Nioh is one of those series I’ve been a big fan of that rarely seems to get the love it deserves. It takes a familiar action RPG formula and layers complexity after complexity onto it. It’s full of depth, interesting monsters, ties to historical figures in Japanese history… so of course I was excited when a sequel was announced.
Nioh 2 has been out on PS4 for a while now, but on February 5th, 2021, it has finally made it’s way to PC in the form of The Complete Edition, with all three DLC included and support for enhanced PC settings.
Samurai and Sorcery
Taking place 20 years before the original, Nioh 2 follows the player-created half-yokai protagonist Hide (hee-day). Shunned by most for their mixed heritage, only truly a welcome sight when there are bandits or yokai to slay, Hide nonetheless finds themselves drawn into the schemes between the warlords of Japan and the chaos they’ve wrought in their search for the power granting stones called amrita.
Much like the first game, the plot unfolds via beautiful cutscenes before and after the main missions, and presents a more fantastical take on the major shakers of the Sengoku period. Taking Saito Dosan as an example, I highly doubt he actually consorted with yokai, and it paints the conflict with his son Yoshitatsu as one fought over Dosan’s hoard of amrita. The relationships and major conflicts remain the same, but in an alternate take steeped in mystical powers.
I will freely admit I often get a number of the characters confused however. Folks more familiar with Japanese history will likely recognize them easily enough, but as a more casual observer there are a number of people who get mentioned frequently enough, but with little actual screentime, so it can be a little difficult at times to keep the threads together. I can’t exactly fault them for that; there are a LOT of famous people who would reasonably play a role here, and they can’t possibly give the plot an excuse to personally meet and have a conversation over tea with every last one of them.
Thankfully there IS a character directory that covers a bit of their history and any revelations that have happened in the plot so far, but I do sometimes wish it were accessible during a mission rather than solely from the world map.
Practice Makes Perfect
The Nioh series is a prime example of the “Soulslike” genre. For those unfamiliar, it means this is an action RPG that handles like Dark Souls in having a stamina system and weighty attack animations to turn attacks into deliberate decisions, limited heals between checkpoints, difficult bosses, and the expectation that you will die a lot. There’s plenty of other similarities as well, such as an emphasis on level design where opening up a one-way door allows faster travel back after dying and returning to a checkpoint, checkpoints restoring health and healing items but respawning all minor enemies, and death removing all of your level-up currency and requiring you to run to your corpse to get it back.
The original Nioh took all that, set it in the ever popular Sengoku period of Japan, filled it with yokai and other elements of Japanese mythology, split it up into distinct replayable levels, and cranked the complexity up to eleven.
Stamina, called Ki here, now had mechanics to drastically boost the recovery rate with proper timing. Equipment now had oodles of traits, most of them randomly generated, to farm for and enhance your play. Each weapon had three stances: A low stance for quick hits and dodging, a medium stance for all-around basic play and guarding, and a high stance for when you absolutely must deal a massive unga bunga hit, with their own weak and strong attack strings. You could then allocate skill points to each weapon type to give new moves done by mixing your basic moves together, such as by doing a strong attack during a weak string or vice-versa for a finisher, or hitting weak attack while blocking for a flurry of blows to punish a deflected attack.
This is barely scratching the surface; I haven’t even gotten into guardian spirits, debuffs… just know that for someone coming at the series from Dark Souls, it plays very similar at the surface level, but quickly you’ll need to learn the more complicated mechanics, and in the hands of an expert you can string together impressive combos.
So, that brings us to Nioh 2. Most of the gameplay has remained unchanged from the original, but it’s not without significant changes. Right off the bat there’s more weapon types even without the DLC weapons, and each of them have their own skill points. So, in the original there were “samurai skill points” spent on every weapon tree, and the result was that you could really only effectively use one or two types. Any dabbling with a different weapon to see how you like it was only at its most basic level. In Nioh 2, you gain weapon skill points via using that weapon. By practicing with it you naturally earn skill points, and you may as well spend them on new skills for your weapon because you literally can’t use them elsewhere. It’s quite the beginner-friendly change, allowing those of us who don’t know which weapon type they’ll prefer yet to truly experiment and learn.
Also changed considerably are the guardian spirits: In the original they gave a large number of passive buffs based on your Spirit stat, and could activate “spirit weapon” mode where you did massive elemental damage based on the spirit using your current weapon’s medium stance moveset, and any damage taken merely reduced the time you had left. In Nioh 2, you instead morph into one of 3 half-yokai forms based on your spirit, each with their own moveset emphasizing slow brutal attacks, quick strikes and dodging, or ranged attacks. More than ever, choice of guardian spirit is a key part of your playstyle.
There’s plenty of other little changes, but in general, they all make it easier to try a variety of options early on. This does lead to an easier early game, but solely by virtue of having more solutions to try. Death is still swift and frequent until you find the tools that work for you, and victory is hard-earned and sweet.
A Beautiful Battlefield
Nioh 2 manages to both look amazing and keep a consistent framerate even on my cheap computer. The majority of the cutscenes are rendered in-engine as well, reflecting whatever fashion choices you’ve decided to make with your gear, whether that’s dressed up as a ninja, decked out in heavy armor, or wearing a ramen bowl on your head.
Like a lot of more “serious” modern games, there’s a noticeable lack of music. Most levels step back and let a few wood winds and environmental noises do the work, and it’s probably for the best because sometimes the breathing of a nasty demon is the only clue you’ll get that it’s waiting to ambush you.
Lightning Strikes Twice
Nioh 2 is a refinement of an already great game. The biggest flaw in my opinion of the previous title was that it was difficult to hop into. Truly getting to know a moveset required an investment that wasn’t always easy to recover, and trying to put together a build felt foolish for anything you’d replace down the line. Now it feels a lot more open to experimentation.
Everything I loved about the original is still here of course. There’s more stylish moves than ever to learn, and the bosses are more than happy to slam me to the mat any time I start getting overconfident.
Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Koei Tecmo.