I’m not ashamed to admit it, I died a grand total of 409 times during my first playthrough of Nioh 2. Every death is a lesson, which is appropriate because there is a lot to learn in this excellent sequel to one of the first great non-FromSoftware Souls-like games. Nioh 2 takes everything the original game built and evolves it magnificently, adding all sorts of new nuances to the combat – but every gift it gives you is balanced with a stiff backhanded slap of difficulty to keep your ego in check.
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While Nioh put you in control of a fictionalized version of real-life sailor and Western Samurai (and professional Geralt of Rivia cosplayer), William Adams, Nioh 2 instead goes the route of the mute, custom-created character. It’s a change that actually works well. William was already basically a mute in the first game, so not much on that front is lost, and the character creator in Nioh 2 is amazing, allowing for some truly impressive looking protagonists.
But while the story fares better than the first, that’s still not a glowing endorsement. Nioh 2 struggles with making its characters anything more than a means for exposition dumps. The only bright spot is the alternate-universe version of real-life Japanese historical figure Toyotomi Hideyoshi, as his journey from goofy adventurer to fearsome leader and his relationship with your character is actually quite compelling.
Combat is King
Nioh 2’s combat is the star of the show here, and like its predecessor, it is phenomenal. The first and most substantial addition is the ability to use several equippable yokai skills. Borrowing one of the best elements from Castlevania: Aria/Dawn of Sorrow, along with the more recent Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, enemies in Nioh 2 have a chance of dropping a Soul Core. That can be picked up, purified at a shrine, and then equipped to let you use their own move against your foes.
It’s an extremely cool addition in a number of ways: First off, it adds rare, exciting loot drops in a way Nioh 2’s equipment system desperately needs, since exotic weapons are dropped like candy; it brings even more tension to the very act of staying alive since you drop your Soul Cores (along with your accumulated Amrita currency) when you die; and most importantly, the moves you get from Soul Cores are fun to experiment with and offer a ton of variety in terms of how you’re able to approach different combat scenarios. Some of my favorites include the universally useful Enki spear throw, which remained my go-to ability when it came to dealing that extra bit of stamina damage required to stun an enemy; Ippon-Datara’s simple hammer slam, which synergized with my magic build as it dealt more damage to scorched enemies; and Ryomen Sukuna’s attack where he would spin forward with his fire and ice swords out, dealing both types of elemental damage at once.
While Soul Core abilities are very powerful, they’re kept in check by leaving you extremely vulnerable to follow-up attacks after use. They also drain your Anima meter, which is needed to use Nioh 2’s second most substantial new addition: Burst Counters.
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Burst Counters aren’t functionally much different than the usual parries that you’ll find in similar games – you time a Burst Counter right before an enemy hits you to stun them momentarily and deal a hefty amount of stamina damage – but what makes them special is how they can only be used against specific, extraordinarily dangerous red-aura attacks, and how just about every enemy has at least one of these attacks to throw out at you with only a second’s notice.
These attacks were terrifying when I first started playing, turning even weak enemies into huge threats that could kill me in one belly flop (contributing to that 409 body count), unblockable grab, or flurry of blows. But as I gained experience dealing with them, learning the timing of when to Burst Counter, these once-terrifying attacks became some of my best opportunities for inflicting damage. Reaching the point where something you feared is now something you look forward to is immensely satisfying, especially when dealing with Nioh 2’s many fantastic bosses.
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There are three different types of Burst Counters: Brute, Feral, and Phantom, and the one you’re equipped with is dependent on what type of Guardian Spirit you equip. The Brute counter has a very slow start-up, but once it gets going it can power through just about any attack and deal massive stamina damage even on its own; the Feral counter is a dash that is especially good at countering other dashes by meeting them head-on; and my personal favorite, the Phantom counter, is a standard parry with an extremely fast start-up, allowing you to react to quick attacks much more easily than the other styles. Certain counters work better against certain bosses, but thankfully Nioh 2 has the flexibility to allow you to change out your Guardian Spirit at each shrine.
At the heart of Nioh 2 is customization. I already briefly touched upon the excellent character creator, but beyond looks, the amount of options you have with regards to every single one of its systems is staggering. There are a total of nine different types of melee weapons, each with their own playstyle and gigantic skill tree, two different types of magic that also have their own gigantic skill trees, and of course, eight stats that scale differently with each weapon and form of magic.
In addition to that, every item you get can have its stats rerolled until you find modifiers that suit your playstyle, you can easily change the look of any piece of gear and play “Fashion Souls” to your heart’s content, you can choose from a veritable zoo of guardian spirits, you can customize the look of your hut, and hell, you can even customize the look of your tea collection and have it appraised for some reason.
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The point is, Nioh 2 is deep as an ocean, and while that’s great in many ways, it can also often be overwhelming and lead to some loot-related issues. Playing the menu game of Nioh 2 is just as important as the one that’s played while in combat, and it can be exhausting sometimes to spend 30 minutes or more going through literally hundreds of pieces of gear, deciding what should be dismantled, what should be sold, what should be saved and offered to a shrine for extra health elixirs, what’s worth keeping around to feed into another item and level it up, and so on. Nioh 2 essentially turns loot into its own currency, which cheapens the excitement of gear-based rewards from boss battles, quest rewards, and treasure chests because the loot is almost never special. Even when exotics drop, it feels like opening a chest in Diablo and just getting a bunch of gold.
All of this inventory management is important because – boy let me tell ya – Nioh 2 is hard, and you’re going to need every stat-based advantage you can get.
New to Nioh 2 are Yokai Realms, which are areas shrouded with a demonic fog and populated by several powerful enemies. To make matters worse, while fighting in Yokai Realms you have reduced Ki recovery, making it much easier for you to run out of stamina and get your guard broken, which is almost always a recipe for death.
On the plus side, you gain more Anima in Yokai Realms, encouraging more liberal use of your Yokai abilities. Once you kill the source of the Yokai Realm, the field will disappear and the enemies within will mercifully no longer spawn even after you rest at a shrine. Even though I’ve shouted my fair share of curses while inside a Yokai Realm, they’re always a satisfying challenge to fight through and the reward of essentially clearing a big area of enemies is always worth the effort.
Diving Into Difficulty
One of the really smart things about Nioh 2’s approach to difficulty, is that for everything Team Ninja made notably harder, they balanced it with something that makes it notably easier – if you’re able to take advantage of it. Enemies have more dangerous attacks that they use more frequently, but you can turn those attacks into opportunities with the Burst Counter. There are Yokai Fields that dramatically inhibit your Ki recovery, but you can now easily summon AI companions left by other players via Benevolent Graves. Bosses will turn the arena into a Yokai Realm every time you deplete their stamina, but you now have powerful Yokai Skills that regenerate faster while there.
It took me about 55 hours to beat Nioh 2, and while every single hour of gameplay was challenging, none of the main missions ever felt insurmountable or made me think that I needed to grind in order to overcome them. However, some of the sub-missions definitely skirted a little too close to the line between difficult and unfair. It’s in these sub-missions where I frequently found myself having to run a gauntlet of tough battles against multiple powerful yokai at once in wide-open arenas where I’m almost always getting hit from off-screen. Or having to fight a boss that was already hard one-on-one, but now I have to deal with it alongside several gun or bow-wielding enemies that like to make my life a living hell.
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Fortunately, these sub-missions are entirely optional, and none of these situations ever came up during any of the main missions. In those, you can avoid being overwhelmed through careful planning and taking out enemies from afar with your ranged weapons. That leaves many sub-missions as punishing challenges for those who want to take them on for extra rewards, or they can be comfortably skipped and returned to later once you’re sufficiently powerful.
Like its predecessor, Nioh 2 also has an exemplary New Game+ mode in the form of its “Dream of the Strong” difficulty setting, which ups both the challenge and the rewards substantially. It even allows you to offer up Ochoko Cups, an item used to summon help into your game, in order to increase the drop rate of Divine items – the rarest of all gear types in Nioh 2. While I didn’t have another 55 hours to push through New Game+ in time for this review, if this sequel is like the first Nioh, it’s safe to assume that further difficulties await.
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Apart from New Game+, you can also set up expeditions to play cooperatively with two friends, or queue up for a random expedition. Expeditions are essentially standalone missions that you can play with friends that use an assist meter; whenever a player dies, the assist meter goes down, and once it empties, the mission ends in failure. Unless, of course, you’re up against a boss, in which case the mission only ends in failure once everyone dies. Basically, as long as you’re still enjoying playing Nioh 2, there will be more Nioh 2 to play.
Also before I wrap this up, can I just say how great it is that Nioh 2’s load times are super fast, even on a base PlayStation 4? In a game that has you dying this much, Team Ninja deserves some sort of medal for putting you back in the action so quickly.