Review: Nioh 2 (PS4)

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I’ve long been fascinated by the “soulslike” genre. Dark Souls, and the many games that followed in its footsteps, are built entirely around triumphing over seemingly insurmountable odds through perseverance, practice, and mastery, and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with that. But when I actually play them, they tend to just leave me feeling frustrated and empty. Even the original Nioh, a game I adore for a whole lot of different reasons, is one I like in spite of its soulslike design, not because of it.

Nioh 2 is a game that I love, wholly and utterly. I love it for all the reasons I loved the first game: the historical setting, the monster designs, the Kurosawa-esque mood, the way it blends authentic depictions of history with the fantastic. But I also love it for all the things I usually hate about soulslikes.

I love wading into a new boss fight, seeing what I’m up against for the first time, and then getting clobbered in two seconds flat. I love coming back again and again, doing a little better each time thanks to growing understanding of the enemy and its attack patterns. I love when I think I’ve got a particular phase of a fight locked down, getting greedy, and then getting clapped for my hubris. (The swearing, yelling, and colourful suggestions that the boss in question is a cheater might suggest otherwise, but I love it.) I love it when I finally win, and instead of just a vague sense of relief tempered by annoyance at the time wasted to get to this point, I feel like the biggest damn hero. 

People having been saying this about soulslikes for years, but with Nioh 2, I feel like I finally Get It.

The reasons for this are many, but chief among them is what might be the most finely-tuned difficulty curve in the genre. Nioh 2 uses every opportunity to give you the tools you need to deal with the challenges it throws at you, and constantly builds on that learning. The first time you encounter a new type of enemy, it can feel like a boss fight in its own right; by the time you’ve fought a half dozen of them, you’ll be cutting through them with the ease and grace of a seasoned yokai-hunter (so long as you don’t get careless). 

Boss fights are that same ethos, but dialled up a notch. The first attempt is blindly trying to figure out as much as you can, with the assumption that you’ll die. Each subsequent attempt is a chance to put the lessons from the last failure into practice, until you eventually stand victorious. In Nioh 2, this is consistently true; every other soulslike I’ve played had at least one boss where it felt like that ethos went out the window and retrying was just bashing my head against a brick wall until I eked out a win by dumb luck (looking at you, Ruin Sentinels in Dark Souls II and Hino-Enma in Nioh). But Nioh 2, even at its most oppressive, makes sure that you can always see victory on the horizon, even if you’re not quite there yet. That’s crucial for making the trial, error, and incremental improvement feel worthwhile.

That’s helped by Nioh 2‘s efforts to remove barriers to retrying a boss fight. Some of my least-fond memories of Nioh were the lengthy, yokai-filled death runs after every failure—getting to the boss room as unscathed as possible was part of the challenge, but spending a few minutes (at least) after each attempt really dulled the desire to try, fail, and try again. By contrast, Nioh 2 always has a short run from the nearest shrine to a boss room, typically with only a few enemies that are easily avoided. If a game is built around learning from failure, removing barriers to retrying again and again is key to making that work.

Nioh 2 also makes some tweaks to the (already very good) combat system from the first game. On a fundamental level, it sticks to the methodical, stamina-based action typical of soulslikes, whereby your every action costs some of a gradually-refilling stamina bar (or ki, in Nioh‘s case)—get too aggressive on offence, and you’ll have no ki left to block or dodge whatever comes at you next. Nioh 2, like Nioh before it, modifies this with the addition of the “Ki burst”: after any attack or combo, a well-timed button press lets you instantly recover a portion of the ki spent on the attack. This encourages a more aggressive style of play than in, say, Dark Souls, but not mindlessly so.

Nioh 2‘s biggest changes comes in the handful of new abilities stemming from the fact that the player-created protagonist is half-yokai. There’s a special counterattack that, when used against a yokai’s telegraphed “burst attacks”, stops them in their tracks and does a huge amount of damage to their ki. With special cores occasionally dropped by defeated yokai, you can use those enemies’ attacks yourself. And, finally, there’s the Yokai Shift: for a brief period of time, you can transform into a powerful, invincible yokai yourself (for those who played Nioh, this functions largely the same as that game’s Living Weapon). 

With these new abilities come new options for new tactics, and for yokai enemies in particular, an increased focus on whittling away at their ki. Regular human enemies’ ki works much as the same as your own; it empties quickly when they do stuff, and recovers quickly when they don’t. By comparison, yokai have much bigger ki bars and lose none of it by attacking, but it recovers slowly, and only when they’re standing in pools of darkness (which you can purify). On top of that, you can also reduce a yokai’s maximum, primarily by using the aforementioned burst counter and yokai abilities. Empty a yokai’s ki completely, and it becomes more vulnerable to attacks; empty its max ki completely, and it will be stunned momentarily, allowing for a deadly grapple attack.

Encounters with yokai, then, become less about trying to methodically chip away at the enemy’s health bar—though that can be a viable strategy, at times—and more about using the new tools available to drain their ki and open up opportunities for big damage. This was true in Nioh too, but it’s far more pronounced in Nioh 2, and the game is better for it.

Rounding it all out is the setting and story, which obviously don’t influence the difficulty curve directly, but create plenty of inspiration to get better. Taking place during Japan’s Sengoku period, when the country was embroiled in civil war, Nioh 2 tells the story of the rise and fall of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Coming from a peasant background, Toyotomi eventually rose to become a retainer to Oda Nobunaga and a key figure in the eventual unification of Japan under Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Nioh 2‘s version of this story is one that blends history with myth and fantasy, yet remains authentic throughout. Even as you’re fighting the sort of fiendish oni you might see on an ukiyo-e print, you’re largely reliving the events of history as you do so, with particular attention to detail for historical accuracy in all the things that aren’t obviously mythological. Those fantasy elements, too, are authentic to their myths: anyone familiar with yokai stories, and their depictions in classical Japanese art, will instantly recognise most of the monsters you encounter. And for those wanting to know more, then in-game database has plenty of information about the folklore surrounding each yokai.

There’s one big compromise that’s been made, though, and that’s the inclusion of a player-created protagonist instead of a pre-defined one. Rather than just have you play as Toyotomi, as Nioh did with William Adams, Nioh 2 casts your unique character as a mercenary who falls into Toyotomi’s sphere of influence by chance, and eventually becomes a close friend. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it was just telling Toyotomi’s story through the eyes of a bystander, but Nioh 2 weirdly delineates elements of the historical figure’s story between your character and Toyotomi himself. In effect, the role of the real-life Toyotomi is shared between these two characters in the game. I can understand the desire to have player-created characters in this sort of game, but I don’t think it suits something as story- and character-driven as Nioh 2 is.

But that little complaint does little to dull the love I have for Nioh 2. I liked the first game a lot, but that was tempered by the love/hate relationship I have with soulslikes in general. But with Nioh 2, and its finely-tuned difficulty curve, I finally understand the appeal of the genre. Nioh 2 can be brutal, but success is always on the horizon, urging you forward and making your eventual victory that much sweeter. That’s something that, for me, every other soulslike has been missing.

Score: 5 stars

Nioh 2 is developed by Team Ninja and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It’s available now for PlayStation 4.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.