The original Nioh’s mix of Ninja Gaiden-esque combat in a Dark Souls shell proved successful as it was one of the few Soulslikes that wasn’t just a hollow imitation. It earned its place in the competitive genre, but, much like a lot of promising debuts, it left a lot of room for improvement. NIOH 2 sharpens many of its predecessor’s dulled areas and goes an extra step further, creating one of the best and most satisfying hack and slash RPGs the genre has ever seen.
On the surface, Nioh 2 hasn’t strayed unrecognizably far from the first game or the general Soulslike trappings. You still go through a wide linear set of levels that cleverly loop around the save points so you can avoid losing all of your precious experience to the hellspawns that roam around. It’s a proven formula that works because of how it naturally balances risk and reward and that still applies here. However, Nioh 2 is special because of how it uses that framework as a playground for its incredible combat system.
Nioh 2 Review | The sharpest blade of the bunch
Melee fights balance the methodical stamina management of typical Soulslikes while also having an increased emphasis on combos and lightning quick swordplay like Team Ninja’s own Ninja Gaiden games. The two disparate styles seamlessly coexist because you still have to keep an eye on your stamina, but you’re also given the ability to continually push forward by strategically using the Ki Pulse system.
Most of the stamina spent in every swing can be quickly refunded if you correctly time a button press, meaning that the best way to play involves a healthy bit of multitasking. Just hacking and rolling won’t cut it, as you’ll quickly find yourself panting and at the wrong end of giant club. It seems like a tiny detail to focus on, but it is a vital, systems-driven way to ensure that you’re always engaged and keeping your cool in every encounter.
The rhythmic flow of slashing, pulsing, dodging, and retreating is mesmerizing and made possible by the fluidity of its genre-defining controls. There’s some animation priority, especially with the bigger weapons, but the game will almost always let you do what you want, when you want and is where the game derives a lot of its favorable Ninja Gaiden comparisons. Granted you have the reflexes, dodging and guarding are responsive and protect you at a moment’s notice; a key feature in such a notoriously difficult genre.
Nioh 2 Review | Prey slaughtered
And Nioh 2 is, plainly put, fucking difficult and pushes those controls to their absolute limit. Skeletons will stab you. Armless gorgons with very “Dead or Alive proportions” will crush you. Trolls with a huge tongue will lick you (which is deadlier than it sounds). There are a thousand ways to die and you’ll probably find all of them, no matter how nimble you are with the blade. Yet, no matter how many times you have to angrily trek back to your grave, it’s hard to fault the game because of the amount of control you have over your character.
Pounding your head against the wall attempting to kill a boss for the fifteenth time is frustrating in the moment, but the sense of accomplishment you get from finally getting over that hump cannot be overstated. Toppling a once-troublesome foe in just a few swipes is as gratifying as finally bringing down one of the many well-designed and memorable bosses. Dying forces you to learn patterns, adapt, and improve and that continual sense of growth and accomplishment — even over its many, many main and side missions — is why a great Soulslike like Nioh 2 is so appealing. Its high difficulty gives you a mountain to climb while the controls give you the means to scale it and seek the rewards at the top.
The mostly fair ascension up that peak points out the few times where it isn’t as just. Devious early stages tend to put one too many roadblocks in front of players and kill them a little too quickly in ways that go into cheap territory. Ground pound moves generally have too large of a hitbox. And, while the rest are fantastic, there are two bosses that are categorically not fun because of how much damage they do and how ridiculous their patterns are. Again, almost every part of the game is finely honed to elicit a fulfilling sense of achievement so it makes these outlying bits of nonsense even more noticeable.
Nioh 2 Review | Yokai watch
Slick controls, steep difficulty, and the spellbinding dance of combat are appreciated stalwarts of the first game. But Nioh 2 avoids hitting the same notes through its Yokai and Burst Counter systems that work together to make the game significantly more tactical.
Collecting cores from slain enemies means you can slot them into your loadout and temporarily summon them to perform their signature ability. You’re encouraged to use them frequently, too, as being aggressive fills up your magic bar and ensures you don’t let them sit there. While a decent bit of them are sadly ineffective — like the silly yet useless farting rat ability — the good ones not only give you a new tool, but can change the tide of battle if used intelligently with the Burst Counters.
Burst Counters are the defensive counterpart to the offensive Yokai abilities and can deflect certain glowing, high-damaging attacks. If properly timed, these special parries can save you from death and do some hefty stamina damage to your opponent. Superb audio and visual design also sell this effect, too, making it even more satisfying to pull off in a squeeze.
Killing bosses the old fashioned way is possible through their health bar, but it’s way harder. Through its relentless difficulty, the game subtly pushes players to use its new systems while also giving hardened veterans more efficient ways to kill. Figuring out how to skillfully utilize these new moves in tandem with your other tools reveals a whole new layer of strategy on top of an already satisfying combat system.
Nioh 2 Review | A thousand ways to skin a Yokai
There are even three different types of Burst Counters you can pick and a few dozen Yokai abilities as well, which reinforce the absurd amount of customizability you have over your character. Stacking gear and leveling up are pretty standard, but sit alongside the game’s more intricate and impressive RPG systems.
There are a gluttony of weapon types that match all types of ranges and speed and each one even has three different stances — high, medium, and low — you can swap to on the fly; further letting you tweak how fast you want to go. Plenty of Onmyo magic and ninjutsu skills (which conveniently refill at every checkpoint shrine) give you multiple ways to buff your character, set traps, or wield ninja-appropriate weaponry.
And just using weapons, abilities, or magic nets you skill points that you can dump into the comically large upgrade trees that most people will never come close to filling out. Nioh 2’s combat is already inherently satisfying, but the breadth of its RPG systems mean the game only evolves and gets better as you play and learn even more use skills. Nioh 2 is very long and manages to pace out these upgrades evenly throughout its runtime.
Such a wonderful amount of variety wasn’t quite the first game’s strong suit and Nioh 2 has more than addressed that blind spot. Levels are more diverse, especially considering the side missions that drastically change the lighting or color of the sky to an unrealistic yet enrapturing effect. Bosses run the gamut from ghoulish bull-spider hybrids to skilled human enemies and all take different strategies to kill. Grunts benefit the most from this newfound diversity as they constantly keep the game from stagnating and yield a steady flow of new Yokai abilities. All of this is designed to guarantee that Nioh 2 keeps you guessing and visually engaged, which wasn’t always something the first game had.
Nioh 2 is, at times, also designed to evoke controller-throwing rage even in the most peaceful individuals. But while the difficulty is dialed up a smidge high in some areas, it’s also designed to be one of the best takes of the genre that far surpasses its promising first entry. An overwhelming amount of RPG systems, sublime controls, and fast-paced, skill-based combat mixes in with Team Ninja’s own stylistic flair and puts Nioh 2 more than a few cuts above other games that shamelessly ape From’s precious formula. It’s a sharp blade, one that cuts back with unrelenting precision, but it’s one Muramasa himself would be jealous of.
GameRevolution reviewed Nioh 2 on the PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.