In the wave of imitators to Dark Souls that have released over the last decade, Team Ninja’s 2017 hit Nioh stood out as perhaps the best attempt at replicating FromSoftware’s formula. While not strictly mimicking every mechanic and idea, it nonetheless captured the same intensity with its combat and intrigue with its level design that mixed historical facts with mythological fiction. It also saw Team Ninja recover from the loss of Itagaki in 2008 (a departure that haunted the company for nearly a decade) by making possibly the best game in its storied history.
It was no surprise that a sequel would eventually release, but many didn’t anticipate that it would evolve the original formula all that much. The first Nioh felt like a well-thought-out and complete experience, so what was left to add? That’s actually the wrong question to ask, because the design philosophy behind this continuation likely was, “How far can we push this?”
Nioh 2 doesn’t exactly reinvent what came before but is an absolutely killer evolution of its predecessor that features so many quality-of-life changes and extra additions that the first game is practically redundant in comparison. I kid you not when I say that the 40 hours I spent plaything through its main campaign never once felt like a chore due to how considered every change feels.
Back to the Past
For those unfamiliar with Nioh 2 or its predecessor, the idea is that Team Ninja has mixed Japanese history into a fantasy setting filled with Yokai while taking some inspiration from Dark Souls for combat mechanics. You could callously call it “Samurai Souls,” but that doesn’t actually cut to the core of how Nioh works. This is more like Diablo meets Souls, with an emphasis on loot collecting and iterating on your strength until you’ve created an absolute beast of a character.
The plot this time concerns the rise of the great Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of lord Oda Nobunaga’s retainers that would come to be known as the second great unifier of Japan during the late 16th century. Much like the first title, you’ll be following a fictionalized take on actual events that deviate in interesting ways while informing foreigners of some of Japan’s most tumultuous times. It’s an absolutely enthralling hook for a story, but it’s let down by a lack of cohesion.
Nioh didn’t exactly make a whole lot of sense and seemed to coast by on its name dropping of famous characters from history to entice players forward. Teaming up with the legendary Hatori Hanzo was an absolute thrill, but it was never really clear how William Adams became so involved in these people’s lives or what his real end goal was (apart from saving lost spirit Saoirse). If you found yourself scratching your head at the different threads introduced there, prepare to be completely lost in Nioh 2.
In the only downgrade I can think of, the plot of Nioh 2 is demonstrably worse than before. Despite watching every cutscene and referring to Wikipedia entries on the lives of each of these figures, I still have no idea what happened in this game. There’s something about your character being possessed by an evil force known as Otakemaru and potentially existing in a realm between life and death, but that’s about all I could make out. Without the hook of trying to save your loyal spirit, the stakes never feel all that high. You’re mainly going to be progressing through this title because of its killer gameplay more than any narrative reason.
Thankfully, gameplay is what I like and Nioh 2 has that in spades. Borrowing everything that came before, Nioh 2 smartly iterates on the combat from Nioh by introducing some clever new weapons, a denser and better explained skill tree, and the addition of a Yokai form to even the playing field against foes. The first game may have pushed players to the limit with its difficulty, but Nioh 2 seems to stake the odds more in the player’s favor. You’ll get crushed, but it doesn’t feel as overwhelmingly difficult this time out.
That Yokai form is really what does it. Instead of having to wait out through devastating attacks, anytime an enemy flashes red before striking is something the player can counter with the creatively titled “Burst Counter.” Requiring the use of anima, a new resource you gain from striking your foes, this mechanic puts more emphasis on getting up close and personal with enemies instead of trying to dodge every attack. The game continuously pushes you to get better at it, which in turn ups your confidence for tackling the ever more imposing foes that will appear throughout.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Another way Nioh 2 ups the ante from its predecessor is with enemy variety. The original Nioh certainly had interesting enemies, but eventually started to recycle them at a fairly regular click as you got into the later chapters. Nioh 2, conversely, continues to introduce different foes up until the game’s last act. At that point, it now mixes them into different situations and tests your mettle, making each combat encounter feel more varied and rewarding.
This extends to boss fights, which also feature extra variety than before. The game starts relatively modest with an enemy that is mostly melee-focused before introducing elemental and ranged attacks into the fray. Based on familiar and obscure Japanese mythology, the designs get more and more impressive as you get deeper into the game. It’s rare when a game’s bosses get better with each fight, but Nioh 2 understands how to keep things interesting.
If you wished you could get your hands of some of the enemies’ attacks, too, then Nioh 2 has got you covered. Because of your Yokai form, a new “Soul Core” system allows you to collect powerful attacks from your foes and unleash those against them in the heat of battle. Want to body slam opponents as a One-eye Oni? There’s a soul core for that. Dying to become an umbrella and paralyze some grubs? That’s certainly an option. It almost approaches Pokémon-like levels with how many cores there are, continuously giving you a reason to seek out larger foes to get more powerful attacks.
For PC and PS5 players, you also get immediate access to the two DLC weapons, which are the “Split staff” and “Fists.” They pretty much feel like callbacks to Ninja Gaiden, allowing you to either take a more ranged approach with a massive polearm or brawl your way through the supernatural threats like a martial arts star. They change the feel of combat so much that going back to the regular sword feels weak by comparison. Thankfully, you’re never deterred from switching weapons at a moment’s notice and a progressive proficiency rating that grows with continued use will unlock more skills to keep you going.
The last change that is most apparent from its predecessor is with regard to level design. Nioh had an interesting approach with its mission-based structure, but its levels felt a little half-baked. With shortcuts being such an important aspect of Souls titles, the fact that everything reverted at the end of a mission was a bit deflating. It also didn’t help that the majority of the first game was a bit basic and often linear to a fault (not to mention how recycled the side-missions were). Nioh 2 doesn’t break the mission structure but does greatly improve the general flow of its missions.
Right from the first level, you have some different options in how you can approach things. If you’re feeling ballsy, you can take on a mini-boss and unlock a gate that skips roughly half of the level. If you’d rather get acclimated to the combat, there’s a longer path with more enemies that will still test your might but won’t absolutely curb stomp you. It only gets more complex from there, with levels having winding paths that loop back around on each other and offer shortcuts to the nearest checkpoints.
If you're still unable to cope with the Yokai threat alone, the excellent co-op system from Nioh is brought back and given some small upgrades. There’s still the more traditional Dark Souls method of summoning from within a single-player level, but you can also team up with two other friends in private lobbies -known as Expeditions- and tackle specific missions in order. You’re given access to this immediately, as well, so you won’t have to prove your worth or anything.
If you only have one other friend that is brave enough, you can also set the lobby to have one private slot and one open slot. With a seamless drop-in/drop-out system, this effectively allows you to waste no time in tackling levels while waiting for some back-up. There’s also rarely anything in the way of lag, though some disconnects do occasionally happen.
Better still, dying while on an Expedition doesn’t completely reset the level like in the first game. Once your co-op life gauge depletes, the game will half your amrita and glory while putting you back to the nearest checkpoint with all of the shortcuts still unlocked. In essence, it’s like playing the game solo while having a constant companion. The enemy AI doesn’t always know how to deal with multiple players, but co-op doesn’t make the game “Easy Mode” or anything severe.
Iterative, maybe to a fault
Some of the same drawbacks from the first title are still applicable here. The side missions are a bit of a wash, mostly tasking you with going backward through a level you just finished or throwing hordes of enemies at you gauntlet style. The extra stories in these rarely inform the plot or characters and you’ll wind up facing the bosses so many times that it can become tiring. Still, the combat shines through and you’ll likely feel compelled by the loot system to keep searching for better equipment.
With a game like Nioh 2, there’s a ton to talk about that a review just simply cannot cover. I haven’t gotten into the DLC expansions or the various New Game Plus options present. The core loop seems tailor-made for people that like min/maxing their builds and replaying levels over and over. If you’re only looking for a single playthrough, Nioh 2 will not disappoint at all, but there is something to be said of how Team Ninja has built a seemingly endless title here.
In that sense, it’s an iterative sequel that improves what worked before and doesn’t attempt to tweak too much that could be considered a negative. Players that didn’t gel with Nioh likely won’t find this sequel appealing. Anyone that is liked their first trip through Japan and wants some more Souls-like action would be wise to grab Nioh 2. The PC port isn’t perfect, but some promised updates are coming that will likely improve things. At least on PS5, you’re getting a solid upgrade over the PS4 version that will make things hard to put down.
TechRaptor reviewed Nioh 2 on PC using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.
- Exciting and Varied Combat
- Well Realized Setting and Levels
- An Absolute Boat Load of Content
- Mostly Iterative Sequel
- Repetitive Side Missions
- Nearly Imcomprehensible Story