Nioh 2 Review – A Ninja’s Soul
Ben Sheene / Apr 8th, 2020 No Comments
Much like its predecessor, Nioh 2 is a brutally difficult game that will test the mettle and patience of the most hardcore players. This is a game where, minutes into the first level, players will encounter a carbon copy of the boss as the second enemy type. Yes, you read that right. The first enemy to slay is a troublesome Gollum-looking thing. It seems harmless but can also latch on to your body, steal your experience points, and grow nearly three times its size. Compared to the “boss”, however, he’s nothing. Obviously I ran past it.
Sewn from the same cloth as FromSoftware’s Souls series, Nioh offered similar structures to the beloved series but provided enough unique ideas to stand apart. Those expecting a complete overhaul of Nioh may be disappointed but the changes Team Ninja have made amplify Nioh 2 in all the right ways.
Rather that use Nioh‘s Irishman William as the protagonist, Nioh 2 allows players to create a character that will battle demons and humans across 16th century Japan. Acting as a prequel and sort of sequel, players don’t necessarily have to play the first game to enjoy Nioh 2.
Though I personally don’t know much about Japan’s Sengoku period, the series has done an exceptional job at capturing a sense of time and place. The enemies and environments that players encounter across the game, whether realistic or packed with fantastical elements, evoke the idealistic majesty of Japan’s old world and the strife the country was going through during this period of war. Small villages are ravaged by fire while quiet woods are teeming with yokai.
Nioh 2‘s story is, for the most part, quite sparse. Unlike the Souls games, Team Ninja has opted for a narrative that is heavily guided by dialog and explicit text describing the current mission or state of the world. In Nioh, I understood William’s journey to Japan and warring factions’ quest for Amrita, the series’ leveling up currency and a mystical stone. But I became frequently lost in the weeds when real characters like Nobunga and Hattori Hanzo were thrown in. Nioh had a competent story but the game’s constant flow of death meant long, drawn-out periods of very little exposition, so I got lost.
Allowing players to create their own character and imbue them with a past is the first step in making Nioh 2 more relatable. Born from a human father and a yokai mother, players are imbued with demonic powers meant to provide an edge in battle. For the story, it means that players get to use a complex character creator that occasionally incorporates dialog from your parents commenting on how their child might turn out. It’s a warm touch made especially poignant that one of the opening cutscenes shows the player character’s mother being murdered in front of them.
From there, Nioh 2 follows players as a monster hunter for hire. One day, a job asking you to mop up the evil polluting a village leads you to meeting with a stone merchant who has a particular interest in Amrita. Players continue throughout Nioh 2 meeting famous historical figures and becoming involved in battles that likely won’t raise any eyebrows to those not versed in a modicum of Japanese history.
The story doesn’t create much friction between the player and gameplay, serving as nice, action-filled romp through various beats and locales. I wouldn’t be able to tell you many fine points of what was going on because it just wasn’t a crucial factor in my enjoyment of the game. Team Ninja’s cutscenes, along with the voice work and level of detail stick the landing. Ultimately, though, I prefer FromSoftware’s level of storytelling because it adds layers of mystery and depth to the world, enticing players with bits of lore and asking them to uncover the rest.
Despite Nioh 2‘s overall campaign not striking any particular chord with me, Team Ninja’s devotion to the time period and culture eventually pays off. The slog through war-torn landscapes does eventually get broken up by more magical enemies and levels. And this is where Nioh 2‘s look and feel really begin to shine.
One of Nioh‘s strengths was its enemy design, yet it came at a cost. Whether fighting against bipedal, horned demons or a possessed umbrella, Nioh‘s cast of monsters felt like a celebration of Japanese ghost stories and fantasy books. Seeing a new enemy was a moment of fear, curiosity, and awe. Unfortunately, the latter portion of the game failed to deliver many new enemies, to the point where boss encounters became the only point of wonder outside a key level here and there.
Within the first few levels of Nioh 2, it feels like Team Ninja went out of its way to flood its worlds with new creatures. Humanoids are still armored annoyances but the roster of yokai in all shapes and sizes is impressive. Old “favorites” from Nioh are brought back and their inclusion helps bolster everything new in the sequel.
A Realm of Death
As may be expected, enemies in Nioh 2 are crushingly deadly. Unlike a Souls game, or even the most recent Sekiro, difficulty in Nioh 2 is often daunting, which may become a detrimental roadblock for players. I’m fairly comfortable with these types of games and found Nioh 2 to be perversely difficult in its opening hours and throughout the game. That “boss” monster that appears as a rank and file enemy will kill nearly every player with ease and likely acts as a “gotcha” moment or a bragging point for experts.
Regardless of the amount of health or resistance a player might invest in, the smallest of enemies will carve out large chunks of health. Mistakes in Nioh 2 are deadly and I can’t count the amount of times I ran back to a shrine to heal after being slapped or sliced by the most basic of foe. The combat dance is a delicate one, as more than one or two enemies will likely overwhelm players.
Often I found success in rushing past what I knew would be difficult battles in hopes of reaching a shortcut or the next checkpoint. This isn’t the best feeling in a game like Nioh 2 and it especially isn’t rewarding. My major complaint with the game’s difficulty is that it starts out at such a high skill ceiling before easing up and becoming rewarding.
Team Ninja has integrated a number of new systems into the game to not only allow for further customization but increase players’ ability to deal death. Over the course of Nioh 2, players have several weapon types they can use to take on foes. Hammers and odachis deal massive damage, dual swords and tonfas are meant to be fast, and bows and guns take out enemies from a distance. As players use weapons, they will gain familiarity with it an earn a skill point for that weapon type. When a weapon reaches maximum familiarity it deals more damage but can also be used to boost crafted items in the smithy.
Skill trees are also given to magic powers and ninja abilities, samurai abilities, and yokai abilities. In total, players can invest in a few hundred nodes across Nioh 2 to create any type of monster slayer they want.
While the amount of combos and move sets that can be unlocked feel daunting initially, the game really leans towards players focusing on a few weapons and mastering the moves from there. However, most nodes on any skill tree are locked until players complete specific missions. I saw this as Team Ninja’s way of ensuring players can’t become too bloated in power, even with grinding out some of the easier encounters in a level.
Many of the passive bonuses in Nioh 2 can offer incremental improvements but players are gated until completing the required missions. The leveling system which improves core stats results in better damage output for certain weapon types but after about twenty levels, the amount of experience required to level up starts getting pricey.
One of my favorite systems from Nioh also returns but, like many other things, is gated by progression. As players kill enemies and use magic and work on certain weapons they can improve their “title” which is just a fancy way of saying, “Hey, you’ve killed 100 enemies with a sword.” Completing each of these titles grants a point that can be used to permanently improve a chosen stat from a small pool, a kind of paragon system that makes players feel like there are multiple avenues for improvement.
Again, though, it may be like pulling teeth for some to reach the point where all these systems offer a return on investment. Coming so strong out of the gate means that players feel like an ant under the boot of a giant. It would have been nice to see the game be somewhat easier at first and then really ramp up the difficulty when a better understanding of how Nioh 2 works has been digested.
Death is a punishing mechanic but it can be rewarding when done right. As an early example, the game wants players to understand that their yokai powers enable them to execute a powerful block called a burst counter. A burst counter acts as a way to stop attacks that would normally result in death or something close to it. But the type of burst counter depends on the kind of yokai form players take, where one takes time to initiate or one is immediate. After several failed attempts at burst countering, I also found out that it only works on attacks where the enemy glows red. Would have been useful information earlier on but, with a flood of systems, I must have forgot.
Hurt Me Good
I hate sounding like I am frustrated or exasperated with Nioh 2 because that does not hold true with my overall experience of the game. I truly do think the game could have benefited from an easier introductory chapter where enemy tells were more obvious and death didn’t come so swiftly.
Regardless, the difficulty does plateau as players are given more tools and have a better grasp on how to execute strategies. Burst countering does become immensely crucial, especially in boss fights. But nothing compares to mastering the game’s stamina system, called ki.
Nioh handles stamina a bit differently from other games of its type. Players have a limited pool of ki that allows them to dodge, attack, and block before having to pause and recover. Ki can be recovered faster than usual, however, by activating a ki pulse. A ki pulse is performed by pressing the R1 button as the ki bar begins to fill. Time it correctly and you will fully recover a massive chunk of ki rather than filling it slightly. Certain yokai emit black pools that cause ki to recover slowly but triggering a ki pulse purifies these sources.
As players continue to upgrade and learn about the game, mastering ki recovery is one of the most essential tools for survival. In Nioh 2, players can switch between high, mid, and low stances with weapons, each with their own set of moves. Switching stances during combos can trigger a ki pulse as can perfect dodges. Players should also focus on crippling enemies by depleting their ki and execute a damaging grapple attack.
Killing yokai also has a chance of that yokai dropping a soul core. Soul cores are the embodiment of that particular yokai and players can attune two soul cores to their character to boost their stats and activate a special attack. Many soul core moves are useful for getting out of hairy situations but are also amazing to look at, especially when the player temporarily morphs into the yokai.
Loot is an incredibly important part of Nioh 2 and it extends the life of the game several times over. Like in many current games, Nioh 2 has a tiered loot system where certain colors indicate better quality of gear. Over the course of the game, players will begin finding pieces of gear that grant particular stat boosts and further enhance a build they might be working towards. Certain passive effects may only work if a player meets a stat requirement and eventually, gear sets become available that offer bonus effects with more pieces equipped.
Since Nioh 2 has various levels of difficulty, mastering the gear system is one of the few ways to ensure that the game does not become an impossible grind. After the second mission, players will unlock the forge where new gear can be created and old gear can be enhanced. Players are able to swap around traits of gear in an attempt to get the best rolls possible for what builds they are going for. Thankfully, loot is very generous and players can break down useless gear in return for healing elixirs, crafting materials, and and other currencies.
Structurally, Nioh 2‘s levels are a bit strange. As I mentioned, it’s possible to run past many encounters to trigger a shortcut or a shrine where players can level up and heal while resetting the enemies. Some shortcuts are neat while many just feel too simple. This stems from the game not having a massive open structure and instead being confided to massive, mostly linear levels. I usually dreaded the moments when I couldn’t activate a shrine because a whole section became clouded in the yokai realm, where their grey mist would swirl around and indicate everything was going to be much more difficult.
Boss fights are often incredible setpieces, especially when taking into consideration the fantastical creatures that Team Ninja has come up with. I enjoyed the “humanoid” boss fights because they offer a kind of intimate ferocity to them and felt a bit more fair. The grueling difficulty of some bosses can be a bit taxing because learning their mechanics through death and the tricks to staggering them is impeded by having to race from a shrine back to a boss room and hope no stray enemies grab a piece of you.
I understand that a number of players may be wary over how difficult I’ve made Nioh 2 sound, especially at how that difficulty impeded my enjoyment several times in its early stages. Despite that, I cannot recommend the game enough for those players who are well versed in these combat- and difficulty-intensive games.
Feel the strain of tackling something difficult? Search around the level for small kodama that offer bonus experience or elixir drops for a price. Donate unused gear for ochoko cups that can be used to summon a friendly player that will help you.
Team Ninja may hold a bit of blame for not allowing players a few better ways to ease into the complexities of Nioh 2 earlier. Yet it’s those complexities which make the game rewarding as players dive deeper into it. I cursed out loud and under my breath at particularly difficult sections of earlier levels but then I realized I was not forced to play them and could instead move on in hopes of finding a better piece of gear to aid progression. And in those moments where you begin to feel accomplished and slice up formerly troublesome yokai unscathed, Nioh 2 shines and shows you why this game is not only an improvement, but another standout in the genre.
tags: Koei Tecmo Games , Nioh , Nioh 2 , Nioh 2 Review , playstation 4 , Sony Interactive Entertainment , team ninja