What is it? Samurai Dark Souls mixed with Team Ninja's weapon devotion.
Expect to pay £50/$50
Developer Team Ninja
Publisher Koei Tecmo
Reviewed on AMD Ryzen 7 1700X, Gigabyte RTX 2080 Super, 32Gb RAM
Multiplayer? 2-3 (online)
Link Official site
Stumbling into the first boss after slashing through a riverside village beset by demons, I begin to chip away at a screen-dominating health bar with my looted purple ninja knife. Only a little falls off before it roars, plunging me into a dark world and then summarily killing me with its saw-bladed cleaver. Sure. I've played Dark Souls. I know you're not meant to be able to beat the first boss. This is just flavour. And then I respawn, and realise that, no, this is just the start of the mountain to come.
Nioh 2 isn't any other Soulslike; it's what Team Ninja call 'masocore'. Building on the tricky challenges of the first game, here things get even bigger and badder. But, among other evolutions on their own genre intricacies, so too can you get a little bigger and badder.
The large arsenal of possible weapons aren’t your only tools for spilling hot yokai blood. Your custom character is half-yokai themselves. Not only does this mean you can spend meter to enter a powered up state of demon-slapping fury, but that you can harvest the powers of defeated demons (like a Kurosawa-directed Mega Man). Having access to these super moves is a surprisingly fresh twist on the genre, giving you the option to literally press a 'whack it with a giant hammer' button if you just want to dish out some easy damage and take a breather.
A Burst Counter even gives you the option to parry humongous boss attacks for serious damage to their own posture. The Burst Counter gives you an option of going toe to toe with even the largest bosses. Mixed into their movesets, you’ll need to deftly dodge or block red-glowing big hitters. Hit the Burst Counter at the right time, though, and you’ll transform into your demon form for a second, dealing major stamina damage and stunning your foe. More than just neat additions, it feels like these fundamentally change your interaction with the game for the better. You’ll still die easily if you’re not paying attention, but if you know what you’re doing Nioh 2 isn’t afraid to give you some rather spectacular answers that get the adrenaline pumping. Few moments feel better than when you’re able to react to a difficult boss's’ attack patterns perfectly to take it apart piece by piece with demonic powers.
Ki to victory
Each weapon can be wielded in three stances, from low to high—dealing heavier, slower hits for more ki (essentially, stamina). Hitting the right button after a combo will perform a ki pulse, restoring a large chunk of meter and purifying otherwise ki-stifling yokai realm circles. It creates a terrific sense of rhythm, and really rewards you for learning the feel of your weapon.
Every weapon even has its own skill tree unlocking special techniques and buffs. The more you use it, the more skill points you obtain on your road to mastery. There’s eleven to choose from (not counting ranged subweapons) including two new to the DLC packaged in Complete Edition and available to use from the start. Fists and the Splitstaff join the Switchglaive and Hatchets that were new to the base game. They feel wonderfully unique, showing the talent Team Ninja have for crafting great melee weapon feel. Plus, pummelling evil spirits with your own two hands is just one of life’s little joys.
Throw in special ninja tools and onmyo magic (which you can craft at shrines), and things start to get a little complicated. Though, as you’re only improving what you’re using, skill progression ends up matching your own pace. Elemental weapons have also been nixed from Nioh, instead coming now only in blessed (more damage to yokai creatures) or yokai variants (forged from yokai bones, they 'awaken' over time to gain temporary power boosts).
The backdrop for all this slaughter is Japan’s Sengoku period. A time of bloody war, it’s a great excuse to send you across Japan. Though, as it’s always Japan, areas can feel a little repetitive. You’ll see a lot of forests, caves, shrines, and forts. Even so, each distinct level is masterfully crafted, multiple paths weaving together alongside shortcuts to Kodama shrine checkpoints (Nioh 2’s brand of bonfires, where you revive sans your re-collectable upgrade currency when you croak).
There’s plenty to see, as the game easily took me about 70 hours to beat. Besides main missions it boosts plenty of side content, reworking previous maps into new challenges that feel fresh. And that’s not to mention the three pieces of bundled DLC that add even more at several hours apiece. Little else in the genre has such satisfying gameplay, but there’s a limit to how much repetition you can avoid in a game this long.
It’s a world as lonely as you want to make it, too. Up to two friends can be summoned in to fight by your side (making the game much easier). Ghost data, previously the reserve of duels with player spirits where they’d been killed, can also be used to summon friendly AI-controlled assistance.
In my experience performance was great, easily handling a smooth 60fps, and even supporting 120fps (which has a tougher time when particle effects are buzzing away). At time of writing, there were issues with the keyboard overlay not displaying, but I have to recommend a controller for this one anyway. Thanks to the quickfire stance shifting and pulse timing, playing this on keyboard is the domain of those who love to touch type business emails directly into cryptographic ciphers. There’s some noticeable pop-in on some far off enemies, and some environment textures look a little dated, but the character designs and effects are on point, and its in-depth photo mode is one of the best around.
Nioh 2 runs and plays beautifully. Ever since Dark Souls set the world alight, FromSoftware have had plenty of imitators come for the crown. Often, even the better ones come with the caveat of not being as good. Nioh 2, though, evolves what was already unique about Nioh into something that Team Ninja can very much call their own. It might be operating in the same genre space, but Nioh 2 has its own flavour, and it’s like nothing else out there.