Platforms: PS4 (reviewed)

The massive horse-headed beast lumbers towards me and swings an equally massive axe, aiming to crush me in one fell blow. On pure reflex I dodge back, desperately backpedalling to create some space as my Ki (stamina) dwindles down, depleting with every evasive maneuver I execute and regenerating at a painfully slow rate. My senses crackle with frustration because this isn’t the first time I’ve squared off against this intimidatingly large monster, far from it.

My opponent, a demon called a Mezuki according to the label hovering over the health gauge that fills the bottom of my screen, has already bested me several times before, crushing, pummeling, and (thanks to one particularly nasty attack) sawing me to death many times over. I grit my teeth as I cheekily think to myself that, were the Mezuki not constrained by the bounds of its AI functionality, it would surely be laughing at me. I’ve whittled the beast’s health down a bit but then it lets out a roar and shifts our battleground into an alternate dimension, and suddenly all the rules I counted on have shifted as well.

The Mezuki, the very first proper boss encounter in Team Ninja’s newly released Souls-like sequel Nioh 2, will continue wiping the floor with me for an embarrassingly high number of subsequent bouts before I finally master its attack patterns and obtain victory. Much like its predecessor, Nioh 2 demands perfection from players at all times, and swiftly punishes those who let down their guard for even a moment. It’s a well-worn formula that can be insanely frustrating and tedious at times, but for those who are willing to walk through the proverbial fire, the tangible rewards that await perfectly compliment the emotional satisfaction of attaining true combat mastery.

Between Two Worlds

Despite being a sequel, Nioh 2’s story is actually set roughly 50 years before the events of the first game, thrusting players directly into the middle of Japan’s tumultuous Sengoku Period. Team Ninja once again blends real-life historic figures and events with supernatural components like magic and demons called Yokai to create a unique historical fiction world for players to explore.

The sequel’s story focuses on key military personas such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Oda Nobunaga, showing how their campaign towards a Japan unified through military conquest might have played out had things like demons and spirits and magic also been present. As was the case in Nioh, the story functions more as set dressing for the gameplay than anything else, but it’s still fun seeing all the ways in which Team Ninja meshes together the realms of history and myth.

Unlike the original Nioh, which cast players as the famed European Samurai William Adams, Nioh 2 stars an original protagonist built using an in-depth character creation tool. This protagonist, whom others call “Hide” thanks to a symbol carved into a family heirloom they carry around, is actually half-human/half-Yokai, and their Yokai heritage factors as much into gameplay as it does into the sequel’s evolving story of conquest and bloodshed.

The Quick and the Dead

Having spent a lot of time playing the original Nioh, acclimating to Nioh 2 felt to me like slipping on an old glove: a little stiff at first from lack of use but growing comfortably supple once more after I’d flexed my fingers for a bit. Much about Nioh 2 will look instantly familiar to returning Nioh vets since the sequel utilizes the same user interface and basic combat mechanics as its predecessor.

Players can once again employ a litany of different weapon types and switch between three distinct combat stances to engage foes in fast-paced brawls where the margin for error is razor-thin. Executing deft combos with swords, spears, axes, or more exotic weapons like tonfas or the new ‘switchglaive’ sword/scythe hybrid gives Nioh 2’s frequent combat encounters a balletic majesty not often found in other Souls-like games. However, the game is always quick to remind players that even with their stylish close-quarters-combat aptitude, a single lapse in judgment can (and often will) spell their doom.

Despite the furious speed at which even routine combat encounters play out, Nioh 2 is not a button-masher. Depending on the enemy they’re facing, players must maintain a laundry list of checks and balances in their head, determining on-the-fly when it’s best to attack and when it’s prudent to evade or defend. A standard enemy’s defenses might be weak, but attack too aggressively and your Ki will be depleted, leaving you open to a counter-hit that will cost you a large chunk of your total life gauge even against seemingly weaker foes.

Managing your Ki is one of the many hidden arts you must master if you want to triumph over Nioh 2’s diverse roster of standard enemies and bosses. One element of this mastery that players new and old alike may struggle with at first (I know I did) is the ‘Ki Pulse’ technique, a button press deployed at a key moment after executing a combo to instantly recover a portion of spent Ki. Working the Ki Pulse into your muscle memory so that you remember to use it during, say, an intense boss battle takes a lot of work and a lot of patience, but as with many other core Nioh 2 systems, it’s worth the effort.

Most of Nioh 2’s new combat mechanics are tied to the playable protagonist’s status as a half-breed Yokai. Successive attacks build up a gauge which, once filled, allows the player to deploy a ‘Yokai Shift,’ temporarily transforming them into one of three uber-powerful Yokai forms. These Yokai Shifts (which replace the Guardian Spirit ultimate attacks from the first game) last only a few precious seconds, but if deployed at the right time they can help the player escape the jaws of imminent defeat or finish off a tough boss that’s on its last legs.

Guardian Spirits still play a role in Nioh 2, but mostly as repositories for the new Soul Cores that players occasionally find after defeating Yokai enemies. These Soul Cores further expand a player’s combat repertoire, allowing them to deploy signature attacks themed around the core’s associated Yokai. Soul Core moves don’t hugely impact combat, but if nothing else, it can be quite cathartic finally besting a tough boss and then unleashing that boss’s Soul Core ability on other rank-and-file enemies.

Lastly, there’s the ‘Burst Counter’ technique, a powerful reversal blow players can use to stun enemies when they attempt certain attacks. Every enemy type, be it a lowly grunt or a major end-of-mission boss, has at least one attack that’s vulnerable to a Burst Counter, and the presence of these attacks encourages players to lean more into Nioh 2’s risk/reward combat flow. The idea of Burst Counters may not sound appealing to more defensively-minded players, but there are few things in Nioh 2 more satisfying than completely turning the tables on a tough foe by nailing a perfect Burst Counter against them.

Cause and Effect

It can be incredibly demoralizing whittling a powerful boss’s health gauge down only to have them one-shot you with a lucky hit, or dying and knowing there’s a bunch of annoyingly tough enemies standing between you and the Amrita (currency used to level up) you dropped at your death spot. Thankfully, Nioh 2’s load times are mercifully short, helping to take some of the sting out of the numerous treks you’ll no doubt have to make back to your death location or to the boss’s chamber.

Taking in the full breadth of Nioh 2’s ancillary systems can also be a bit overwhelming even for experienced Nioh players if only because there’s so much to take in. As you play through the game’s various main and side missions, you’ll loot hundreds of consumable items and equipment pieces, making inventory management a bit of a chore even after only a few hours of playtime. Figuring out which items are relevant to a given situation or playstyle isn’t too taxing, but it noticeably slows down what is otherwise supposed to be a very fluid and agile game.

Other gameplay systems like the absolutely massive skill tree, prestige/title system, in-depth playable tutorials, and online multiplayer each work as a standalone component, it’s just a bit much to have them all thrown at you at once. The same goes for the Blacksmith’s Shop feature that’s eventually unlocked after an early-game main mission. The Blacksmith’s Shop offers a dizzying number of services, leaving players to sort through all the categories themselves.

Thankfully, the upside to having so much game packed into one experience is that players have a lot of freedom in how they approach each gameplay session. Most side missions can be finished without having to face a tough final boss, making them welcome respites from the oftentimes grueling main missions. Plus, if you want to just get in and slay some Yokai with as little risk as possible, there are two distinct co-op modes where you can team up with up to two other players and earn rewards for your benevolent actions. You can even place a ‘Benevolent Grave’ and passively earn rewards as other players summon a friendly AI phantom of your character.

Along with the aforementioned Yokai-based abilities and combat maneuvers, Nioh 2’s moment-to-moment gameplay is also bolstered by new combat and exploration features which feel both minute and meaningful. New weapon types help bolster the sequel’s already diverse selection of combat options (all of Nioh’s previous weapon types, including those added via DLC, are present in Nioh 2) and even compliment certain stat-based builds. Some missions (and most boss encounters), meanwhile, thrust players into a ‘Yokai Realm’ which hampers Ki regeneration and acts as a sort of environmental puzzle that must be solved before it’s dispelled.

Unsurprisingly, attempting to absorb everything that defines Nioh 2 all at once can be just as intimidating as having to face down one of the game’s towering bosses. It’s an issue which can only be solved through patient investment over many hours, but as fans of the original Nioh can likely attest, Team Ninja is quite good at properly rewarding players who put in the necessary time.      

More of a Good Thing

The original Nioh proved that the established Souls-like formula meshes surprisingly well with Team Ninja’s patented Ninja Gaiden-style combat, and with Nioh 2 Team Ninja has wisely chosen to refine what’s already there without radically changing it.

Yes, Nioh 2 is the sort of game that will happily knock you around over and over again and then seemingly kick you while you’re down just because it can. But once you push past all the “cheap” and “unfair” noise your mind inevitably conjures up, once the game’s systems finally start to click with your own internal rhythm, a realization dawns. Nioh 2 doesn’t want to defeat you or punish you, it wants to teach you. It wants to show you through applied practice that perfection is only found through struggle and that true victory cannot be appreciated without knowing defeat.

Even after playing extensively, I still have many more hours of Nioh 2 ahead of me, and despite the inevitable frustrations I’ll encounter along the way, the many other Mezuki’s that will stand in my path, I’m looking forward to them. Despite having so much to absorb and keep track of, I genuinely enjoy Nioh 2’s finely honed gameplay style, much as I did back when I played the original Nioh. More importantly, though, I pride myself on being a good student.