I’m a latecomer to the Soulslike genre. Having only played Dark Souls two years ago, I’ve dabbled in other Soulslike games like Salt & Sanctuary. Why the delay? Well, I’m a seasoned gamer and believe I am above average in terms of skill, though I’m in no way an expert in dextrous gaming. I enjoy a challenge but don’t relish the idea of beating my head against a wall, illusory or otherwise. So when I heard by word of mouth and saw on streams how difficult these games are for some people, I had no interest. A hard game for hard’s sake? No thanks. I finally bit, though, and now I’m infected with the need for more Soulslikes. What I find especially interesting is that by some definition, yes, these are hard games, but they are never unfair. Dying in and of itself doesn’t equate to difficulty to me. Death is a Soulslike’s teacher in the Art of Git Gud. What’s important to remember is that in these games, players have the opportunity to retrieve what they’ve lost, shortcuts are everywhere, and a bonfire is always just around the corner. Nioh 2 is just such a game.
I haven’t played Nioh, but from what I can tell, Nioh 2 follows the same skeletal structure of the first game, though with some polish, refinement, and added designs for tasteful, meaningful complexity. Right off the bat, Nioh 2 improves on Dark Souls in terms of gameplay. This makes sense, of course, because the developers have had the opportunity to learn from the progenitor of the genre’s namesake. Although Dark Souls is truly a timeless classic that will be enjoyed for decades, Nioh 2’s systems add so much depth and customization that the entire combat experience is simply more engrossing.
In traditional Dark Souls fashion, players fight from a third-person perspective, rotating the camera around or locking onto one enemy in combat. Once engaged, they can perform light or heavy attacks, as well as block or dodge incoming enemy strikes. On top of this, players can use items, change weapons, use monster (yokai) abilities, transform into their spirit guardian as a super move, and use special attacks learned through large skill webs unique to each of the nine weapon types.
Each weapon boasts its own reach, weight, attack style, skill web, and stat dependency. Players can use a high, mid, or low stance with each weapon, which affects stamina (ki) consumption when dodging or blocking, the way they swing their weapon, the damage dealt, and what abilities they have access to. Yes, within each weapon’s web, different stances can be leveled to access passive or active abilities. At the outset, the game encourages players to pick two weapons, and while this level of variation truly allows players to tackle each obstacle with the right tool, I decided to focus on the axe and jam my sharp peg into each hole, no matter how oddly shaped they were. And it worked!
In addition to weapon types, players are eventually encouraged to learn a type of magic, of which there are two: ninjitsu and onmyo. Although similar, each offers unique tools, with ninjitsu relying on throwables and stealth, and onmyo focusing on buffs, debuffs, and elemental attacks. Of note, the skills acquired from these two houses provide equippable items. After mapping items to the D-pad, the options can feel daunting, but the intuitive controls make flipping between different item sets a simple feat.
A new feature in Nioh 2 is the ability to take soul core drops from enemies and equip two to your spirit guardian. These soul cores offer modest stats similar to equipment, but they are primarily used for the yokai abilities they contain. For instance, the soul core of an early enemy, the Enki, allows players to briefly turn into a large monkey, leap into the air, and throw a spear at an enemy, returning to human form upon landing. Each soul core mimics some enemy ability, and while all seem to have unique uses, I found a couple were way too powerful to avoid using. I imagine Team Ninja will be patching some of these in due time. The primary use of yokai abilities is to hurt an enemy’s stamina (if human) or ki (if yokai). When these stats drop to zero, the enemy is easily stunned and oftentimes knocked to the ground. Once an enemy hits the ground, players have the opportunity to do a grapple attack, dealing significant damage.
While traversing the land on a mission, players may be tempted to fight enemies from afar. After all, taking on even two enemies at once can easily be overwhelming. In these cases, players can use a bow, gun, or cannon to take out enemies or at least weaken them and draw their aggression. The game knows players will do this, of course, and sometimes sets up traps. Enemy just out of reach? Just get a little closer. And now that you’re close enough, the ninja hiding in the bushes next to you leaps and sneak attacks you. Being aware of your surroundings is incredibly important, and while that demands quite a bit of caution, the game never feels bogged down.
I won’t get into all of the gameplay features, but suffice it to say that players have a full arsenal to approach Nioh 2’s challenges. Some might even say it has too many features, and for the first five or so hours, that certainly feels like the case. Fortunately, Nioh 2 doesn’t start off too difficult, so players can ignore several of these features while focusing on the fundamentals. On the other hand, even if players are eventually ready to incorporate all components into their fighting style, Nioh 2 does a poor job of fully explaining in clear terms what everything does. Now that I fully understand the game — after having done some research online — the tutorials make perfect sense. That’s not incredibly helpful, though! To be fair, Nioh 2 has quite a few tutorials and many do help, but in a game like this, every single tutorial needs to be clear about all features. Even after twenty hours into the game, I was still re-reading tutorials and learning concepts for the first time that I had previously overlooked.
The user interface doesn’t help matters either. Don’t get me wrong, the menus pop and look excellent. The information is neat, up front, and easily found — once players know where to look. Case in point, I didn’t realize for the longest time that I had access to all this information. Again, this is a challenging problem to tackle because most of this information is relevant at the start of the game, but presenting all of it to players would inundate them with too many tutorials when most probably just want to start killing yokai. Although the way the information is handled is clear and well organized for veterans, more could have been done to assist newcomers.
But once all of that is known — once players understand Nioh 2 in its entirety — the combat, skill trees, blacksmith, clans, in-game achievements, statistics, and everything else are just so incredibly satisfying that I could not believe how much fun I was having. In terms of raw gameplay, I can’t remember the last time I was this engrossed. Hours flew by while I played Nioh 2. What binds all of this together, though, are the enemies and level design.
Unlike Dark Souls, Nioh 2 is not one persistent world. Nioh 2 features a regional map with mission markers. Upon going from point A to B and oftentimes killing a boss, the mission is completed and players return to the region map to pick a new mission. Rinse and repeat. As a result, Nioh 2 doesn’t have the intense sense of place that Dark Souls is known for, but because of the visuals and level design, the game does feel like feudal Japan both environmentally and domestically. Regarding level design, each mission is a joy to explore. Secrets are hidden everywhere, enemies are intelligently placed, and labyrinthian caverns are just maze-like enough to keep players’ attention without frustrating. Shortcuts and shrines (bonfires for the Dark Souls fans) aren’t littered around maps so frequently that the game has no teeth, but they’re offered frequently enough that players won’t feel any section of the game is insurmountable.
As stated in my introduction, Nioh 2 is fair. Yeah, some opponents are brutally challenging, and no amount of smartly placed shortcuts or shrines can help a player conquer a boss. But Nioh 2 offers such a vast variety of items and gameplay options that a lazy player who tries one strategy over and over again only to lose over and over again has no one to blame but themself. I’d say I beat 80% of the bosses with my bread-and-butter strategy, but the other 20% sent me to the drawing board to outfit my character differently, usually in terms of items and onmyo magic. When I made these changes, presto, mission complete! If I’m to be honest, I wish the game made me do this more often, but I do feel like I found a busted strategy.
Each Dark Souls entry challenged me, but Nioh 2 felt a bit on the easier side. This tends to happen with games that have such an immense level of depth and customization. Good developers can balance most aspects of the game, but if some players find a broken strategy or build, then congratulations, you’ve accessed Easy Mode. I ran a primarily high-stance axe build with heavy armor and high level onmyo magic. By the 20-hour mark, I was breezing through most of the game. Granted, I still had to focus, go slow, use arrows, and ration my spells wisely, but I rarely died after that point in the game except to the occasional boss. Enemies showed up consistently enough that I knew how to handle each situation with each tool I min-maxed. I still loved every minute of gameplay, but the game leaned on the easy side for my simple strategy.
So the gameplay’s fantastic, but what about the story? Unfortunately, it doesn’t match the quality gameplay. Some focus was placed on the narrative, to be sure, but the developers seemed to provide just enough justification to keep me mentally engaged, and nothing more. I knew why my character was going on every mission, but I mostly just wanted to kill stuff; I wasn’t going on these missions in order to thwart rebels or retrieve an item for my companion.
For those interested, Nioh 2 takes place in the middle of 16th-century Japan during the Warring States period. You play as a half-human, half-yokai mercenary, flittering about your daily life until you meet the ambitious Tokichiro. With his brains and your brawns, nothing can stop the two of you, though your character never talks and their motivations aren’t entirely clear. You and Tokichiro meet various powerful people and take on missions to either help someone get power, rescue someone, or put down a rebellion. Essentially, you’re like a special ops soldier; you are often sent to assassinate someone or help the army get into a city safely.
Nioh 2’s music adequately serves the game’s needs in terms of establishing atmosphere, but it only hit an emotional cord with me in a couple of spots. The controls are intuitive, never frustrating, and always responsive. This shocks me, given just how many button combinations there are, but somehow the developers figured out how to make all of the systems work perfectly together; I don’t say this lightly. Oddly enough, the text for side missions and item descriptions is rough in several places. I wouldn’t call Nioh 2 text heavy, unless you’re someone who wants to read about every piece of equipment, but I don’t understand why so many side missions have typos or bizarrely worded sentences. This is a small gripe, of course, but it occurred often enough for me to take note.
This is a long review, to be sure, but my passion for Nioh 2 must be known. With most games I have enjoyed, I have had no problem taking breaks and doing other activities, but all I ever wanted to do since picking up Nioh 2 was play Nioh 2. For a game with this much customization and depth to have all of its parts work so seamlessly together is a feat worthy of the highest praise. The only thing holding Nioh 2 back is the mediocre soundtrack and thin veneer of a story. I cannot wait to get lost in the DLC to come. Kudos to you, Team Ninja, for building intelligently on what you created in the first Nioh.