Still Sharp

HIGH Tight action, deep systems. The blue gravestones.

LOW The controller mapping for demon powers makes no sense. 

WTF Backstabbing is hidden in a skill tree. Photo mode SUCKS.

I’m rarely satisfied when a sequel to something I liked is almost identical to the original. It might seem counter-intuitive, but if I’m happy with an experience, I’m happy with it – I don’t need to have it again. I like new and different. I like innovative and fresh. However, there are certain titles that are so enjoyable that I don’t mind when the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

If Nioh and Nioh 2 were held up side by side, I suspect most fans would be hard-pressed to tell them apart without scrutinizing the details. These third-person action titles fall into the same Soulsish vein, use similar systems and assets, and feel very much alike in nearly every aspect. They are essentially twins. Why isn’t this a problem? Because the first Nioh was so fantastic that sitting down with a more polished iteration is absolutely fine with me.

Players begin by creating a character and going through a basic systems tutorial. There’s a lot to absorb, but the info is easily referenced at any point, which is a good thing since I went back to it several times trying to recall how to do one thing or another. It’s fairly unusual to want to refresh my memory so often, but in this case, it’s necessary – Nioh 2 has a lot going on.

Players have nine weapon types to choose from, including standard options like short or long swords, single or double, but there are lesser-seen choices like speedy, hard-hitting tonfa, double hand axes, or the hook-and-chain kusarigama. A loadout consists of two melee weapons, and each can be wielded in high, medium, or low stances. The stances greatly modify the kind of attacks, their range and power, so it’s a good idea to switch between them depending on the situation. In addition, players will want to pack two ranged weapons (bows, rifles or the mighty hand cannon) and on top of that, learning magic in either ‘ninja’ or ‘onmyo’ flavors, preferably both, is strongly recommended.

That’s already a lot to wrap one’s head around, but there’s more. A wide array of armor is found in chests and dropped by enemies, so this presents another slew of options – heavy and tough, fast and light or a mix of both, not to mention that named armor sets grant special bonuses and there’s a blacksmith that can combine, enhance and modify both armor and weapons for players who want to dig in and fine-tune their gear.

At this point it feels like overload but I haven’t even mentioned the ability to turn into a demon for super-powered attacks, assigning captured demon spirits as attacks, choosing and equipping friendly guardian spirits to boost stats and abilities, going online to join a clan, and more. Nioh 2 is obviously super-super-extra when it comes to systems, but after learning how it all fits together (and going back to those tutorials) I love the myriad ways to customize just about everything.

This do-it-yourself quality extends to the gameplay. Nioh 2 is rich in feudal Japanese flavor with levels that offer plenty of forests, castles, villages and caves to explore. Some are huge and winding and some are short and sweet, so the variety in design and pace is perfect, and every one is populated by an array of enemy troops and fiendish yokai in all shapes and sizes. Soulslike fans will appreciate the dramatic fight locations, clever shortcuts, hidden rewards and deadly ambushes, but one way Nioh 2 differentiates itself from others in the genre is via blue gravestones.

The first Nioh was littered with red graves. These stones popped up where actual players died, so the game would pull that data from the servers and populate it in others with an internet connection. Players could read them as a way of knowing what was coming ahead, or they could fight these fallen warriors for a bit of loot. The red stones are still here, but blues are now prevalent as well. These are left by players who want to make their character available (via AI) to help others asynchronously. Realtime co-op is still a thing, but blue stones offer backup that doesn’t rely on a real player standing by somewhere in the world. It’s a brilliant addition.

From a mechanical and design perspective, Nioh 2 is a tightly tuned package that knows what it wants to do and does it well. I have few complaints about a title that feels this good to play, but one thing that did annoy me were the “online” missions.

Overall, the campaign’s difficulty is right in the pocket where it needs to be, but a post-release patch added optional missions that spike brutally in challenge, to the point that it feels like the enemies are cheating. Friends in postgame say these are a breeze with a pumped-up character, but they’re rage-inducing going through the campaign for the first time. Team Ninja’s DLC was relentlessly hard in Nioh and it looks like they’re on track to make that same mistake again with Nioh 2.

Beyond that, I’ll say that the story is totally irrelevant. Nioh 2’s main character is a half-human, half-yokai that teams up with a wily merchant to carve out a place for themselves in feudal Japan. Beyond that, I’m at a loss. It’s a wild whirl of people, places and battles that I find hard to keep track of, and every chapter introduces new characters who mean nothing except, perhaps, to students of Japanese history. The devs are content to let players figure out who’s who by offering text bios in a menu (snore!) but luckily, none of it has any bearing on play whatsoever.

I love a great third-person actioner, and I’m hard-pressed to think of one that nails the formula as perfectly as Nioh 2 does. The systems are pleasantly crunchy and there are a ton to dig into, the moment-to-moment fights get my blood pumping, and the artwork and theming are all spot-on. Too much of a good thing is too much of a good thing, but Nioh 2 is exactly the right amount.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Team Ninja and published by Koei-Tecmo. It is currently available on PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 35 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. (still playing.) Less than 1 hour of play was spent in active multiplayer modes with live people, but the game was played completely in online mode with several hours spent using the blue gravestone options.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore, Suggestive Themes, and Violence. The official ESRB description reads as follows: This is an action role-playing game in which players assume the role of a half-human, half-supernatural samurai that battles enemies during Sengoku-era Japan. From a third-person perspective, players use katanas, axes, spears, bows, and rifles to kill various enemies (e.g., humans, demons, boss creatures) in melee combat. Some battles are frenetic, highlighted by cries of pain and large blood-splatter effects. Human enemies can also be decapitated or dismembered during battle. One weapon allows players to trigger a suicide event (i.e., stabbing themselves in the stomach). Cutscenes sometimes depict soldiers impaled by spears; one cutscene depicts the player stabbed by a spear from a first-person perspective. The game contains some suggestive material: a female serpent demon with partially exposed breasts; a woman/cat-like demon with deep cleavage.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Dialogue is subtitled during gameplay and during cutscenes, and text has three size choices. The game offers many visual cues during the action, but there are some music/sound cues that pop up when unseen enemies spot the player and enter their attack mode or when they’re about to perform a heavy attack that must be countered or dodged. There are visual cues for these sounds, but they’re subtle (mostly relegated to colors or lines on the mini-map) and easy to miss. Also, there are sound cues that let the player know when hidden items (kodamas) are nearby that do not have a visual cue if the kodama is not onscreen. There is an item that visually highlights kodamas on the mini-map, but it must be bought/found and equipped first.  

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls and several preset control schemes.

Brad Gallaway
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3 years ago

“Beyond that, I’ll say that the story is totally irrelevant.” THANK YOU! One reason GC is consistently my favorite review site is that you guys consider what’s actually important to a game. There are a slew of games I happily play and love – the Fire Emblem series, most of the Just Cause games, the Far Cry series – where I’ll gladly just skip all the cutscenes. I don’t care about the story. The story is just an excuse to design the game in a certain way. I just want the game. I just bought Ghost Recon: Wildlands last week… Read more »

3 years ago
Reply to  Brad Gallaway

Yeah, exactly. In RPGs, where the gameplay tends to be more cognitive than visceral, it’s usually the story that handles the lion’s share of audience engagement. Or games by Quantic Dream. Even though I love Metal Gear games, MGSV’s incomplete story made me realize I can forgive a broken story if there’s a great game underneath.

But Team Ninja games? The Musuo series? Devil May Cry, Resident Evil, Just Cause . . . as long as the schlock is short and/or skippable, I don’t mind or care.

3 years ago
Reply to  hdefined

I totally agree that the story in the Nioh games is mostly garbage and that it doesn’t matter, but there are some fun tidbits. Like learning about oddball yokai lore and things like Yusuke, the first black Samurai from Africa who served under Odu Nobunaga – a story based on fact! I’ve learned a lot about the Sengoku period that I wouldn’t otherwise know by playing these games, even if the story is completely bonkers 🙂