Nioh 2 Thoughts
Nioh 2 is, unlike many modern games, solely absorbing due to a singular experience and gameplay promise. Although it heartily includes the standard gaming trappings of a dramatic narrative, flashy cutscenes, and countless stat points and other customization options, there’s only one thing you truly play Nioh for: the endlessly satisfying, challenging, and dynamic combat system that Team Ninja has spent seemingly their entire studio career perfecting.
In order to understand the evolution of Nioh’s combat, one needs look no further than Team Ninja’s excellent 2004 Ninja Gaiden reboot. Inspired by the stylish action of Devil May Cry a few years earlier, the team created a brutal character action masterpiece that reimagined the original NES title in a whole new light. But unlike the restrictive, almost lane-based movement of DMC, Ninja Gaiden was characterized by an extremely fast pace and loose movement style that made the player character feel as though they were sliding on buttered shoes at any moment. This combat encounter was tense and deadly quick, with each enemy designed with the player’s speed fully in mind. Despite being primarily an action game, Ninja Gaiden still included a slew of options and upgrades pertaining to new weapons, skills, and items that assisted the struggling player (as this game is crazy difficult, that applies to nearly everybody). The only significant pace-killer in this otherwise excellent title was the frustratingly early-Capcom-esque approach to level design that resulted in more dead-end hallways and confused protagonists than acceptable. But the roots of Nioh are undeniably here, both in broad thematic ways (both games star a ninja fighting demons and malicious soldiers in spectacularly violent brawls) as well as more specific inspirations, like the animations for slicing an enemy’s extremities, or competing lengthy fighting-game-style combos to inflict less-than necessary special moves.
Dark souls inspirations — But 2004 wasn’t yesterday, and character action games aren’t the only kids on the block. Nioh also takes liberal “inspiration” via From Software’s massively successful soulsborne series. It’s an interesting move, considering the methodical and lingering pace of Dark Souls’ combat system compared to the fleet-footed fights of Ninja Gaiden. But Team Ninja works magic with the source material, effectively transporting the most demanding and dynamic aspects of From’s design strategy to a completely fresh system, that true to Team Ninja’s history, remains blisteringly fast and thrilling to play. These elements are encapsulated in the basic template of light and heavy attacks, blocking, a heavy emphasis on stamina usage, and the ready availability of temporary items that activate various advantages for the player. But upon playing Nioh 2 it becomes clear that the team had no interest in merely copy-and-pasting the hard work of Fromsoftware, instead using it to further their own artistic vision. Nioh’s combat is far more technical and nuanced than the average soulslike, primarily due to the introduction of the stance mechanic. At the press of a button the player is able to swap between three distinct combat stances that not only alter their statistical strengths and weaknesses, but bring their own entirely unique move sets. It’s similar to the trick weapons in Bloodborne, but each weapon has three states instead of only two.
The living weapon meter also returns from the previous game, but feels significantly weaker this time around. Whereas in the original Nioh, Living Weapon was a priceless state of complete power that changed based on the player’s weapon, it now transforms the player into one of three frustratingly important Demons forms that never seem to change the tide of battle in a significant way. And when they do help me defeat a challenging boss, it’s more than likely the result of the arbitrary extra health bar that can be thrown away. From a design perspective, it’s completely reasonable to understand why they felt the need to tone down the living weapon system from the first game. It could often feel too effective during tough moments, providing an easy out for challenges that the player was intended to overcome with skill and patience. But It also created fantastic moments full of drama and tragedy and success, and by neutering the living weapons, those moments are just gone.
The new system does, however, fit elegantly with the rest of the new demon mechanics. A secondary purple meter now lives under the living weapon bar, tracking the player’s ability to perform burst counters and Yokai attacks. The burst counters are necessary for parrying special burst attacks, of which every enemy in the game has multiple. These are highly dangerous moves that can instantly kill the player character if not avoided, but parrying will deal massive stamina damage and often stumble the enemy, opening them up for a finishing grapple move. Despite being interesting theoretically, these counters often falter in practice. Each demon type has a different rhythm and attempting to properly navigate the strict timing windows is generally now worth the risk, especially when burst attacks can be easily avoided.
It’s fortunate then, that the final demon mechanic is more successful than it’s siblings. Each enemy has a certain chance of dropping a soul orb on defeat, which can be collected and purified at checkpoints. The player can then equip two soul orbs for use on their character, allowing them to perform an enemy attack in exchange for a certain level of the purple meter. The selection of yoki attacks is impressively wide and they feel appropriately powerful while never tipping the meta.
And there’s plenty of fodder to practice those attacks on — While not nearly as varied as Dark Souls 3 or Bloodborne, Nioh 2 still features a decently large roster of both human and demon enemies that feel properly distinct in their design and approach to combat. And while the individual opponents feel more vicious in the sequel, the bosses felt like something of a downgrade — Say what you will about difficulty in gaming, but the sheer outrageous challenge of some of the boss fights in the original game was enough to make them stick in my memory long after they should have faded away. Sure, the balance was far from perfect, with the toughest bosses packed in the first half of the campaign, but they still gave the game immense amounts of drama and personality in overcoming them. Nioh 2’s battles are just plain easier — attacks are slower, recovery items more plentiful, and the Yokai abilities tip the balance completely in the player’s favor. While easier fights aren’t necessarily a bad thing, they just don’t feel as special as the first time around.
One possible reason for my boss’ fight disappointments was how little they utilized interesting or dynamic arenas. The general level design is top notch in Nioh 2, a clear improvement from the original, with each stage presenting a variety of intertwining paths and secret hallways. They especially play well with elevation and often see the player climbing high hills or descending into deep caverns. Yet no matter how exotic the locale, the bosses always seem to be located in the same empty room. It’s completely understandable that Team Ninja wanted to fully place the focus on the boss themselves, but throwing away environmental hazards severely limited the variety of the fights.
The best thing about Nioh 2’s RPG mechanics is that they are only as complex as the player desires. There are seemingly countless numbers to tweak and gear slots to fill, but due to clear UI and smart gear management options, it never bogs down the gameplay. In fact, I found that taking a moment to change my helmet or sword was a welcomed respite from the endless action. Nearly every stat can be viewed, altered, or upgraded immediately with a simple button press, and regular access to level-resetting items means that I was always free to experiment with different builds.
The narrative in Nioh 2 is, unsurprisingly, presented as an afterthought. Cutscenes play out before most missions, taking the opportunity to set background scenery and provide some flashy action sequences. But what shocked and disappointed me the most was the realization near the end of the roughly 40 — hour campaign that the story could have been something incredible. The major elements are there — grand story beats, likeable characters, and gripping mythological action could have been something really special. But Team Ninja’s lack of confidence and focus in their own storytelling chops constantly hamstring themselves, creating a muddled and difficult-to-follow mess of people and places. But even despite its failings, the story was still more than enough justification to prime the player for constant demon-slaying action.
Ultimately, Nioh 2 was a satisfying action journey that I was happy to have experienced. Amazing combat and intricate RPG systems paired excellently with complex levels full of demons to slay and loot to acquire. Not every design choice landed, and the narrative could have been much stronger, but those are minor issues for what is otherwise an exceptional action RPG experience.