Nioh 2 proves that it’s still the best non-From Soulslike series

Nioh was one of the only Soulslikes that could compete and sometimes even exceed From’s own titles; an achievement in such a crowded genre. Tight controls, big boss fights, a more customizable avatar, and more helped elevate Nioh above clone status in 2017. Nioh 2, Team Ninja’s sequel coming in March, appears to take those elements and improve them like a true sequel should.

However, not everything needs improving. Nioh‘s controls were already incredibly responsive, tying it to Team Ninja’s other big series, Ninja Gaiden. While it still had deliberate movement and animations that locked you down, there was a fluidity to it that improved every other part of the gameplay experience. Switching stances gave swordplay depth but the slick controls were the true hero as swapping styles was instantaneous. Combat was consistently a thrill because of its tactical nature that meant death was almost always your fault.

ALSO: Why Nioh 2 doesn’t have an easy mode (but could get one later)

All of that appears to be present in Nioh 2. Anyone familiar with the first entry will likely slide back into the groove of getting their face repeatedly pulverized by some flaming demon from Hell. Yet Team Ninja did not take those strengths and successes as a sign to just churn out another sequel that could pass as an expansion pack. Producer and Director Fumihiko Yasuda talked about how the team took Nioh‘s few soft spots to heart and, like a samurai with a sharpened blade, honed in on those weaknesses with deadly precision.

“We received a lot of good responses for Nioh. But some of the negative criticism we got was around the lack of enemy types. The game was quite long and it got repetitive in the end,” said Yasuda. “And we also made sure the levels had some variety. Some can be complex while others are more simple along with more vertical and colorful levels so you will see a lot more variety and diversity in Nioh 2.”

Nioh 2 Preview | A variety of violence

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Nioh 2‘s wider selection of enemies was almost immediately apparent. After dealing with some familiar Yokai and a handful of gun-toting undead soldiers, more abominations appeared and promptly sent me back to the last prayer shrine. There was a one-armed and one-legged jackass with a gigantic hammer, a bizarre jackass sorceress who used magical attacks, a farting ferret-cat-bird thing (also a jackass), and a fire wheel, who was the biggest jackass of them all, that set the arena ablaze with every roll it took.

New enemy types can improve games in any field but are particularly important for Soulslikes. It’s a genre that uses mystery to draw players in and a diverse bestiary both upholds that sense of intrigue and keeps the gameplay fresh. The farting ferret-cat-bird could be taken down quickly, blitzkrieg-style, if done intelligently yet that tactic for the hammer guy would only result in a quick death.

It’s unknown how many new enemies it will have or if it’ll also begin to once again rely on different forms of samurai of varying size, but Nioh 2 showed more enemy variety in one level than any one stage of the original. And while the demo was limited to one big area, Team Ninja also said it wanted to have more variety in its levels, a notion that the more colorful screen shots have given credence to.

Nioh 2 Preview | Ritual of the Nioh

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Team Ninja’s commitment to changing things up extends beyond the enemies and that’s where the new Yokai system comes in. Like the Shard system in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, slain foes have a chance to drop soul spheres. These magical orbs give you an ability from said beast and let you perform a quick summon-like attack during battle. You can slot a few of these at a time and use them if you have enough magic in your meter, which fills as you slice and dice.

Tying this mechanic to offensive performance is brilliant because it acts as a reward for playing the game and doesn’t encourage you to hoard it. It appeared to refill quickly enough to be used fairly frequently but not enough to be abused.

And since every monster is different, that also means the attacks they give you are unique from one another. Pushing for variety benefits the game in two different ways since fighting new enemies and learning new patterns is constantly rewarding in and of itself as is growing your collection of souls. Yasuda even expanded upon this, stating that Team Ninja added the system for gameplay depth but also for visual variety, which makes sense, given how each attack is accompanied by a unique flourish.

Nioh 2 Preview | A difficult balance

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More firepower might possibly signal that Nioh 2 is somehow easier. Although these tools can lessen the load, the game is still tough as hell and, if anything, these tools will likely be necessary tools for survival. The “lesser” grunts (read: still big demons on fire) take focus and stamina management to take down, something that doesn’t completely disappear no matter how much you level up. Managing your Ki pulses and your enemy’s Ki is still vital for survival and it’s a tricky balance that makes every mentally taxing moment matter. A whiffed slash could be your doom.

This all came to a head during the level’s two boss fights. Bot-driven co-op made the first fighting relatively easy as slashing at a busy samurai’s backside isn’t too difficult. But co-op probably won’t be there to save you for every fight and will quickly humble you.

None did this more than Shibata Katsuie (above), which probably roughly translates to “King of the Jackasses,” a title he undoubtedly deserves. While never quite devolving into cheap territory, Katsuie proceeded to repeatedly turn me into paste for over 90 minutes. For every time the planets aligned and I whittled his health down to 20%, there were a dozen times where I hardly took off 20%. Riding the line between properly difficult and overly difficult is tricky in a Soulslike because everything seems overly difficult at first and it’s hard to tell exactly where Katsuie lands especially when thrown halfway in a game that you also can’t take a break from in order to collect yourself.

Nioh 2 Preview | Keeping the tradition of dying alive

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Difficulty has always been a big aspect of Soulslike games and Nioh 2 is handily continuing that tradition. Yasuda spoke about what that meant for the series and how challenge was part of the series’ DNA.

“Personally, I’m not against having an easy mode or different difficulties,” said Yasuda. “It’s good to be able to give the player the ability to choose the difficulties they want to play. But with Nioh, we wanted to keep the identity of making it a hard game to start with. It’s a samurai game.”

He then described how the team took steps to alleviate the difficulty through mechanics rather than just making it a setting you can choose.

“But in Nioh 2, more so than Nioh, we prepared different ways to approach it,” he admitted. “If you want the game to be hard, you don’t have to use the Yokai powers. Or you can use online co-op which works much better in Nioh 2. So we provided different routes for the players to choose but we wanted to give one goal so people can take different routes but they all get to the same place so they can all share the same level of achievement in the end.”

And in the end, Nioh 2 is a lot like a Souls sequel. There are exciting new weapons, abilities, levels, enemies, and locations but the main draw is still the tight, rewarding swordplay. Both series have a particular feel and it’s easy to find any excuse to jump back in and carve up some demons while perishing many times in the process. Nioh 2 is just making that excuse even easier by committing to variety that only looks to only deepen its already strong melee combat. Hopefully, the final game can strike a balance between being difficult and overly difficult and allow me to finally exact revenge on Shibata Katsuie.