“We promise a greater sense of satisfaction and achievement,” claims Yosuke Hayashi, the head of Nioh 2 developer Team Ninja, as he sends us off to die. Bold words I thought, virtually fingering my virtual katana, but then he had the next two hours to deliver.
Picking up any video game from a halfway point is difficult. You’ve missed out on a lot of training, practice, the mechanical nuance that comes with time and a carefully calibrated difficulty curve. Fortunately I only died half-a-dozen times to the first few enemies before regaining the Nioh rhythm, and what a joy it is to be back.
For those who've played the first game, Nioh 2 looks like everything we could want from a sequel. Lots of little changes and evolutions that add up: a more engaging skill-learning UI, additional combat options, new weapons and the kind of animation improvements to the KI Pulse and dodging system that had me remembering that Bloodborne feel, my own favourite game of the past decade.
For those who skipped out on Nioh last time, this is Team Ninja’s second iteration of their own personal spin on the FromSoftware SoulsBorne genre. Think of it as a more combat-focused take. The system is built around light and heavy attack buttons, a multitude of weapons to use-each with their own special moves and combos, and then the secret sauce is three different stances that you can switch between mid-combat. The low stance uses less Ki (stamina) when dodging and has quick, but weak attacks, the middle stance, decent attack speed and damage, and the high stance, high damage but low speed. Each stance has its own movesets and unlockable skills for every weapon.
What that all means is that the combat is far more expansive and in-depth (I'm not saying better) than a FromSoftware title, albeit built around far fewer weapons, which differentiates Nioh from the more derivative Souls titles cough Lords Of The Fallen.
Set before the events of original, Nioh 2 circumvents what some found a fault in its predecessor by allowing you to create your own character (though if you still want to play as an Irish William Adams, I’m sure a decent lookalike is possible). Your character is now a po-faced half-human half-Yokai, which grants various new equipable abilities dependant on a new 'Yokai Bar' resource located underneath your health and Ki. It might sound like a chocolate bar, but it basically means special moves: these can be a simple downward strike with a giant hellish hammer, a grapple attack that pulverises an enemies head on the ground, summoning two skeleton archers to your side or, my personal favourite, an upwards jump followed by a javelin spear throw. I used it to dodge an incoming attack and accidentally but very satisfyingly speared a distant archer who had been making my current duel especially difficult.
Adding to that Bloodborne feeling is a new counter system called 'Yokai Burst'. The Yokai enemies you fight now have multiple special, powerful, and heavily telegraphed attacks. It’s the usual affair: lots of flashing red lights, yelling and that general sense of impending death. The kind of attack that tells you to run for the hills. Instead of fleeing, you can now counter these attacks by holding R2 and pressing the circle button to deal massive damage, but of course timing and positioning is key. The Yokai burst counter is essentially a demonic backhand thatneeds to connect directly with the enemy just before they hit you. All those special attacks coming your way are different from one another and it’s hard to judge which particular doom is imminent. Every time you commit to a counter, it feels like a massive gamble. It’s a stand your ground and “give-me-everything-you’ve-got” move, something that, if successful, has you overpowering giants instead of dancing around and hacking at their shins. It fits the game, because high risk and high reward is at the core of Nioh's appeal.
There’s also a brand new scythe weapon that transforms depending on the stance you are currently using, so I named my character Gehrman.
The section of the game I played at the preview event was set in a burning castle, with the goal being to reach the peak and defeat a giant bull demon. As I progressed there were plenty of shortcuts to unlock and chests to be opened. Nioh 2 retains that moment-to-moment juxtaposition of moods: triumph after walking away from a close fight quickly becomes dread when you realise you’re out of elixir and have only a sliver of health, mortally vulnerable to a hidden ninja, then the total relief when you spot a ladder shortcut that can be kicked down to save your progress.
Speaking of ninjas, they’re the worst. In Nioh 2 any enemy with a single point of health can turn a fight around and destroy you, so you have to remain alert at all times. But the ninjas? They're horrifying. Once their health is below the halfway point, they'll look for an opportunity to grab you and blow themselves up. By the time I had died for the fourth time in a row to this attack, I had gained an audience behind me: Yosuke Hayashi was laughing as I swore at the screen. I told him it wasn’t funny, but the man respectfully disagreed.
I continued my climb of the burning castle, eventually defeating a spear-wielding samurai who combined his massive, guard-breaking stick with magical homing fireballs. There was a handy friendly NPC summon outside the boss room who served as wonderful bait. After a few more dances with the demons, I found the final boss room where the big bad bull resided.
The fight was incredibly tough: he had two throwing axes and would orbit them around him at varying distances, forcing me to be aware of multiple moving danger spots whilst trying to get in close and do some damage. Being a bull, of course, he also charged at me regularly and would spin around and immediately charge again if he ran into a wall, a neat switch of the usual dodge-the-charge setup in games and a lesson quickly if painfully learned. After depleting his stamina bar the boss entered a staggered state, giving me the perfect opportunity to switch to the scythe’s high stance and start carving out meaty chunks of his health bar. The boss had around one-third of his health left when he switched into a brand new phase, because of course there was another phase.
All the attacks were new. Instead of a five hit combo, he now did eight. Instead of one axe spinning around him, there were two. His charge had doubled in speed and he now had two new special attacks that I was barely able to dodge. I was low on health, low on time, and out of resources, I couldn’t spot a safe moment to get in close, let alone strike. His attacks were going to catch me out eventually. Cue another new bright special move with my back was literally against a wall: I gambled with the new yokai burst counter and backhanded the demon to the ground, where to my great joy my character stabbed their scythe into the bull's back, finally finishing him off.
Take that ya fat Bos taurus, I thought. I let out my breath and turned behind to see Yosuke Hayashi had appeared again, in true ninja style.
“Are you satisfied?” he asked.
Yes, I think so.