as Yokai, and you play as a human samurai who must eliminate these haunted beings using a bevy of weapons and magic at your disposal. It’s a simple tale of fighting against evil, but it’s all in the execution of it by Team Ninja that sets this game apart from other similar games. Nioh 2 is steeped in Japanese culture and contains a healthy dose of quirkily designed mythical creatures. However, the main pull of the game is its meticulously crafted and refined combat system. Nioh 2 is one of the most aggressively difficult games I have ever played, but the responsive and fair control you have over your character consistently carries you forward to confront these challenges.  

Nioh 2 is one of the most customisable and fun Soulslikes I have ever played. For those unaware of the drill — Soulslikes have the player banging their head against the wall trying to beat unstoppable foes until they improve their skills, equipment or both. The most punishing aspect of the form is the death system: if you are unable to fight back to your corpse before dying you will lose all the progress you had accrued before the previous death. Nioh 2’s death system is somewhat forgiving, in that you earn skill points for each weapon type separate from your more traditional RPG stats, which are tied to your corpse upon death. These weapon stats cannot be lost, which is great because you can try out different weapons without having to worry about wasting your time. This reminded me of Skyrim, in that you’re always rewarded for using a style or weapon. This allows the player to not feel stopped completely dead in their tracks if they are stuck in a particularly difficult sequence. You can also feel Team Ninja’s experience with spectacle fighters in combat, as you can learn combos and perform some crushing moves on enemies as you get better with a particular weapon or fighting stance. 

If you're into eyebrows...this is the game for you.

Another way to ease the journey is by either summoning a friend for co-op — available with PS Plus — or by using the game’s online multiplayer-lite portion is to summon the AI-recreated soul of another real player to fight alongside you or against you. If you are connected online, you come across red graves and blue graves. The game will control a figure with the same build and skills of another real person who placed down a friendly, blue grave to assist you, or died fighting an enemy in the area — creating a red grave . You may also place a grave of yourself where you feel would be helpful to other players, and if that grave is frequently used, the game will reward you with items. It’s a nice way to feel a sense of camaraderie with others on this challenging journey. This helps you find much-needed experience or equipment, and is a quick way to gather Ochoko cups, which are needed to summon the helpful phantoms. The price to get Ochoko cups from the shop at a shrine can be quite steep if you’re low on items, as you have to purchase these cups with sacred rice that is earned by giving the shop equipment and items, but this is really only a problem early in the game as later you’ll be amassing items and destroying low level phantom players at a rapid pace. You also receive less rewards/XP if you go at it with an assistant. The AI for these summons isn’t particularly complex. I found that I would use the same strategy every time. I would allow the AI to aggro enemies and then just run up and attack enemies from behind, simply using the phantom as a decoy. There really is no other way to command or strategise with them. They’re useless with bosses, who typically have attacks that kill the player in five or six hits, and are meant to be endurance tests of dodging and carefully read patterns. Every time I fought a boss with a summon, the summon would just run up in front of the boss and die within thirty seconds. This does effectively force players without PS Plus to beat the game’s hardest foes on their own, which some may find rewarding but others may find ultimately insurmountable. I had an emotional journey beating the game’s second main boss, whom I faced more than thirty times and frustrated me to the point where I yelled at my cat and rage quit the game. However, once I beat that boss, I found myself much sharper at the rest of Nioh 2. It also has a couple of mission-based dedicated online multiplayer modes with other live players.

In Nioh 2, even staring at the wall is a dangerous thrill.

I found that some of the larger enemies would basically destroy the game’s camera system when they would get close to my player and cover the entire screen. I would just have to hold the block button during these sequences and pray that my stamina didn’t run out. If you’re inside, and an enemy forces you to a wall, you may as well lay down and die because you won’t be able to see what happens next. You also have the ability to initiate a Yokai shift and transform into your chosen phantom guardian, and this system feels almost entirely separate from the rest of the game. Your Yokai form has its own special moves and offers one of the few ways you can quickly lower a boss’ health, but its animation is very busy and it is difficult to tell what’s going on when you’re using it. I found myself just spamming the special move buttons and hoping the enemy’s health was going down. This was very frustrating as the Yokai form is crucial to advancing in the game and a main selling point that sets Nioh apart from other games of this sort. 

The lock-on system isn’t perfect either. I had to make the game lock-on to another foe after you killed the previous enemy because this wasn’t a default feature. It was hidden in the options menu. When you choose to activate an aggressive red grave to battle, the spirit has to apparate into your world from the online ether and the game does not automatically lock-on to them. You’ll find yourself losing valuable health swinging the camera back around to find them. 

It seems that in the world of Nioh 2, very few deaths are 'natural'.

Unlike the mercurial and opaque Dark Souls series, Nioh 2 is far more willing to show its hand. right at the outset, you can try out every weapon type in the game in a tutorial sequence before deciding on two main ones. The controls are buttery smooth, which they have to be if the player wants to stand a chance against the furious monsters and player-controlled AI phantoms. A nifty option is the ability to play the game at a lower resolution and unlock the FPS, or play the game locked at 30 FPS. I found the game ran fantastically at the locked setting, but I am sure more competitive players than myself will appreciate the option. I was also elated at the almost instantaneous loading times of Nioh 2. The fact that you can spawn almost immediately upon dying makes the threat of death that much less of a burden. This game boasts possibly the most impressive character creator I’ve ever seen, and I plan on spending hours using it to make samurai recreations of my friends.

All this customisation does come at the expense of storytelling and exploration. Unlike the labyrinthine Metroidvania-inspired worlds of others in the genre, Nioh 2 is mission based. Levels do not have puzzles and the mini-map system is essentially useless —  the only thing it is helpful for is finding where you last died. There are secrets — little spirits you can find that help buff the player, spas that are guarded by living, evil walls, and other surprises — but the game is largely a series of corridors, walkways, and battlefields. There is no jumping, either. The environmental storytelling is practically non-existent. As an example, there is one level early on that takes place in a tower engulfed in flames, and you can put out a couple of fires by pushing buckets of water onto them, but then the level basically abandons the mechanic. That’s not to say the game isn’t pretty. It is. The player and Yokai animations are gorgeous to behold. There are some very creatively designed monsters, and an especially adorable touch is a little monster cat that temporarily fights alongside you and meows if you choose to pet it. And why wouldn’t you? But nothing about the setting or the story stuck in my mind, and at a certain point I stopped reading the little text descriptions before each mission because I found them boring and redundant. The feudal Japan setting is a worn one that I had seen before in many games, and lacked the striking specificity and atmosphere of, say, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The protagonist doesn’t have a personality. It’s more akin to watching filler episodes of an episodic anime than a great samurai film. 

It's possible that this snake will be a friendly one...who knows?

Fortunately, the game’s combat system and loot and levelling loop is so satisfying that I rarely ever cared about what I was doing in this monstrous land or why. I found myself not minding replaying segments of the game I’d played time and time again looking for a path forward or learning a new style because the fighting Nioh 2 is such an absolute rush. There are many moments that require such precision and concentration, and once you embrace the challenge it can feel like a true accomplishment to get to the end of one of the levels. Nioh 2 requires patience of the player, but if you are willing to put your time into it, the game will reward you in spades. Virtually everything you use can be retooled, improved and modified. Just don’t expect a nuanced story. 

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Nioh 2 softens the blow of its demanding combat by giving the player myriad ways to decapitate an enemy. An absolute joy to learn how to play.