The measure of a good Soulslike isn’t the might of its (Nameless) kings, but the deviousness of its pawns. Marquee adversaries like Ornstein and Smough might command the lion’s share of Youtube uploads, but they aren’t, or shouldn’t be, the source of all dread in the moment. Nioh 2 offers plenty of bosses, most plucked from the grottier tracts of Japanese folklore and all endowed with the ability to shift the proceedings into the “yokai” or spirit realm, where their attacks are more ferocious – a nifty variation on the idea of boss phases. My standouts include a massive owl demon who periodically turns off the lights, forcing you to track the creature by its glaring red eyes. But this terrific, if conservative and overloaded follow-up to 2017’s blend of Ninja Gaiden and Dark Souls isn’t really about the giants. It’s about the dirty little bastards in the undergrowth, the rank-and-file grunts with tricks up their sleeves.
For instance: you’ll meet a demon hag whose abilities include a sort of arthritic spin attack, cackling and flailing around as though trying to free herself from a net. It’s easily evaded and rather silly, more senior moment than special move. Often, it ends with the hag tumbling over in a heap. But sometimes, it ends with her bowling a knife at your head. Elsewhere you’ll encounter bandits who are easy prey till they’re about to die, whereupon they’ll Hulk out and wrestle you to the floor, and deceptively polished samurai who are host to demons that spit fire and poison.
Worst of all, though, are the pot-bellied Gollum equivalents who infest the game’s Sengoku Japan setting, a world of cherry-blossom villages, spoiling castles and torchlit carrion fields. It’s not just that they’re fond of playing dead near treasure. It’s not just that they spew paralysing fluid when you punch them too hard, or that they sometimes accompany larger threats – bouncing stones off your skull like unruly children as you duck under blows that will kill you instantly. It’s that when you knock one flat, another may pounce on and devour it, tripling in size. You skitter out of reach, and whoops, it turns out one of those hags was lurking in a closet behind you. These are the reversals that really set Soulslikes apart, the moments when no amount of levelling, gear bonuses, abject pleading or apoplectic rage can stop you dying at the hands of the very first enemy type you killed, 40 hours before.