The woman in Nioh 2’s opening cutscene is telling me a story about heroes. I’m leaning back, getting pulled into a pretty standard yarn, when the woman telling me the story is brutally murdered by a demon. This moment teaches the first of Nioh 2’s lessons: you are never safe. You will scratch and claw for every inch of progress. Nothing will be given to you, and the instant you think you’re safe, you’re probably dead. Like its predecessor, Nioh 2 is a brutally difficult game. I like to play games on high difficulties, and I can’t think of many that have challenged me, or frustrated me, the way Nioh 2 has. I also have trouble thinking of games that have rewarded me as well. You’re going to die a lot, but that’s part of the fun.
Despite its title, Nioh 2 is actually a prequel to the original game that begins in 1555 and focuses on the strife that consumed Japan for several decades during this time. You’ll run into historical figures as you progress through the game’s plot, like Nobunaga, and pal around with others (Toyotomi Hideyoshi), as you travel across the country to unlock the mystery of “spirit stones,” which contain supernatural power, and kill Yokai. Boy, do you kill a lot of Yokai. The historical setting and characters are a nice touch, but most of the story is pretty dull and driven by exposition dumps that are delivered by static portraits before missions. That’s fine, because you’re not coming to Nioh 2 for the plot. It’s sole purpose is to get you to the stuff that matters: the gameplay.
" In addition to the returning weapons from the original game, Nioh 2 also adds switchglaives, which transform into various forms offering different speeds and power, and the double hatchet, for a total of nine weapons."
Nioh 2’s core is its combat, and that combat is incredible. Most of what was in the original game carries over. There are several weapons types, all of which have different movesets. These weapons range from the standard sword to heavy axes, spears, twin swords, and everything in between. In addition to the returning weapons from the original game, Nioh 2 also adds switchglaives, which transform into various forms offering different speeds and power, and the double hatchet, for a total of nine weapons. You can also change how weapons work by switching your stance, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.
Low stance offers quick attacks and spin dodges that take little Ki, Nioh 2’s term for stamina. Medium stance is a defensive all-around stance with solid damage and a backstep, and high stance is an incredibly damaging, attack focused stance whose moves have high Ki costs and recovery times. Choosing the right stance, and managing the Ki cost of the moves you use, is incredibly important. If you overextend your attacks, block too many hits, or dodge too quickly, you’ll run out of Ki, leaving yourself winded and unable to move or defend yourself. In Nioh 2, that probably means you’re dead.
All of that sounds more or less like any game that borrows design elements from From Software’s Souls series, but Nioh adds a twist with the Ki pulse, which allows you to restore a certain amount of Ki quickly if you press a button at a specific point after an attack. It can also dispel pools of the Yokai Realm, which prevent your Ki from regenerating if you stand in them. Nailing your Ki pulses is essential, and it provides an enormous amount of depth to Nioh’s combat. You can Ki pulse and switch your stance at the same time, allowing you to continue attacking when you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I often started off by attacking in medium stance. After I reached the end of my combo, I could Ki pulse and switch into low stance, do another combo, and then Ki pulse again while switching to high stance. Mastering this technique allows you to deal tremendous amounts of damage very quickly while making sure you still have enough Ki to dodge, block, and attack, and it’s essential to taking down Nioh 2’s enemies.
"What’s new is your character’s ability to transform into a Yokai. You see, Hide (the protagonist), is half-Yokai, which means he or she can use their abilities."
As you can imagine, choosing the right weapons for the job, and learning the ins and outs of what your chosen weapons do, is very important. Using a weapon builds familiarity with that weapon, which boosts its stats and makes it more valuable. Familiarity doesn’t carry over between weapons of the same type – maxing out one katana’s familiarity will not translate to the next katana you use – but using weapon types also grants skill points, which can be used to buy new attacks and abilities for specific weapons or in the game’s general skill trees. That said, your weapons aren’t your only tool. You also have Ninjutsu and magic, which do anything from buffing your weapons to providing new attacks. These also have their own skill trees to max out.
That’s the old stuff, and fans of the original game will feel every comfortable with it. What’s new is your character’s ability to transform into a Yokai. You see, Hide (the protagonist), is half-Yokai, which means he or she can use their abilities. The most obvious way this manifests is the Yokai Shift, in which your character transforms into one of three types of Yokai: Brute (strong and slow), Feral (fast and agile), or Phantom (magic). The type of Yokai you transform into is based on your Guardian Spirit, an ethereal animal companion who boosts your stats. You’re invulnerable in Yokai form, but that doesn’t mean you can stop thinking: using your attacks and getting hit drains the amount of time you can spend as a Yokai, and it’s an ability that recharges slowly, so you’ll want to be careful about deploying it.
Being half-Yokai also gives you access to Burst Counters, which operate much like a parry and change depending on your Yokai form. But there’s a trick: they only counter Burst Attacks. Each enemy in Nioh 2 has at least one Burst Attack, an enormously powerful move that covers them in a red aura that they can use at any time. These moves are terrifying. In most cases, they will kill you instantly. If they don’t, they will leave you on the ground, making you vulnerable to follow-up attacks. Burst Counters, when timed properly, allow you to beat these moves, dealing massive Ki and health damage. The trick is choosing the right one for the situation. The Brute Counter starts the slowest, but can power through just about anything; the Feral Burst Counter is a dash that’s great for countering moves where the enemy comes at you; and the Phantom counter is a traditional parry with an extremely fast start-up time.
"Burst Counters are inherently risky: mistiming them will often lead to your death, and they drain your anima gauge whether they work or not, but they also allow you to turn fights on their head and deal massive damage, especially to bosses."
Burst Counters are inherently risky: mistiming them will often lead to your death, and they drain your anima gauge whether they work or not, but they also allow you to turn fights on their head and deal massive damage, especially to bosses. Each properly timed Burst Counter is a victory and learning to use them properly is often necessary to progress, especially against the game’s bosses.
Your Yokai heritage also gives you the ability to equip Soul Cores, which are occasionally dropped by Yokai you defeat, and grant access to that Yokai’s powers. The Enki Soul Core, for instance, allows you to jump and throw a spear at your enemies, acting as a dodge and an attack in one, while he Yoki Soul Core transforms Hide into a monster than slams its opponents into the ground. Bosses also drop Soul Cores, and as the game goes on, their effects become more powerful, to the point that sometimes you simply call down a giant foot to stomp your enemies flat. Yokai abilities drain a substantial portion of your Anima gauge, which you also need for Burst Counters, and they have long recharge times, so they probably won’t win many fights for you, but they’re an extraordinarily powerful tool when used at the right moment.
If this sounds like a lot to take in, it is, and Nioh 2 will put your knowledge of all of it to the test. This game offers a ridiculous level of customization that begins during character creation and just never stops. The character creator is amazing, and you can thankfully you can recustomize everything about your character from the game’s menus later, but that level of freedom is present through the rest of the game, too. How you level up, what weapons you use, the Guardian Spirit you select, the skills you learn, and the Soul Cores you equip are all up to you.
"Nioh 2 is brutally hard. Dying not only loses your Amrita (experience), it also costs you any Soul Cores you haven’t taken to a Shrine yet, and your Guardian Spirit, who stays behind to guard everything, which means no Yokai Shift for you."
Nioh 2’s levels are equally diverse. Each is self-contained and sprawling, spanning mountainsides, caverns, villages, forests, castles, and often more than one. The game’s third level, for instance, starts outside a castle and descends into underground caverns. There’s reason to explore the levels, too, as there are small leafy spirits to find and return to the shrines, who can grant you blessings for a small fee. There are also hidden items and hot springs to discover. The most interesting twist is the Yokai Realm, which buffs Yokai abilities and Anima regeneration while you’re in it. The downside is that you regenerate Ki more slowly. Dispelling a Yokai Realm requires defeating the Yokai that rules it, and makes your path easier, and gives you plenty of loot, too.
The game’s sub-missions maintain this level of diversity, even if many of them reuse portions of main missions. Still, there’s enough little twists and tweaks that you’re always seeing something new. And all levels, whether part of the main story or not, are filled with new breeds of Yokai, all of whom are unique and dangerous. Conquering them takes practice and skill, and previous success is no guarantee of future victory. Something as simple as the space you’re in, and how much room you have, makes a huge difference. Through it all, Nioh 2 throws armor and weapons at you like candy, constantly rewarding you for your trouble. There’s so much of it, in fact, that it’s possible to spend 20 minutes in the game’s menus debating what items should be dismantled for parts, what should be offered at shrines for items and currency to buy elixirs, and what should be sacrificed to improve other items. It can be a bit tiring, but it’s necessary: you’re going to need all the help you can get.
Nioh 2 is brutally hard. Dying not only loses your Amrita (experience), it also costs you any Soul Cores you haven’t taken to a Shrine yet, and your Guardian Spirit, who stays behind to guard everything, which means no Yokai Shift for you. If you get back, everything’s fine. Fail, and everything – including anything you got on that second run – is gone. Your Guardian Spirit returns to you, and you start at the last shrine. Combine this in a game where almost every enemy has a move than can kill you in one hit (or come close to it), and you have an extraordinarily unforgiving game.
This is particularly true in the game’s boss fights, which require extended displays of perfection. Like all enemies, bosses have both Ki and health, and like all enemies, reducing a boss’ Ki to zero staggers them and makes them vulnerable to damaging attacks. Unlike other enemies, however, bosses enter the Yokai Realm once their Ki dissipates, which restores all of their Ki and powers them up. Killing a boss means reducing its Ki to zero, surviving long enough to leave the Yokai Realm, and then doing it all again until the boss dies. And like all enemies, bosses have Burst Attacks that can kill you in one hit. The addition of Burst Counters means that countering these moves helps you immensely, and after a while, you’ll begin to look forward to them. But you’re going to die a lot before you get to that point. Don’t get me wrong: Nioh’s bosses are visually incredible and can be a lot of fun to fight. But they can also be enormously frustrating, as can most aspects of the game.
" It is possible to bang your head against this game’s difficulty for hours and come up short. The key is to remember how much power you to have customize your experience. The worst thing you can do is refuse to change your strategy when it isn’t working."
There are ways to relax in Nioh 2 – you can forge new weapons, change your appearance and that of your weapons, customize your hut, and even start a tea collection – but this is a very, very hard game. It is possible to bang your head against this game’s difficulty for hours and come up short. The key is to remember how much power you to have customize your experience. The worst thing you can do is refuse to change your strategy when it isn’t working. For every frustration that Team Ninja threw at me, there was always something they gave me to beat it. Sometimes it was as simple as changing what weapon I used, and other times I had to change Guardian Spirits or level up. But I always had a way out. It was just on me to find out what it was.
How you respond to Nioh 2 will be entirely based on your ability to do that. The game’s story may be forgettable, but its action will keep you hooked, provided you can deal with the immense frustration of the game’s difficulty. There will be moments where you’ll feel like you can’t win. Eventually, though, you will, as long as you stick with it. Nioh 2 is worth that frustration – it’s a beautiful game with an insane amount of depth and customization – and it rewards dedication and skill like few other things on the market. You’ll often want to give up while playing it. But you’ll also want to come back. If you do, you’ll be rewarded. There’s also some new challenge to master. Don’t worry, though. If you conquer them all, there’s always New Game+. And that’s even harder.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Exceptional combat system. Tons of character customization. Varied enemies and levels. Bosses are intense. Brutal difficulty.
Brutal difficulty can be frusrating. The story is dull.